With Season 2 in the rear-view mirror and Seasons 3 and 4 ahead, Judith Light still considers Amazon series Transparent to be one of the greatest gifts of a long career. Her extensive Broadway resume notwithstanding, Light is the rare actress who made her career in television—beginning in 1977—and continues to work in television to this day.
Things have certainly changed some since her time on Tony Danza sitcom Who’s the Boss?, as the breakout success of Transparent suggests. And in this series, Light has found a powerful platform—a companion piece to her tireless work as an LGBT activist over the past four decades that has begun to change the cultural conversation like never before. In Season 2, Transparent continues to explore the fluidity of sexual identity, and identity in general, invoking a certain awareness that the actress considers essential to human progress. Below, Light discusses Shelly Pfefferman’s evolution in Season 2, the vital, universal questions the series raises, and the inspiration she takes in witnessing the courage of the LGBT community, in every obstacle they have taken on and overcome.
Transparent is a show about discovery, transformation and profound personal revelations. Has working on the series been an experience of discovery for you?
I think that’s so for every one of the characters, and I think it’s also true for each one of us as the people who embody those characters because you can’t work on something like this, with somebody who’s as brilliant as Jill Soloway, and not connect to some transformation in yourself, about your life and your work and the things you’re willing to do, and the things you thought you never could do, and how to be more brave and courageous.
Though the characters in the series are all on a journey to “live their truth”, the conflict of the series lies in layers of secrets and lies, going back decades. How do you reconcile that contradiction?
In the pilot, you see that Jeffrey Tambor’s character Maura says, “This is who I really am, this is my authentic self,” and the question arises to the family: now will you be your authentic selves, will you tell the truth? What it does is it raises more questions—so will you be the person that you want to be, that you are meant to be, no matter how frightening it may be? Will you love more, will you connect more?
People don’t make transformation instantly, but they begin a process, and what you’re beginning to see is the unraveling of the process with each character—with their sexuality, their loneliness, their needs, their desperation in the process to tell the truth of who they really are and who will they be.
With roles like Shelly and scenes like your bathtub exchange with Maura, do you see a change in representation in this industry, in terms of roles for older actors, and the way in which they’re depicted?
One of the reasons that Jill wanted to do that [scene], which was absolutely terrifying to me, was that we’re telling the story that mature people are not dead. There’s a sexual part of them and we are showing that, and for so long, you couldn’t do that within the structure of a network system.
Jill and Joe [Lewis] and the rest of the people at Amazon, we all meet at the same place of wanting to make a difference in the world and change those conversations. I think that what’s happening is you are beginning to see it because the Baby Boomer generation wants to see themselves on television—to see themselves in the media—so there was a call for it. And what you’re starting to see is networks are following suit, maybe not in the same way or to the same degree, but there is movement toward that. My career is more extensive and expansive now than it was years ago, so yes, I do think that there are more things that are happening.
There’s a much softer, gentler quality to the dynamic between Shelly and Maura this season, and things get quite complicated. Shelly obviously feels a void in her life with the death of Ed, but what is really going on there?
It’s not just the absence of Ed; Ed was gone for a long time. Shelly is probably one of the loneliest people that you will know, which is why I think people relate to her, because she wants so desperately to be connected and literally has no idea how to go about it.
It is her ongoing and consistent, powerful need to be connected to Mort or Maura. What matters to her is that that’s who she loves, and that’s who she needs, and that’s who she wants to be connected to. And you are going to see in Season 3 the beginnings of that, and how that came about, and you will understand more. You’ll understand what the need is.
It’s very complicated because one of the things that we rarely talk about in our society is the fluidity of human sexuality and gender, and I think that’s what this show is giving people a chance to look at. You look at all the stuff that Magnus Hirschfeld was doing in the ’30s, all the gender studies work that was being done that was burned by the Nazis, so you’ve got that work, and Robert J. Stoller, who was doing gender studies work at UCLA. All of that work has been done. However, the society has not talked about it. We have not connected with it.
What was it like for you watching the 1930s Germany flashback scenes, and grappling with the shocking historical facts that the series unveils there?
When I first read it, we have these table reads and they’re really powerful. I’m trying to find the words to express the experience because it was monumental. It was earth-shattering, because of the depth and the joy of the connection in the community and then the horror of what took place afterwards. Seeing it on screen, in the way they portrayed it, was just breathtaking.
Recognizing that there was tolerance of transgender individuals in 1930s Germany—albeit for a brief time—what does that say about the world we live in today, where we are still grappling with these issues?
We live in denial of so many things, because things that are simplistic make our lives easier, but they don’t make them more interesting, and they don’t make them more exciting, and they don’t expand us as human beings. It’s not a conversation that people want to have. It can be a discomforting conversation for people—that’s why doing it within the context of a show like Transparent, you have this expanding of information, so there is the potential for the expanding of human consciousness.
