Judith Light talks about Shelly’s emotional breakthrough on Transparent Season 3 and her working relationship with old friend Jeffrey Tambor.
Judith Light is a force to be reckoned with. When I revisited the third season of the critically acclaimed Amazon smash Transparent, I had forgotten what a breakthrough Shelly Pfefferman has in the very last episode. Shelly has always been a big ball of energy throughout the course of the show, but this year we start to learn about an incident that traumatized her as a young girl. Light won several Daytime Emmy® Awards for her work on One Life to Live, but she deserves to take home her first Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in Transparent.
You don’t watch Transparent. You feel Transparent.
Throughout the course of the third season, Shelly goes through several life changes. She must take a realistic look at her relationship with live-in boyfriend Buzzy, and she excitedly begins building herself as a social media brand. As she takes her one-woman show to a more serious level, we learn in flashbacks that she was assaulted by a teacher in elementary school. It’s a very unexpected turn that calls back to a certain moment in Season 1 that Light can easily recall, and it was very freeing to explore that history of the character.
Judith Light gives a performance that pulls back the layers so carefully and earnestly that it might make you look at your own mother in a different way.
Was it freeing to have Shelly break out in this last season?
It was in a lot of ways and on a lot of levels. It’s funny because people tend to not remember that in the first season there is a discussion about music and Shelly turns to the kids and says, ‘I don’t care for music.’ Just like that. If you go back to Season 1, you’ll find it somewhere in there. I always thought how interesting. How fascinating. What is that about? Two seasons later, we come to find out what has been going on. In a lot of ways it was very freeing.
You have to understand when you work with the people that I have the blessing and the good fortune to work with it’s thrilling. It’s an incredible writer’s room. These are an incredibly funny, smart, deep substance of people. It’s not only freeing to have done that, sing ‘Hand in My Pocket,’ but what’s also freeing is to work in the way that we work. There’s a kind of freedom in the experience that is unlike any other experience that I’ve ever had before in television or even in a play for that matter.
There is an experience of working in a system where everyone is valued for their talent, and I mean everybody. I’m not just talking about the actors and the writers. That makes you very free to create, and that’s very unusual.
Even though Transparent focuses on one family, there’s a really complicated tapestry of characters. I’ve always been interested in how you bring out the performances from season to season. I’ve heard that you get to guide your characters throughout the season or shape the performance. Is that true?
It is an incredible tapestry. Every character is a different color or shade of a color. We all participate and give our input, but it’s done in a balanced way so it’s not just a bunch of people throwing their weight around. It’s really a question of this constant free flow of communication and so I would say we are mostly creating the characters and they are creating the through line as part of the tapestry for the season.
To create a context like that is the kind of context that Jill and I spoke about at the beginning. My audition was a Skype call with Jill for 45 minutes. Jill said, ‘I want to change the conversation about the LGBTQ community. I want to change the culture and how we have all been living.” I heard her speak the other night and she was talking about how we tend to “otherize” people. She said if we stop doing that one thing, we will find our way to something new. There’s something in the way that she thinks about the world and what’s new that is creating a new context—a new paradigm. Not just another television show, but living a life! It’s not just about the trans life and the transgender community which is infinitely important. But it really is about who is the truth of who you really are. It’s about how your family relates to you, and if you are your true authentic self in the world.
For me, I’ve always been involved with the LGBTQ community and that’s the community that displays that kind of leadership. Gender fluidity is becoming a dynamic way of living and recognized and that we all have that within is. The labels have diminished us in some way. The community was always up against the law, the family, religion, the whole dynamic culturally that said, ‘you can’t do that…you do this.’ There isn’t a family in this world that hasn’t had that has had somebody change the conversation or change the dynamic and everyone has to deal with it. And then everybody has to say, ‘am I being my true self?’ That’s what I think is so powerful about this show.
I’ve been lucky enough to talk with some other actors on Transparent, and they really sang the praises of Joan Scheckel. Can you talk a little bit about what she does with the actors to help create the bond?
Jill had worked with her on her film Afternoon Delight, and she thought she was the person to work with us to help us create the intimacy and feeling level of the family. We never did a line from a scene. We never talked about a scene. All we did was these exercises where we connected with each other on a level that would get us out of our heads and into our heart and our guts. That’s a lot of what you’re seeing is the work that we do with each other to create that level of feeling. Transparent can make you laugh in one moment and it can break your heart in that exact same moment. That’s what’s remarkable to me. I watched my fellow family, and I am mesmerized by the work that they do. They are doing both at the exact same time.
In the third episode, Maura tells the family that she doesn’t want to be called “Moppa” anymore. When the kids ask her what she wants to go by, she suggests “Mom.” In that moment, you shoot him a lot from across the table that is filled with the history between Shelly and Mort. How do you create that level of history with another actor?
First of all, Jeffrey Tambor is one of the greatest gifts of my life. He and I have known each other since we started our careers together in repertory theater many, many years ago. We have a shorthand, and a level communication that I find profoundly deep. We share a lot with each other. I would say that he gives me permission to be free. I grant him the same.
One of the things we said in an interview with Jill is that Maura and Shelly are always clocking each other. We always have eyes on each other no matter what is going on. I think that’s true for Jeffrey and Judith too. We always have eyes on each other. If I need something, he’s very instinctive, and he will come up to me and ask me if I’m okay. If I see that he’s needing something, I will go up to him and say, ‘I’m here.
I’m always bowled by not only his talent, but who he is as a human being. That’s a lot of what you feel. I say to people, ‘You don’t watch Transparent, you feel Transparent.’ When you see that look, you can imagine everything that is a conversation without saying a word. I really do believe that much of the reason that Jill had me do this part is because she knew I Jeffrey for so long. You are seeing a family dynamic of a level of intimacy that the Pfeffermans have that is irreplaceable. You know that these are our children, and we raised them. As a result, you feel that connection in that moment. In that moment everything is being said without being said.
One of my favorite episodes this entire season is when it flashes back to 1958. Molly Bernard plays Shelly, and it’s like a carbon copy of you. There are even shots of just her hands, and they look like your hands! Did you work with her at all to create that continuity of character?
Jill found her and said, ‘Wait til you see this girl!’ Molly Bernard is a genius. She watched all the episodes to follow what I was doing and what the family was doing to capture all of that. I mean, how many young actresses do that? She’s just remarkable! She knew that the work she had to do was to create young Shelly and that’s what she set about doing. I think that’s a demonstration to all young artists figuring out the work they need to do to in order to create that kind of magic.
She’s just a doll, and so, so talented. And, of course, it goes back to great writing, great directing, great producing. Great artistry is about doing the work and everybody’s doing the work together. So that’s how that happens. That story is so vital to Episode 10 where you see Shelly see on the boat. That’s the losing of the voice and the moment in time of being robbed of that talent because of somebody crossing the line and abused you.
What can we expect from this upcoming fourth season?
This is probably our most political season—no surprise. In one aspect, anyway. It’s also seen through the filter of the transformation and the moving toward of more of a freer Pfeffermans. They are trying to make their way through. It’s like people who have been in a tunnel for a long time in the dark, and they see that there is some light up there. They are moving themselves towards it very awkwardly, clumsily—very much in the manner of the Pfeffermans. But there’s something that they see and feel and they are reaching for. That’s the tenor and context of what’s coming up. The new paradigm. But you’ll see the threads of Season 3 moving into Season 4.