Transparent’s Jill Soloway and Hari Nef on the Challenges of Depicting a ‘Morning After’ Transition, Inherited Trauma, and How to Let Go

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Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Amazon dropped season two of Transparent in its entirety today, a show driven brilliantly by creator Jill Soloway and its close-knit ensemble cast. This season, prepare to add a new Pfefferman to the roster. Hari Nef, a transgender actress and model, will be portraying the mysterious Tante Gittel (remember the few asides about her ring in season one?) in a parallel story that takes place in flashbacks to 1930s Berlin. Vulture recently chatted with Soloway and Nef to learn more about season two, inherited trauma, and the challenges of depicting a “morning after” transition.

This season is noticeably much darker than the first season. What major themes did you want to convey?
Jill Soloway: We wanted to go deeper, and we wanted to let the Pfeffermans do their thing. I think in the first year after somebody comes out, the first thing is maybe the euphoria. Like, who are you going to tell, who’s going to find out, how are they going to act? Well, that’s all off the table now, and now comes time for the real transition — when one person transitions, the whole family has to transition, and everybody has to start to face the ways in which they weren’t being themselves. It can be bumpy and hard, and I think that’s why season two feels a little bit more dramatic.

What was it like acting in the Weimar Berlin environment, Hari?
Hari Nef: Something that kept appearing in the script about my character, and also about the environment she was in, is that she is fearless. And that was the vibe in Weimar Berlin. Everybody was going for it because they didn’t know what was going to happen the next day. The mark was at an all-time low, maybe there was going to be another war — who cares, it’s a party! That was really cool to wrap my head around because there’s a part of me that feels that way now, about this new moment for trans people. But there’s also a trepidation I feel as a trans person in 2015 trying to figure out, when is somebody going to attack me, or when am I not going to be able to get a job, or when am I going to be denied housing? It can be hard, but for this girl in this moment, it was all about the fearlessness and embracing that because she didn’t know the Nazis were coming in 1933. So that was cool and fun and a little scary. But the exuberance in that experience and in that moment for Berlin was a really essential part of the show.

What inspired you to add this Weimar Berlin element to the narrative, Jill, and what did you study to make sure you were faithful to the time period?
JS: There were a lot of books we read, like Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and a book called Voluptuous Panic. Then books that [sexologist] Magnus Hirschfeld wrote about his travels, and books about Magnus Hirschfeld, too. We had this prop in season one called Tante Gittel’s ring — to us it was just a ring, and we don’t know why we wrote it or why we said it or why Josh had it. So in season two we started to figure out. We wanted to go beyond the cross-dressing camps of season one, so what other piece of history do we want to do? We thought, Oh, let’s figure out who Tante Gittel was. And around the same time my moppa [Soloway's and Transparent's word for her trans parent, a portmanteau of mom and poppa] sent me an article about Magnus Hirschfeld and that this stuff was happening in Germany — there was a doctor who was experimenting with the idea of being gender-nonconforming and transitioning. So we all started researching Magnus Hirschfeld and thought, What if Gittel was there? This was around the same time I met Hari in New York. At some point we realized Gittel can be trans, and Gittel should be Hari!

Hari’s so cool, and so [I wanted] to take her Hari-ness and what’s so fascinating about her and transpose that to Gittel, an imaginary trans girl in Berlin. If it weren’t for Hari, it could easily get cheesy, but being able to take some of Hari’s essence and give it to Gittel automatically gave the story clearness. There would’ve been a girl just like Hari at that time who had exactly the same shape and resonance and excitement in the world. There are so many commonalities between what was happening then and what was happening now, in terms of fundamentalism and fascism and using queer people as a way to start wars and win elections. These ideas of the foreigner and closing borders — they were happening then and happening now.