I mean, look at our society. People, they’ve got three jobs and four kids and trying to put food on the table. There’s not time to discuss this kind of thing. This is not in people’s purview and that’s totally understandable, but when you get to see a show like Transparent, you actually can have a conversation about it, and you can say, “My God, I didn’t know about this.” You look at a community like the transgender community that has been in the shadows for so very long, and how we treat other human beings. We are one body of humanity, and look at the way we treat each other.
You take part in so many emotionally charged scenes this season. Which was the most challenging to shoot?
The scene in the bathtub was emotionally and physically very complex for me. I said to Jill, I’m absolutely terrified, and she said, I promise I will take care of you. She was the ultimate mother, the ultimate caregiver. She was the personification of love and care. Working with Jeffrey and Jill, there’s that safety, so that I know that I can do anything. On our set, we have a saying that you can’t make a mistake—so you just try all these majestic, magnificent, malfunctioning things, and something works, and then they can piece it all together.
There was another one. There’s the break fast, for Yom Kippur. That was complicated too, but Jill did this really incredible thing. Jill came over to me and she whispered in my ear and she said, “Just bring grief into the room.” Now, who gives you note like that?
How has your understanding of Shelly evolved with your work in Season 2?
I see more of who she is, and I see why she is the way she is. She is caustic and narcissistic, and doesn’t listen to people, and rides over people and pushes people away in her want to pull them closer.
What people love about these people is that they are intimately flawed. They are intimately human. Now, we don’t just do one thing one way. You don’t have a relationship with somebody and then break up with them, and then all of a sudden you’re like, this is fine. You treat it with humor. You treat it in despair. You maybe take antidepressants. You overeat. You overdrink. You are compelled to do something because of the pain that you are in, and why Shelly is so sympathetic is because there is the thinnest veneer over that pain, and you feel it. That’s how we work on this show. We work at a feeling level.
When Jill started first working with us, she said, “I want you to work with this woman named Joan Scheckel that I worked with when I did the film Afternoon Delight, and that’s when Jill got Best Director of Sundance. Every year, we go to Joan’s workshop— but not just the cast. It’s like the ADs, or people from the office, if they want to come, and other characters in the show, so everybody knows the place that we’re all working from. We don’t go to Joan to do scene work; we do physical exercises. We do exercises where we are connecting with each other in some way, emotionally and viscerally. That’s why when you watch Transparent, you are feeling her. You are not thinking about her, you’re not stuck in your head about her, you are responding at a feeling level, and that’s why the show is so powerful. That’s why, when you watch the pilot, you go, “These people eat from each other’s plate. These people are under each other’s skin. This is a family.”
You have a storied history as an activist dating back to the ‘80s. What’s the current status of your work in this arena?
I would have to say that the gift of my advocacy for the LGBTQ community has been heightened by being on Transparent because now I get to be working with the transgender community in a much more profound and powerful way than I did before. I’ve been on the board almost since the beginning of an organization called Point Foundation, and we have many transgender students, so I was working with those scholars; and one of our board members was also transgender, but it wasn’t the same as this. This has changed the conversation. This has brought the conversation to the floor.
I’ve been able to be a part with Alexandra Billings of the Transgender Legal Defense Fund event last year, so my understanding, my learning, my being humbled by the transgender part of the LGBTQ community has been very powerful, and like Jeffrey always talks about, the fact that we have a much larger responsibility than I did before, that any of us ever knew that we would have in speaking to this issue, and the courage and the beauty of the transgender community has really blown me away.
I mean, the level of suffering that they have gone through, and they keep rising, like I always said about my friends who were dying of AIDS during the height of the pandemic. There was this rising of the phoenix from the ashes and claiming one’s self, and I think that’s why people love Transparent. It is about the claiming of the truth no matter what the law says, no matter what the family says, no matter what the religion says, no matter what it is. In the face of all of that, I stand up in myself, in the beauty of who I know I am, and I present myself to you. That takes an inordinate amount of courage so to get to be a part of that community and work with them on their process has been really exciting for me.
You’ve recently teased more devastating, revealing family flashbacks in Season 3. What else can you reveal about the upcoming season?
What will be revealed is more of the past of Shelly and Maura, and how the complexities came to be in that relationship. And you will understand many of the dynamics of why Shelly operates the way that she does.
So many people come up to me and say, “Oh my God, your children, they’re so horrible; they’re just the most narcissistic horrible children,” and then they say, “I love them. I can’t stop watching them.” Well, I think it’s also true for Shelly, as each one of us orbits in a particular way, and then we reach out of that orbit to others. I think you’re going to come to understand why the kids are the way that they are, and what has transpired through life and our relationships—why we as the Pfefferman’s are so connected, and why we are so self-involved. People are not just self-involved for no reason. There are always reasons why someone is the way that they are.