Our Lady J talks to Awards Daily TV about her stand alone Transparent episode and about transgender writers in Hollywood.
It’s been quite a day for Our Lady J. She’s in New York as part of Amazon’s Emmy® For Your Consideration campaign. Saks Fifth Avenue devoted its window display to the Emmy-award winning Transparent and other Amazon shows including Mozart In The Jungle.
Starring Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent documents Maura Pfefferman’s transition in an immensely striking and beautiful fashion. It’s no wonder the show received the acclaim it has. This season, it explored more of Kathryn Hahn and Trace Lysette as we continued in following the Pfefferman family. Every new season and episode the show continues to take us on a beautiful emotional journey with Maura while facing challenging conversations around transitioning.
By far, one of the best episodes of this season was “If I Were A Bell” written and directed by Our Lady J. I had the pleasure of catching up with her after the NYC reveal of the Sak’s Fifth Avenue to talk about Transparent and being one of only three transgender writers in Hollywood. Consider Transparent in your Emmy® voting for Outstanding Comedy Series and in acting and writing categories.
What did Jill Soloway say to you about starting this episode?
What we do in the writer’s room is we write the outline for the whole season, and it takes a solid two months to do that. When it came to the flashback this year for Season 3, it was such a personal story from the beginning.
Jill assigned me the episode, and they said to me, “You’re the only person who can write this. You’re the only person with trans experience growing up as a kid, so write what you know.” They gave me a lot of freedom to go off and write it which is everyone’s dream. I went off to Joshua Tree and wrote it.
I thought long and hard about what it was like for me as a kid because we wanted to have a story from a trans perspective and not from the perspective of the world witnessing this trans kid. We wanted to put the audience in Maura’s shows. We cast a trans girl to play the role and wrote it from the perspective of a young trans child.
Sophia Grace Gianna was brilliant as the young Maura.
She’s a little genius.
Were you involved in the casting for her? She was perfect if ever I saw a perfect casting move.
Eyde Belasco is a brilliant casting director. We said to her and our producers that we really wanted to cast a trans character. It was really hard to find a young trans actress who identified as trans. A lot of trans people don’t come out until their late teens, and all the way through to their seventies.
It was a bit tricky casting that net, but they did such a good job. They reached out to LGBT centers all around the world, and we ended up finding this talented young girl. We were so lucky to find her, and as soon as we saw the video, we knew we’d found her.
How long did you spend up in Joshua Tree writing the episode?
For Season 3, the writers were given two weeks. It changed with the other episodes from the season because we wanted everything to tie together and the scenes to run together. As other episodes changed, Maura’s flashback changed as well.
The bomb shelter scene was devasting. I wanted her to not get caught.
That’s the fear that I wanted to capture about being in the closet and being misunderstood in society in general. There’s that feeling that you’re going to get into trouble. As a kid, I would hide in the barn. I would cross dress and wear nail polish there, but I was always terrified.
Even those moments of pleasure when you’re allowed to be yourself when you are alone there’s a fear that someone is coming. That’s a fear throughout the season as well with the Cold War and secrets and hiding.
You captured it so beautifully. You came out in your twenties?
I forget how old I really am. [laughs]. I came out in 2005.
When you’re writing for Maura, who is coming out later in life, is that easier or harder writing for that age?
There are certain things about Maura’s life that I definitely have to reach out to my trans elders for. Maura has kids and grandkids, and that’s something that’s not my experience. I think something we all relate to in the community is that it’s always a difficult choice and looking at the things that we do to keep ourselves occupied until we do come out is a big part of Maura’s story.
That’s where the family comes in. Maura really focused on her family for all those years and sacrificed her own transition to keep her family. That’s something we’re exploring in Season 4. What did Maura give up in order to not transition? What did she focus on and what sacrifices did she make? I think that’s all relatable.
With my own coming out story, that’s something I find totally relatable with her story. Do you live to make yourself happy and be true to who you are? Or at what point do you stop making those sacrifices? And that’s something everyone will relate to.