Hari, was it difficult filming separately from the rest of the cast?
HN: I was able to interact with them at the readings and everything; I definitely did get to know all of them. I have the hugest set-crush on Kathryn Hahn. A delight! But at the same [time], because I was a fan of the show prior to actually being on the show, I was able to experience the Pfeffermans from the outside perspective, like, spiritually, and channel that back into portraying a previous generation of them. There’s an ad-lib that Jeffrey Tambor does when Maura’s welcoming her kids into the house in the first episode. She looks at Sarah and goes, “Oh, you’re skinny.” And I actually said that as an ad-lib the first time I saw my “sister,” and I didn’t realize I was ad-libbing his ab-lib, but it made it in. Also, we trained together and did acting classes together. I felt like I was part of Transparent and not just doing a period piece.

The question of privilege comes up quite a few times this season. How do you balance making the characters both incredibly selfish and sympathetic?
JS: I don’t really think so much about likability, I just think about authenticity. There are so many people who would be like, “Oh, white people problems!” People say that to dismiss a certain kind of entertainment that’s about perhaps people with financial privilege. But I really don’t think about that, I think about how to make that real. People talk about the kids as being jerks or being narcissistic. I remind them that when you grow up in a family with that huge a secret, people don’t really know themselves. The secret stands in for the boundary. So these kids really didn’t know who they were, where they started and where other people began. I realized this about my own family; I grew up in a family with all secrets and no boundaries, this constant feeling of holding onto each other for dear life because nobody really knows what’s up. And then you lift the veil and you turn the lights on and you see what was going on, and you’re like, oh, my moppa was trans – we had a moppa, our family is queer, I come from a queer legacy. Even looking back at my own moppa’s family, I’m like, wow, who was trans and gender-nonconforming in our legacy? Even for me to recognize that I have a legacy of gender-nonconformity and queerness in my family that I didn’t know about, it’s like you suddenly are born, in a way. They might be obnoxious and narcissistic, but the Pfeffermans are children, they’re sort of teenagers, adolescents who are really being confronted with the truth of who they are for the first time. So they’re going to be clumsy, they’re going to make mistakes. There’s a moment this season where Ali is explaining herself to Syd, and she’s saying something like, “I want to be with you, but I also need to be able to figure out who I am.” I’m rooting for her in that moment because she does need to be able to figure out who she is, and I think everybody is trying to figure out who they are; everybody’s got a earning for understanding. I guess it can be seen as self-centered or self-centering, but they’re trying to get their balance.

How did you choose to handle Maura’s rocky journey of self-discovery in season two, especially with the issues that arise with her transitioning later in life? The scene that stuck out to me is subtle — Maura’s at a bar and a woman sits down next to her, and the subsequent events that ensue after she offers to buy her a drink.
JS: I’m glad you brought up that moment. In terms of that scene in particular, we have a new writer this season who’s trans, Our Lady J, and she really pitched and wanted to come through with a scene that was just about the very, very, very subtle little changes of being out in the world and being trans. Nothing really dramatic happens, it’s more like, Am I imagining this? Does this person not want to sit with me because I’m trans, or flirting, or because she actually has work to do? These are questions a lot of cis people feel as well. A feeling of otherness, a feeling that’s uncomfortable. That’s what we wanted to show for Maura: authentic life’s little things.

HN: For better, or probably for worse, narratives about the trans experience after the moment of transition and discovery or the secret coming out are so rare. It’s all about transition, transition, transition. Transparent is one of the first major representations in media of the “morning after” transition, like, what do you do with this new identity? It can’t just end on, “Here she is, she did it!” It gets weirder and better and worse and more confusing. Especially in that scene, where you’re trying to grandfather in rituals from your life before and encountering them in new ways, not necessarily as failures, but as different — that’s so real, and so trans. [Laughs.]

JS: It used to work for me to offer to buy a drink for someone, but then, suddenly, if I’m buying a drink it means something different now that I’m trans woman.

