Amazon’s “Transparent” is getting rave reviews for its honest depiction of an adult father coming out as transgender to his grown children, with Variety’s Brian Lowry, among others, praising the strong writing and performances.
That authenticity was critical to executive producer Jill Soloway. Not only did she seek out transgender people for the cast and writers’ room, but for the below-the-line crew as well — at least one person in each department. Her goal was not just to make sure she got the details of her story right, but to create a “trans-positive” environment on set. “It became clear to me that the only way to do a show like this would be to make it a safe place for trans people everywhere,” she says.
The result: A trans cast and crew of 25 that helped inform the shoot. “You can easily say that this is the most trans-inclusive production in Hollywood history,” says producer Rhys Ernst, “which is a sentence I never expected to say out loud.”
It also played out in practical terms with gender-neutral bathrooms on set. “We wanted to have a ground-zero of action, so everyone understood the real struggles that transgender people faced,” Soloway says. It was well worth the fight with the legal department at Paramount, she says.
“Besides the goal of making trans people comfortable, I wanted to make cisgender people (non-trans people) feel uncomfortable with any kind of whispering or behind-the-back questioning,” Soloway adds. “I really wanted it to be unsafe for any kind of gossip.”
Producer Zachary Drucker, who served as a trans consultant on the set, says, “It had a ripple effect to everyone else on the crew,” she says. “Cisgender were affected in a profound way, too. The teamster guys, all the grips, become so used to having trans people around that it was something that they didn’t think about anymore. And they would come and ask questions.”
Camera assistant Zoe Van Brunt, who’s worked on “House,” “Wilfred” and “The Crazy Ones,” says all the attention at first made her feel uncomfortable. “Everyone was really happy that I was there,” she says. “But I realized later it was sincere. They genuinely wanted to do good for the community. And it wasn’t until I slowed down and I focused outside my job that I felt it, that I really understood how special it was.”
Though Van Brunt has had success in landing work, others in the trans community haven’t, and so another goal of the production was to create a “trans-firmative action” program for below-the-line talent. Artist Ada Tinnell, for example, was recruited by producers to use her fashion experience to serve as a production assistant in the wardrobe department. “I hadn’t done anything (in) the TV industry,” she says, “but I thought it was a good crossover. And now that I’ve gotten a taste for it, I’m trying to continue to work in the industry.”
Ernst and Drucker have built a database of trans talent for future productions. “This was just the beginning,” Ernst says. “We want to help people up the production ladder. We see this as a long game.”
First stop on their target list are the unions, where trans people are woefully underrepresented. “I wish all of the unions had diversity programs,” Soloway says.“I wish they actively looked for trans people to train and promote.”
Next season will focus on the main character’s continuing journey for love — and Soloway’s continuing efforts to promote trans tech talent. “I would love for season two if we had multiple trans people in every department,” she says, “not just one.”