When Our Lady J joined the writing team at Transparent, it was something of a career departure. Previously known as a singer-songwriter who’s worked with Lady Gaga, Debbie Harry and Cyndi Lauper, she applied for the job by writing a short story about her experience of growing up trans in Pennsylvania.
As Transparent prepares to air its fourth season, Our Lady J (who is now also a producer) talks about the show jumping ship to Israel, how Trump’s win almost flipped the script and how she bonded with Dolly Parton.
So for Season 4, the action will head to Israel?
Yes. This next season we go global, quite literally. We’ve been in Los Angeles for the first three seasons and it’s about life in LA, but also life in America. With everything that’s happening politically in the world right now, we wondered, how would the Pfeffermans react? We take a little trip around the world and we find out. You can watch them misbehave in the holy land, not just Los Angeles.
Creator/showrunner Jill Soloway has said it will be more specifically political this season.
Yeah. I come from Amish country in Pennsylvania. I wasn’t surprised that the country was going to lean in this conservative direction again. It felt somewhat like the trauma of growing up in rural USA as a trans person. We can isolate ourselves in these metropolitan cities and really forget what’s happening outside. There was this feeling of doom that was impending–we just were hoping it didn’t happen. Then when it happened, it did feel like we needed to re-break everything.
It felt like—when we were counting on having our first female president—we were writing for these characters and these stories that were going to be taking place in that America. Then, we took a step back and we realized that our themes that had been running through what we were writing were actually right in line with what the country was feeling. There was this general anxiety, there was fear, there was uncertainty. We ran with those themes and we really leaned into those things.
When you joined the show at Season 2, had you already been a fan? What did you want to bring to the show?
I was a huge fan of the show. I auditioned for the part of Davina in Season 1, actually. When I first met Jill at the GLAAD awards, she was telling me about this character. Alexandra Billings got the part because she is a goddess and amazing, but I had decided from that moment on that I was going to be involved somehow in Transparent, because I believed in it so much.
When I got into the writer’s room, one of the first things that I wanted to do was take off the kid gloves with Maura. There was this feeling that trans-ness was really handled quite reverently in Season 1, but every other character wasn’t handled reverently. In a way, the trans-ness, I wanted to rough it up a little bit, make it a little bit more real, include some of the ugly things.
Do you have a lot of interaction with Jeffrey Tambor (who pays trans character Maura)?
Normally, the writers are on set for their episodes, but I was lucky enough to be asked to be on set for any of the episodes that had trans characters. I was there for every scene, especially if it had context to do with transitioning, or an obstacle that had to do with being trans.
The difference between Jeffrey and Maura is that Maura has been living her life as a trans woman 24 hours a day from the beginning. There’s a lot that happens when you wake up in the morning that Jeffrey so graciously acknowledges that only trans people can truly experience. Those tiny, minute details, Jeffrey and I would talk about.
Next up for you is a concert where you perform Dolly Parton’s music.
I do have a concert. I’m doing a couple of dates all around the world of this show that I call The Gospel of Dolly, which is a tribute to Dolly Parton’s gospel music. As a hillbilly who grew up in the church, I really, really love gospel music. I especially love Dolly Parton, as an inclusive person who doesn’t preach the dogma, but preaches the spirit of love. I perform with a gospel choir.
And Dolly herself has said that she loves your performances, right?
Yeah. It’s a weird story. I’m going to be honest; it makes my heart race really fast when I think about it because she’s such an angel. She found out I was doing these concerts in New York years ago and asked to meet me. I thought for sure she was going to hand me a cease and desist, but instead she just thanked me for singing her music.
Then when it came time for one of my gender-confirming surgeries a few years ago, she helped me raise money for that before insurance companies were covering anything. She helped me get my boobs, so I have a little bit of Dolly in me forever now. I saw her last summer and I told her that I had named my right boob Jolene. Without missing a beat she said, “Well, mine are called shock and awe.”