Fall's Must-See Show Shatters Gender Stereotypes

unnamed-4Image: Courtesy Of Amazon.
It's an ongoing process, but mainstream media is finally inching towards a future in which all trans* characters will be depicted as multidimensional people who are defined by more than just their gender identities. And, to that, we say: It's about time.
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When Orange Is The New Black premiered last year, trans actress Laverne Cox garnered acclaim for her role as crowd-favorite character Sophia Burset; next month, Cox is slated to host Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, a documentary that will follow the daily lives of seven trans* individuals between ages 12 and 24. Tyra Banks, meanwhile, has inked a deal to produce the VH1 docuseries TransAmerica, in which trans* model and activist Carmen Carrera will star alongside a group of Chicago millennials who are also trans*. On Friday, Amazon added its voice to the burgeoning conversation on trans* issues with its release of writer/director/producer Jill Soloway's new show, Transparent, which chronicles the coming-out process of Maura, previously known as "Dad."
We first heard of the show last May, in a conversation with trans* artists Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker about their raw, arrestingly intimate photo series Relationship, which was then on display at the Whitney Biennial. When we asked what was next for the then-romantic and still-professional partners, they told us how excited they were to begin consulting for Transparent — a show Amazon describes as the story of an "L.A. family with serious boundary issues" whose "past and future unravel when a dramatic admission causes everyone's secrets to spill out." Emmy-nominated Arrested Development actor Jeffrey Tambor stars as Maura, who has acted as her family's cisgendered patriarch for years and is finally ready to admit that she's been playing a role. "Are you saying that you're going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?" Maura's daughter asks her transitioning father in the show's trailer. "No, honey," Maura responds, in near-tears. "All my life — my whole life I've been dressing up like a man. This is me."
We spoke with Drucker and Ernst last week about their roles behind the scenes (and in front of the camera) for Transparent, which Drucker calls "by, for, and about" trans* people — but which will be relatable to anyone who's ever struggled with their family. Read on to discover why Transparent is fall's must-see show — and what it's like to work with the former George Bluth, Sr.
Tell us about how you got involved in Transparent.
Rhys Ernst: "I met Jill Soloway, the show’s creator, at Sundance in 2012, when we both had short films there… We kept in touch... She told me after some time about how her parents had come out as trans* later in life, and then when she started writing the pilot [for Transparent] she reached out to the two of us... So, we came in as consultants on the pilot. We read and gave notes on the script several times and did some trans* info sessions for the whole production team. And, we just kind of had a hand in various aspects of it, including casting a bunch of trans* people for the support-group scene, which Zackary got a little sneaky role in as a 'group facilitator.' That was a fun cameo. When the show got picked up, we started as consultants in the writer’s room…but quickly became producers because we were so involved in shaping the story, hiring trans* people to work behind the camera, helping cast trans* actors...[and] consulting with hair and makeup and wardrobe."
Zackary Drucker: "We were given a lot of oversight and collaborative power. I did a lot of research on the cross-dressing community to create a sort of context for Maura’s transition… Throughout the season, there are these flashbacks to the ’90s that create the picture of how she arrived at her gender transition in the present."
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What was it like to work with Jeffrey?
ZD: "He brought so much humanity to this role and is a tremendous ally to the trans* community. He’s been really open to learning and to being a good ally."
unnamed-5Image: Courtesy Of Amazon.
What does Transparent bring to the television table that we haven’t seen before?
RE: "Maura is more things than just trans*...she’s Jewish...she has an ex-wife, and she has children. So, there’s a lot more to her personality and her story... The trans* aspect of the show, when looked at in the context of the rest of the family dynamic, can almost become a little bit — not quite secondary, but Jill [Soloway] isn't focusing on the trans* issue in a centralist way… [T]here being multiple trans* characters in the show — that’s a huge part of it, too.
"You have 15 speaking parts played by trans* actors. Three of them are ongoing roles throughout the seasons. There’s a cross-dressing back story, there’s a fully transitioned trans* woman who works at the LGBT center, there’s the trans* man who’s a TA for the Women’s Studies department. So, we try to run this range to say, 'There’s no one way to be trans*.' Some people are medically transitioned, some people aren’t; we're really trying to be inclusive of that. We also hired 60 or 70 or so trans* extras... We would pepper in trans* people in the background of scenes that might not have anything to do with a trans* or LGBT focus."
ZD: "It’s also really a bottoms-up approach in terms of trans* people being behind the camera and invested in all aspects of production. So, one of the things that Rhys and I did was we implemented a 'trans*-firmative' — as in, affirmative action — program [for the show]...to create jobs for trans* people. Because, employment discrimination is one of the biggest impediments in our community. Having trans* people on set every day doing multiple roles sort of created a safe space and also a certain amount of authenticity...there were trans* people in front of the camera, behind the camera... This the most trans*-inclusive production in [Hollywood] history."
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Will the show also be accessible to people who aren’t already familiar with trans* issues?
ZD: "This show is created for people on all different levels; we’re all at different junctions with our trans*-legibility. I’ve been really surprised at the people in my own life who have been opened up to a trans* experience [by the show], even after knowing me for years. It’s sort of brought them to a new level of understanding."
RE: "One nice example is...a flashback episode that kind of exists mostly in the early ’90s...and how [Maura] ultimately realized that she’s not a cross-dresser; she’s sort of passing through that world on the way to becoming a trans* woman. There’s one very brief scene where...one of the cross-dressers says, 'We might dress up on the weekends, but we’re still men.' In this one, quick sentence you learn what the difference is between the cross-dressing world and the trans* world... That is a very subtle distinction that is not well-known out in the world, and in fact, we had to do some self-education about that. Through this kind of storytelling — that's not dumbed-down, not watered-down, but uses humor and really strong writing and really strong performances — I think that people are going to have a very direct inroad for understanding these issues for the first time."
ZD: "There is nothing didactic about this show. It’s a really well-formed narrative that is not heavy-handed about educating people; it’s subtle, and it finds humor: the common denominator — the thing that reaches everybody."
Do you plan to stay involved with Transparent?
RE: "We’re definitely going to stay involved for as long as it’s happening. The reviews and the response have just been so beyond belief that it would be hard to imagine it not being renewed. It just feels so exciting. People are talking about the Emmys and awards season already, so the future looks really bright — and we could not be happier... Our involvement is growing in a lot of ways, too. I actually made the title sequence for the show; I also did some second-unit directing…and both of us were involved in so many different ways in building this kind of ethos... [We're] definitely going to be on board for the long haul."
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