Spoilers ahead for season three of Transparent.
The Pfefferman siblings on Amazon’s Transparent sure know how to elicit some strong love-them-or-hate-them feelings. Whether it’s Sarah (Amy Landecker) unexpectedly leaving her husband for a woman and getting involved in BDSM; Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) exploring the tumultuous waters of intersectionality as a teaching assistant while sleeping with her older professor; or Josh’s (Jay Duplass) man-child ways manifesting in unexpected ways, the trio are often immature beyond their years. Gathered in a comfy hotel room in New York earlier this month, Vulture chatted with the three actors about the ever-changing Pfefferman sibling dynamic, dark energy, and epigenetics.
How has the sibling dynamic changed this season?
Amy Landecker: This year felt like there’s a real exploration of their relationship and how tight it is, which causes them issues in the rest of their lives and their intimate relationships. I have a scene with Gaby, when we find Nacho the turtle, where I’m expressing that I feel left out by them; there’s a little bit of a fracture. It’s not Über-profound or a huge deal, but I know I felt as Sarah this year that there’s this sibling jealousy, that they’re closer and tighter, and I was always alone and left out because I was older. The “first-child burden” and all that stuff. That’s my perspective.
Jay Duplass: Sarah takes over Raquel.
AL: Yeah! Sorry.
JD: So we have some competition over Raquel a bit, not that Josh has any say in it, necessarily.
AL: It’s so funny because I actually lobbied for that as a person, and I got it.
To get scenes with Kathryn Hahn?
AL: Yup. I was like, Please, please, give me Kathryn! And then I was like, ha ha ha ha ha.
JD: Literally. [Everyone laughs.]
GH: You have a nice quote about it, Jay!
JD: I guess the way I’ve been saying it is that we’ve been exploring the Grey Gardens potential of our relationship, you know? We’ve flirted with this idea for awhile. Ali and Josh helped each other survive this impossible, weird, secretive childhood, this mysterious childhood, where this other person, their father, was gone, and there was a mirror image of some other person who has yet to emerge. This idea that they do come back to each other many times and rely on each other, almost like soulmates. So they basically shack up together in sort of a domestic contract to see if they can be there and support each other. Obviously it’s not the thing that they need to grow the most, but that’s all they have right now.
There’s a scene early in the season when a temple member says Sarah is surrounded by “dark energy,” and I think it can be argued that it surrounds every sibling as well. Where do you think this dark energy stems from?
JD: This is something that I think a lot about my character, actually. It’s more of what I was telling you before, when you grow up as a child and there’s a tremendous mystery there, children are intuitive and they know something is wrong, but they don’t know what the thing is. So they develop coping mechanisms and develop cloaks and veils and all of these things that they carry with them, and that’s the biggest part of the children’s journeys — uncovering the layers of the onion that they don’t understand. No one understands these huge subconscious movements that are going on, but children figure out ways to cope. I think that’s where the dark energy comes from. For Josh, he hides. His relationship with Rita is a fucking 20-year affair that is, other than his relationship with Ali, the primary relationship in his life, and nobody knew about it until a year ago.
GH: It’s almost like the dark energy is comprised of a cast of ghosts. It’s the ghost of Maura … I was just reading, not to throw a little Derrida on the table, but last night I was reading the last interview with Jacques Derrida and he said something very beautiful about the ghosts of unborn children as well as the ghosts of us that have died. So the ghost of the yet-to-be-born Maura, the ghost of the father and the ghost of the husband. There are all of these people that are supposed to be there and are not for one reason or another.
AL: I also think the Holocaust, even.
GH: Exactly. And then there are numerous ghosts of the history of the Jewish people that are still within us.
AL: And it’s the direct root of this family and the legacy of this family, the way that the show is written. I have stupid, little trivia about it. You see my hair, how they made it so light and dark at the same time? I had this idea this year, because Sarah was finding God, the ends of her hair would be light and at her roots she would be dark, and I never thought it would really make any sense. And then it’s so heavily a part of that picture. It was like, I’m going to be light, I’m going to find God! Her whole thing this year is she’s going to be spiritually fulfilled, but her roots are still in pain.
That’s interesting about Derrida, Gaby. It reminded me of the inherited-trauma story lines that were explored last season.
JD: The epigenetic concept is at the core of Transparent. You’ve inherited the trauma of your forefathers and foremothers. It’s weird, I just got sent a genealogy map and I saw pictures of my grandfather and my great-grandfather when he was my age. He was in New Orleans, not speaking English, and barely figuring out how to do shit. I had this immediate experience where I was like, Oh, I’m him. I’m him in the 20th century with three generations of insanely hard work to put me in this position. I’m standing on their shoulders, but I’m also still processing the fucked up shit that they went through.
GH: It’s gold. My father died a few years ago and I didn’t know him well at all. I got an email recently that casually mentioned that his sister was going through his stuff in his old trailer, and I was like, Give me anything! Anything at all! I want something real. Is there a clue somewhere that can help me figure something out? It’s amazing how people seem to be more and more curious about our own personal history. History is weirdly dismissed as not having anything to do with the present moment. If you look at the politics in the world right now, it’s just amazing to me. Of course everything and everybody is a product of our history. It’s the most valuable information we have that we don’t.
JD: We’re just blindsided by buying and selling shit.
GH: We’ve moved from the giggle fit to the world is a horrible place! The dark energy has possessed us all! [Everyone laughs.]
JD: It all can be traced to Trump.
How will Maura’s desire for gender-confirmation surgery affect the sibling and family dynamic going forward?
JD: The most terrifying part about that is its permanence. It’s a permanent change. Gaby said it really well — it’s this idea that we’re then going to be forced to change ourselves as well. We’ll be reckoning with more change, because the show is all about when one person transitions, everyone else is forced to transition. If you’re going to be in a relationship with them, if you’re going to be true, it’s going to affect you too.
GH: It’s hard to live in a blind and aimless — or dishonest, rather — narrative when somebody in your family is going farther toward, or at least think they are, and say they are, their true self. That unconscious anxiety that, oh shit, that means I’m going to be challenged to do the same. Even though they all ultimately want to get close to knowing themselves, it’s not a comfortable process, so it’s a little terrifying.
I have to say, I think you three have perhaps the most authentic portrayal of siblings on television.
AL: Thank you. It’s interesting, sibling relationships are so intense and they’re not really explored that much on television. You usually see parent-child relationships or romantic relationships, but this is definitely an in-depth exploration of those dynamics. What I love is that the show’s dynamics are not our dynamics, and that allows us to be really be free and play, because there’s not any dysfunction here, probably because we’re not actually family! You get the benefit of not having the genetic trauma with each other, but actually having the intimacy, so you get to play the genetic trauma safely. We explore stuff that I’ve definitely felt in my life, but I get to heal it through doing it on the show.
This interview has been edited and condensed.