I think the thing that society says we can only have one or the other. A lot of times after we do come out, we realize we can have both. Certainly, a lot of people do lose their families but in the case of Maura Pfefferman it brings her family closer.
What was the most exciting part of writing that episode?
I think it had to be producing it. Being on set every day watching little Sophie act out those scenes so beautifully, we had such a good time, and she’s my little sister in the trans community. Seeing how much the world has changed.
She’d come over to me and ask me, “Why are they teasing her?” or “Why are they being so mean?” I realized it was because she had not experienced that herself, and she had been protected by her family.
She’s growing up in a society that does accept her. She still faces bullies like every other kid, but she certainly has a different experience other than other generations.
Season 3 aired in an election year and then Trump happened. How did that affect the writing especially being a show that’s so progressive and breaking barriers?
We did nothing the first day because we were just in shock, but once we got our senses back, we really came together. We thought about what it means for the Pfeffermans and what does it mean for them to live in Trump’s America.
The truth is we have been living in Trump’s America all along, and it came to the surface. We’re all in this together. How do we work through it, how do we see each other, how do we survive, and how do we fight for our rights? Those are the questions we began asking ourselves for season four and hopefully, we got some answers to those questions.
It’s mind-blowing how we have to fight for our issues in 2017.
The Nazis found me the other day on Instagram, and I had posted a photo with a pregnant trans man and the caption said, “This is what trans looks like.”
I had hundreds of death threats on the photo that I had to keep deleting. It was surprising because I live in L.A., and I forget that sometimes there are pockets of people who just aren’t exposed to people who are different to them.
The hatred that brews within those communities from a lack of education… I do believe it’s in education, and that our education system has failed us and that’s why we are where we are at.
I don’t believe that certain people are evil. There’s a lack of understanding for people in these communities. That’s what we’re seeing.
Unfortunately, when people are operating from this basic of lack of understanding, it’s often something based in fear, and when people experience that, it grows. That’s what we’re seeing around the world.
How cathartic is it for you to write on a show like Transparent and knowing people are seeing it?
It’s such an incredible blessing to go into the writer’s room every day. Everyone is so understanding and so welcoming. We really see each other. To be heard, there is nothing like it.
For so much of my life, I was in the closet. When I came out, I felt more alone at times and more different and unable to relate to other people during my transition. So, to be with a group of people that do understand, listen to me, and to tell my stories to the other writers is really magical.
How have you grown as a writer since you joined the show?
I’d only written songs and opera and classical music before Transparent. Technically, I’ve grown immensely, and it was a steep learning curve. In the first season, I was a staff writer. Now, I’m on the third season as a producer. It felt like I had to go to college and grad school really fast.
As a writer, it’s nice that I get to do these things. As an adult, it’s been an incredible experience to be a part of this thing that is bigger than me.
I feel so humbled.
Talking about your background, how did that help you coming into the show?
My family is from an Amish village in Pennsylvania, so comedy and laughter, as well as bravery, is a big part of our lives. I learned how to be brave from my family and my ancestors. That bravery serves me as a writer. I’m not afraid to spill all the beans to all the writers about every detail of my life. Also, to be a listener and to absorb the stories from my community has helped and to be able to bring those into the writer’s room has helped.
We’re all storytellers in some ways.
Writing is blind, there is no color to it or any label. How is that changing in 2017 Hollywood?
Hopefully, there is no label or color to it, but unfortunately, in Hollywood, a big part of selling a script is showing up in person and selling it. People see color and gender and sexuality. Unfortunately, the pickings are slim for trans people of color. There are only two people writing for trans characters right now and myself. For all the trans characters happening, that’s highly underrepresented.
We can write more than trans storylines. There’s should be trans writers in other writers rooms that have nothing to do with trans shows in the same way there are cis white men writing for people of color. We can write because we are writers. I think right now the only selling factor for trans people is the diversity factor which is really unfortunate and even that is not selling. It’s next to impossible.
That’s what Jill Soloway has been so great about. They acknowledge the lack of representation and the lack of opportunity for trans people and brought us together.
Jill created this workshop to write for TV, and after that workshop, they hired me to write for Transparent. So, there are people like Jill out there.