Jill Soloway on Season 3 of Transparent, Intersectionality, and Why It’s ‘Unacceptable’ for Cis Men to Play Trans Women

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Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for GLAAD

Season three of Transparent, out today on Amazon, finds the dysfunctional Pfefferman family on a continued path of self-discovery in respectively unique ways. Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) wants to undergo gender-confirmation surgery; Shelly (Judith Light) is developing a one-woman show; Sarah (Amy Landecker) is immersing herself in Judaism; Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) begins a fulfilling job as a university teaching assistant; and Josh (Jay Duplass) is still soul-searching after his painful breakup with Rabbi Raquel. As we know well by now, nothing is easy — or predictable — for the Pfefferman clan, whose narratives are crafted with intimacy and nuance by the show’s creator, Jill Soloway. To learn more, Vulture sat down with Soloway — who just won an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, coining a new catchphrase in the process — in New York earlier this month to discuss the new season, casting Caitlyn Jenner in a small role, and cis male privilege.

You decided to open the season with a bottle episode that focused solely on Maura. How was that intended to set the tone for the rest of the season?
We really wanted to start off the season with a surprise and have an episode where the audience was watching and going, Okay, time for me to cut over to my other favorite character, but we don't. We don’t see what anyone else is doing except Maura. We wanted to offer the audience that anything can happen and we can’t expect the show to dutifully bop around from character to character, which is so typical for television these days. We wanted to change it up formally so people who are watching could understand that surprise is going to be an element all season. The season is concerned with intersectionality as a topic, as well. In particular, these questions of whether or not women, people of color, and queer people have similar or different struggles. Especially for people who are sometimes both, who are women of color or queer people of color. What do trans women owe each other if one is black and one is white; what is the trans sisterhood, and does it transcend race? That becomes the story in episode one. We didn’t intentionally say that intersectionality is the main topic of season three, because it’s too long of a word and too confusing and people would be like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. [Laughs.] But that story allowed us to begin to plant seeds that we wanted to look into — the Pfeffermans position in the larger world as they’re confronted with their class privilege.

The larger theme of race begins to build throughout the first few episodes as well. What were the conversations like in the writers room when you began to tackle that subject?
Really intense, and interrogating whether or not we had the right to tell that story at all. Other white writers tackle race. Larry David had the Black family, literally called the Black family, moving in on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Maria Bamford did an episode on Lady Dynamic that was about being really careful of not wanting to get things wrong and the touchiness with race. For both of those shows, I think if you want to touch on the absurdity of white people’s fears of addressing race, it’s fun to do it with comedy. It’s a little bit more dangerous to do it with a show like ours. I think it’s accepted to do it with comedy, and with a show as vulnerable and honest as ours attempting to walk that tightrope, we absolutely, positively know that we’re going to be the target of something while we’re up there on that tightrope, trying to walk across the intersectional, shark-filled waters of social media. But if we’re not walking on a tightrope, we’re not challenging ourselves. For me, as an artist, I have to be in that risk space and that fear mode. I hope the show asks and raises the questions about who can tell whose story, and who has the right to tell whose story. Hopefully we’ll end up on the right side of it.

How did you come to the decision to focus on Maura’s gender-confirmation surgery?
Surgery is one of those things that everybody wants to talk about. For people who aren’t trans, that’s often a focus of people who aren’t really educated about trans stuff. Sometimes people will ask me about my own Moppa or about other trans people, and they go straight to the: Did they have the surgery? We were happy with seasons one and two and could educate people about how it isn’t all about the surgery — trans life isn’t all about the before and after, it’s not about the “ta da” moment, it’s about a journey. Transness is something that is lived every single day by trans people. We felt like we had earned that and it was time to be able for Maura start to talk about surgery. We were able to show that we weren’t obsessed with it, but that it was going to come at some point and it was realistic at her journey at this point. Especially in terms of her class privilege that she would begin to question whether or not she wanted to turn to some medical roots to be able to affect her social experience, which is how well she passes as a women. That’s a lot of what episode one asks: With all of Maura’s privilege, is it enough? How will she handle herself when she doesn’t have her privilege with her, and her privilege isn’t helping? 

How do you see Maura’s journey continuing past season three?
We try to let the characters tell us what’s up; we don’t really impose things on them. I don’t really have any idea where she’s going! We’ll all gather at the writers room on September 26, when we all get back together, and start to tune in with what Maura wants.