HN: Yeah, or now I’m a lesbian, or am I? That’s super real. When trans people are going through this, it can feel really confusing or isolating. It’s really cool to represent something like that on television because it’s really nuanced, and when it happens to you, it feels really private or weird. So, yeah, that scene stuck out to me as well, even though I wasn’t a part of it.

I’m curious to hear more about the idea of inherited trauma that comes up a lot this season.
JS: Epigenetics, yeah, we didn’t know there was a word for it, actually. Gaby [Hoffmann] told us what it is. When we researched what epigenetics was and what it means to have inherited trauma on your DNA, or, as Ali would say, “on your actual DNA,” it starts to feel right. Our generation is always walking around with this feeling of, “I’m in trouble, I did something wrong, I’m being chased, I’m going to get in trouble, what did I do wrong? I’m late, I’m going to get caught.” Like, you’re going through security at an airport. For trans people traveling, it’s totally traumatizing, but even for cis people, things take on this incredibly anxious and nerve-racking feeling of being in trouble. So for us it was, oh, maybe it’s our epigenetic memory, or it’s our trauma we inherited on our DNA, this feeling of being chased and being in trouble. And actually, what I think it’s about, and what this season is about, is this kind of Jewish thing, but it probably extrapolates to other audiences — if you’re having pleasure, you’re going to be in trouble. You’re not allowed to have pleasure, especially female pleasure. Female desire and female pleasure would somehow incur the wrath of God or punishment.

[Light spoilers for season two in this paragraph.] Which is why, before we shot that scene in the bathtub in episode two, I had this hand-holding moment with Jeffrey and Judith [Light] and our cinematographer. It was just the four of us, stepping outside of the feeling of, “This could be embarrassing to shoot,” and going to this larger question of, “We’re showing something that nobody has ever seen before” — mom’s pleasure, matriarch joy, the matriarch letting go. We’re so used to our mothers running around and taking care of other people, and as a culture we’re sort of dependent on this idea that only certain women are allowed to have pleasure. It’s like they have to fit this very tiny box, this quarter-inch of real estate, where a woman is allowed to stand and she has to be a certain age. You can’t be too young, you can’t be too old, you can’t be too fat, you have to be this particular thing that our culture can tolerate having pleasure, and nobody else is supposedly allowed to pleasure women, especially older women, and especially a mom. So when I think about that inherited trauma, that [idea of], “We’re in trouble, it’s my fault, it’s my fault because I’m a woman, and my fault because I had pleasure and I stopped and looked around to make sure we were safe,” I think that some of that can be inherited genetic trauma.

How did you two become acquainted?
JS: That’s a great question! My sister was Hari’s camp counselor in Boston.

HN: I was 12, 13, 14, 15. Her sister taught me improv and musical theater. Cool stuff. We stayed in touch on Facebook, and she saw that I had begun transitioning and that I was in New York modeling. I was studying theater and I wanted to be an actor, but I wasn’t really doing anything because I was in school.

JS: She was so excited, she was like, “We have to find a part for Hari.”

HN: She arranged a meeting between me and Jill.

JS: We went out together. I have footage from that evening, we had so much fun. I feel like I’ve known Hari forever, she’s part of the family.

I’ve heard you host a damn fine Rosh Hashanah dinner. What does a Jill Soloway Rosh Hashanah entail?
JS: Oh my God, it’s the same thing as the show. Trying to have fun, just trying to set up a world where people can be free to let go and enjoy themselves and relax and separate Judaism ritual from this feeling of pain. If it’s a Jewish holiday, we’re going to be in pain, and we’re in temple, it’s going to be horrible; if it’s Shabbat, it’s going to be boring. No! We can take our legacy and have fun with it, and celebrate and have joy and let go. I’m trying to do the same thing if I’m having a dinner party that I would when I’m directing – get the lighting right and set the mood. Everybody should look good and we should have fun, and let go of the feeling that we’re going to get in trouble and somebody is coming to get us. That’s what I’m always trying to get rid of.