“Your boundary is my trigger.” Standing in the center of an all-black set, Judith Light lip-syncs these words for what feels like 100 times as she records her final scene as Shelly Pfefferman. Dressed in a flesh-toned undergarment, the Transparent matriarch is doused in the glow of red and white lights for a dreamscape of a scene in which she tells her children that the boundaries they’re trying to set are triggering for her as she, too, grieves the loss of their loved one, Maura.
At the monitors, show creator Jill Soloway smiles ear to ear with every take. Later, they tell me of the “marvelous, joyful family feeling” of the entire filming process of Transparent’s swan song, a two-hour movie musical streaming on Amazon Prime Friday.
“Before there was any success, and even before there was any professional anything for any Soloway, there was [their sister and collaborator] Faith and I sitting on the floor of our parent's living room, dreaming of making our own musical,” they said. “And now, it’s happening.”
But this dream came true after a tumultuous year for the production.
Transparent premiered in 2014 with a splash. The Jeffrey Tambor-led series, inspired by Jill and Faith’s parent who came out as transgender, was an instant favorite among critics, also nabbing numerous awards and nominations from the Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards. And though some in the trans community took issue with Tambor, who is cisgender, playing a trans character, the show dealt with the criticsm by instituting a “trans-firmative action” plan, ensuring trans people were employed at every level of production.
Following three years of critical acclaim, the Transparent set was rocked with sexual harassment allegations against Tambor at the end of 2017. After claims made by his former assistant Van Barnes, who said Tambor “repeatedly propositioned her, made lewd comments, groped her and threatened to sue her if she spoke up,” an investigation was launched by Amazon. Weeks later, Tambor’s co-star, Trace Lysette, came forward with allegations of her own. Both Barnes and Lysette are trans.
The allegations came out while the show was not in production, but after it had already been picked up for a fifth season. It was revealed in May 2018 that the show’s fifth season would be its last. That season has become a Transparent “musicale finale” in which the Pfeffermans — which include Gaby Hoffmann, Amy Landecker, and Jay Duplass — mourn the loss of their parent. (Tambor’s Maura was killed off.)
Ahead of the musicale’s premiere, Out spoke with Soloway about the next chapter for Transparent, how it grapples with Maura’s (and Tambor’s) exit, and their secret weapon in Faith, who wrote all original songs for the film.
If you had to summarize this last chapter for both people who are familiar with the show, but also folks who maybe live under a rock and haven't discovered it yet, how would you describe it?
Well, I don't think of it as a last chapter, and I don't think of it as an ending. I think that the show is transitioning from a TV show into a musical.
Which is very fitting considering. This finale shifts focus from Maura, who has died, to mainly Judith Light’s character. What prompted that decision in moving the story forward.
Judith is a superstar and she's so beloved by the queer community. She's a star in her own right. We had already been thinking about a storyline where Shelly was making a play about her family. So it was very natural, and clearly as you can see from her performance, she was ready to take the spotlight.
I have to say, there’s a lot of religious subversion going on, particularly with Gaby’s character. How did you all come to that approach, in terms of her particular storyline and reimagining some of those religious elements that show up in this musicale?
I think we were trying to make good on the promise of season one, where Ari missed their, well then it was a bat mitzvah, now it's a bar mitzvah. One of the original wounds in the life of this family was that Ali never had her bat mitzvah, and she blamed Maura because Maura was at "cross-dressing camp," as Ali put it, in that big fight at the end of the first season. There was a little bit of a mathematics set up that said that their parent’s transness came at the cost of the family's ability to have a holistic connection to God.
And so I think over the seasons, we've been looking for God, looking for God in the nonbinary, looking for God in transness, and looking for God in Jewish traditions. Just being able to hand over the mantle from rabbi Raquel to Ari, the journey had to include Ali actually having her bat mitzvah, or in this case Ari having their bar mitzvah. So it really just felt like the end of the story that we started and that we've always told. Can this family be holy? Can Judaism be queer? We wanted to answer those questions.
One of the scenes that sticks out to me was the actual funeral scene. I got goosebumps watching it, and hearing Alexandra Billings sing was amazing. Considering the background of how we got to this point, what was filming that moment like for you?
Every moment filming the finale was so emotional, but Alex, or Davina, singing, “Let Her Be Okay” at the funeral and really Davina giving a prayer, not only for Maura, and for Maura's soul, but for the Divine Feminine. I think that song is really about the Divine Feminine, and it’s about a merciful goddess or a merciful angel or a great mother. There's so much around the soul and beauty that this family has needed, and Alex just makes that funeral moment this unbelievably beautiful moment of transition. It's like the body is transitioning to the heavens. Death is also a transition and it has a lot of the same metaphors and so letting somebody become, letting somebody move on to the next world, it resonated on so many levels when she was singing.
And your sibling Faith wrote all of the music for the show.
I'm just so excited for her Faith. She was a person who made us feel like there was something left when [it] felt like there was nothing left. And so she literally brought faith. There was a moment when we didn't really know whether or not we were going to make this show, and we didn't really know what was next. And then there was a moment when Faith was putting on her residency at Joe's Pub. We went and saw all these songs. I remember sitting in the audience with Judith Light, watching these songs on stage, and watching Shakina sing, and watching the connection between Faith and Shakina. It was like there was so much magic in the rebirth.
I think after the events of the past couple of years, we all kind of lost our faith, and we lost our belief that we were doing the right thing. And the music and the faith and Shakina and all the magic, it just kind of kind of came pulling [us] back because of the music, that Faith had written. She's such a genius and I worship her and I can't believe I get to go on this particular journey with her, releasing this movie with her at my side. Because she's always been my secret weapon, but now I get to be her biggest fan.
The film is obviously about how the family is coping with Maura's death and they're planning this funeral, but there's a lot of funny in it. You took what could be a very somber story and injected it with joy and levity.
I think when people go through death and grief in real life, there's always some comedy and humor. Those moments of the sacred and the profane are always so close to each other in real life. You find yourself giggling at a funeral or trying to hold back your inside voice when you're around relatives. Life and death is huge, but sometimes it's just like the stupidest little moments that you remember.
And we were mourning. We were mourning our show. We were mourning Jeffrey. We were mourning Maura. We were mourning the pain that we'd all been through. You have to laugh. You have to find places where you can kind of let go a little bit. And I think by the end of the movie, we get to the place of joy. But we started off in a place that I think feels really very much like the awful nothingness, where you can't really feel anything when somebody goes.
You mentioned the end of the movie and I'm not going to spoil it for the readers. But that song, I was just like, "What are they thinking?"
I know, right? What are they doing? How are they going to get away with this? This is too crazy.
But I also feel like, so much of the show has been about figuring out where the line is and like tap dancing on it.
One of the things I've come to realize in this idea of what a nonbinary future is, is the idea that the line is not a line. The line is a room. I like to set up camp in the room and do my work there. And it's just, that truth, just is so helpful over and over and over again. Because the line only works if you live in a binary world of appropriate and inappropriate. The line only works with the number two, but the line doesn't work with the number three. And when you add in the number three, the line becomes another space. And sometimes I beat myself up and I go, "Why do you have to always be on that edge? Why do you have to be on a tightrope?"
I see myself as an artist and an activist before I see myself as a director or a showrunner. I love making work that I feel like could change the world, and I think the only way to make that kind of work is to be in your risk space. For me, my risk space is that room that other people consider a boundary. I'll go into that boundary with a little headlamp and a hatchet, and just carve, carve, carve, carve, carve, until there's enough room to sit in there and shoot something.