Another main theme of the season is “coming out of your shell.” Besides Maura, how else did you want to explore this with other characters?
Everybody has a nice moment in the season when they’re confronted with who they really are, and the coming out is beyond the “ta da” moment and beyond the “will you still love me if ...” moment. Yes, my family is still there, I don’t have to push back against people to be myself, I can just be myself, so what does that allow me? It’s a very tender, emotional, funny, absurd journey for each and every one of them. I look at Sarah and her moment when she wants to top pony and she wants to have the experience of being the top. I look at Ali, looking for a way to experience love, trying so hard, and pushing it so hard and failing. Josh and Shea have an episode where Shea comes out of her shell in a big way and is very vulnerable with Josh on who she really is. The show keeps finding new ways to let people peek out of their shells and poke their head out and say, I’m here.

Speaking of shells, Nacho the turtle might be the best animal on television.
Right? We’ll see the turtle again! Don’t worry.

I want to bring up the surrealist dream sequence involving Caitlyn Jenner that occurs in the third episode. How did you go about crafting that scene, and what conversations did you have with Caitlyn before you filmed it?
That’s the only scene that she’s in, the dream sequence. I had a really honest conversation with her about what I see as the future path of the feminist movement, which is an intersectional one, which means people now ask the questions: If one person is free, is my brother free? Can I be free until everyone is free? That means that for women, for people of color, or for queer people, they start to look at each other and say, are we part of the same movement? Are we part of a different movement? I wanted to inspire Caitlyn to be part of Transparent’s ability to give birth to revolutionary conversations. As much as most people think that if she had to lay her cards on other sides of the table, in terms of being a feminist or being liberal or being conservative, people would be surprised to see that she would be so supportive of such a radical vision. There’s a lot more sisterhood among the queer people and the trans people in Los Angeles than you realize. On social media, people will call Caitlyn out for her political views, but in real life, all of the trans women I know in Los Angeles hang out with Caitlyn and are her friend. They see each other in the same social events. Her radical thing is that: I’m trans, which means I’m queer, which means I’m a woman, which means I’m this person who would normally be absolutely identified as radical, but I’m conservative. So she’s radical in her own way.

There was recently a bit of controversy revolving around Matt Bomer being cast by Mark Ruffalo as a transgender sex worker in a new film. Were you surprised at the vast amount of backlash the casting received?
The time has come where it’s unacceptable for cis men to play trans women. It’s pretty ironic coming from me, where I have a television show where a cis man plays a trans woman.

Transparent started in a slightly different time, though.
It definitely started in a different time. And my ignorance, I lead with my ignorance, is that I really didn’t understand anything with the trans civil-rights movement when I created the show. I’m lucky that we’ve had so much support from the trans community and that we’ve brought so many trans people in, so the show feels like a hub of a trans community. At this point, as a feminist, I’m getting tired of white cis men writing about sex workers. I’m getting tired of white cis men portraying rape. I’m getting tired of white cis men naming the narrative, telling their own stories, playing the parts of women, playing the parts of trans women, casting each other as women. For me as a feminist, I feel like it’s time to return the gaze and ask white cis men to curtail their projections and to curtail their portrayals of people that they aren’t. I think it's really hard for white cis men right now, because if you’re a white cis male artist and want to make art, they go: Okay, I want to do something different, I don’t want to tell a story about myself anymore, so I want to tell a story about a trans woman, and I don’t want to talk to any trans people when I’m writing this or casting it, because I don’t want anyone to tell me when I’m wrong, I don’t want to come out of my focus.

Louis C.K. had an episode of Horace and Pete about a trans woman, and he admittedly said that he didn’t talk to any trans people when he made it, because he didn’t want to know. This is privilege, this is male privilege, this is cis white straight male privilege, where for 5,000 years they’ve had the handle on the narrative, and for 100 years they’ve been claiming nearly all of the filmmaking privilege. If you come across a female filmmaker, chances are that her work has been in some way shaped or noted by cis male producers, absolutely by cis male financiers, absolutely by cis male distributors, absolutely by cis male reviewers. So people who are attempting for the first time to be heard — women, people of color, trans people, queer people — are fighting against a gigantic onslaught of culture that was created by white cis men. It’s really irresponsible for white cis men to decide they’re going to tell a story about a trans person and not bring in trans people to write and act and produce and weigh in on the story. It’s not okay, it’s not okay. The revolution is starting but it’s just barely starting. Things are going to change.

This interview has been edited and condensed.