When a show captures the zeitgeist as Jill Soloway’s Transparent and John Ridley’s American Crime have this year, TV suddenly finds itself balancing on the border between truth and fiction. Targeting social issues can be a perilous place in or out of primetime. Yet, for the Amazon series and the ABC anthology and their self-styled provocateur creators, the balancing act has been a success with critical acclaim and Emmy nominations for both freshman shows. The showrunners recently met up at Deadline’s Los Angeles studios, despite both being in production on their series’ next seasons, to discuss—storyteller to storyteller—how their shows’ relevance to the current climate of trans awareness and racial tension feeds their art.
Transparent and American Crime are so of this moment. To get this conversation started, how did these series originate? Were they ideas you had been working on for a while?
Jill Soloway: I feel sort of lucky that things lined up for me timing-wise. I’ve always been talking about feminism. I’ve always been talking about the female gaze. I’ve always been trying to sell shows about women. And I’ve always said things like, “I can only write people like me.” I can’t write fantasy. I can’t write procedural. I can’t write history. I think I really struggled because I was pitching shows about people like me and (executives) were sort of like, “Well, what’s the hook? How’s this going to appeal to men?”
As luck would have it, the hook presented itself to me in my real life when my parent came out as trans. And there was this instant moment of, “Oh, this is the thing. This is the thing I’m going to be telling. This is the story.” And so, because it has the hook of the parent transitioning, it’s got that thing—the name (Transparent), and the social consciousness, and the zeitgeist. But it really is, for me, just an opportunity to tell the kinds of stories that I’d be interested in watching, which is stories about family, stories about people searching for selves.
John Ridley: Certainly, my parents and their experience inform me in ways that you’re not even aware of until you get older, when you realize a lot of things that they tried to instill in you or things that they tried to protect you from. The thing that really changed since going into American Crime is, ABC approached me about doing the show and (executive producer) Michael McDonald sat down with me and he said, “Look, we want to do something in the wake of Trayvon Martin.”
And as we were getting into it, as we were talking about it, my son was asking me about Trayvon. My son, at the time, was about 13 years old and he never really asked me about perspectives of race. It’s a different world for him. And I’m trying to explain about what happened. I’m trying to be objective. I know in my heart I’m not. I know I have my biases. Then at the end of it, he made a very potent statement about the end of that trial. And it really made me feel as though this exploration, even though it’s not literally about Trayvon, is what I wanted to do. There is a level where American Crime is a big-budgeted, studio network show and also just me trying to explain to my son about elements of how we perceive ourselves, about systems that are changing but are changing very, very slowly.
Soloway: You know, sometimes it feels like a document that was my contribution to helping the world feel a little bit safer for my parent—to leave their apartment building, to hail a taxi, to stand in an elevator with strangers—to be able to create a world where my parent could live where Transparent existed. Before Transparent there were things like Jerry Springer or sensational aspects of trans women, or they were victims or villains on crime shows. And to say, “No, you know, a happy, f–ked up family where the trans woman is probably the most normal person on the show.” In some ways, that’s an act of love to my parent. A way of saying, “I love you, Moppa.”
What do you think about adding the civil rights aspect to what you call your job or what you call your art?
Ridley: Ultimately, I think you’ve got to. I think at some point, that’s the point. If I’m going to be there, and I think similarly with your show, you’re there to make some kind of a statement. And not preach, not proselytize. We’re here to be provocative. And that’s what we want to do and will do.
Soloway: Yeah, lives are at stake in both of our shows, especially right now. We have a harder time (on Transparent) because we’re supposedly a comedy. So sometimes we want to really be able to reflect the state of emergency for trans people, and then have to find a way to do it that still allows people to feel like they saw a show that was a comedy, which is what they were advertised and what they tuned in for. I think we’re always trying to go for what feels real.
Are you sometimes surprised that you have an opportunity to tell such stories?
Soloway: I talk a lot, especially to female filmmakers and to trans artists and people of color who feel sort of “otherized” by this sort of white, male gaze, or having been objects in other people’s storylines. I talk about the feeling of shame and the feeling like I don’t have a right to tell my story. “I’m a bad writer.” “This isn’t good.” I think, just as an artist, that’s sort of the hazard of the job. There’s always going to be that voice saying, “You’ve got it wrong. You’re not good enough.” When you’re so used to feeling “other,” when you’re so used to being seen instead of seeing, even the act of just seeing and saying, “I’m going to shoot what I desire. I’m going to shoot what I want to see,” it feels so dangerous. … A lot of times I’ll be on the set and I’ll just be waiting for a shot, and I’ll have the thought of, “Who’s in charge here? When’s the director getting here? When’s mom coming home? When’s the showrunner coming?” And then I’ll kind of realize that it’s me. And it will feel kind of like a joke that I pulled on everybody and myself. It still feels surreal, and it feels somehow that it happened by accident.
Ridley: I think it’s good in the sense that there are days where I wish I had that unequivocal belief in what I’m doing, that I’m going to go to bed at 9 o’clock and not lose any sleep. And there are other days where I feel this is who I am. I question a lot. I question what I’m doing. I’m partnering up with someone (McDonald) who is one of the few people who can speak to me in a professional sense and I don’t get offended. And there are other people who speak to me in a professional sense where I still get a little like, “Eh, well, OK.” I’ve got to prove them wrong. And not even so much prove them wrong. Maybe I just need to prove myself right for a change.
I think with this show there are conversations, and I think always the concern is, are you preaching to the choir? Or are you reaching people, and you’re just trying to convert? I will say this, that people are watching the show. For example, your show, when it first came on, I did not watch the show. But there was a level where people were saying, Transparent. And they’re talking about it.
Soloway: And you felt you had to (watch it).
Ridley: It’s not even that I felt like I had to watch the show. But you knew there was something out there speaking about or moving the needle about a subject matter that is not my world, that I’m not familiar with. In a certain way, eventually— whether it’s a confluence of events or the sensitivity is so high—you realize it’s not merely people in Hollywood making up stories. It’s your story. It’s a lot of people’s stories, and it’s current. And to me, that’s where it makes the difference.
To see an extended trailer for American Crime, click play below:
And to see an extended trailer for Transparent, click play below: