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Jeffrey Tambor on ‘Transparent’: ‘People’s Lives Depend on This’

The Television Academy of Arts & Sciences held a panel discussion Thursday night on “Transparent: Anatomy of an Episode” at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

Moderated by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams, the roughly two-hour long event, which focused on season two, episode nine (“Man on the Land”) of the five-time Emmy award-winning Amazon series, teamed creator and exec producer Jill Soloway with five members of its cast and crew: star Jeffrey Tambor; cinematographer Jim Frohna; production designer Cat Smith; writer Ali Liebegott; co-producer Zackary Drucker; and editor Sunny Hodge.

Transparent” stars Judith Light and Amy Landecker — who briefly mentioned “a cruise” that informs an episode of season three, currently in production — were also in the audience.

In his welcoming remarks, TV Academy President and COO Maury McIntyre called “Transparent” an “exceptional show about family, humanity and love.” Abrams — for whom Soloway once penned a series pilot called “Boundaries” that never aired –heaped praised upon the show.

“It’s so rare that a show captures your heart as much as (‘Transparent’) has,” he said. “It burrows into your heart. It’s one of the best shows I’ve seen in my life.”

“Man on the Land,” the penultimate — or “peen-ultimate” as Soloway joked — episode of season two takes place primarily at the Idyllwild Wimmin’s Music Festival, a fictionalized version of the now-defunct Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a bohemian-hippie haven for feminists looking to camp in the woods, dance and sing, and celebrate their womanhood. (In one scene, a fest-goer sports a red t-shirt with the slogan “Vagitarian” stretched across her chest)

“We look at the five-hour season like a movie,” said Soloway of crafting the episode, which finds Maura (Tambor) ousted from the fest by TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) determined to preclude anyone that doesn’t have a “uterus or a vagina” from attending.

“It’s the series climax,” said Soloway. “It reaches back in history and takes everything that has been confusing and weaves it in and throws it all into a big bowl together. And hopefully, it explodes.”

Liebegott, who worked as a grocery store clerk penning “queer content that three lesbians in Cleveland read” prior to writing for “Transparent,” recalled having spotted the “best outfit she ever saw” at the famed Michigan fest: “a woman wearing Birkenstocks and a nicotine patch and that was it.”

That visual would serve as inspiration for “Man on the Land,” which features a bevy of background extras in varying stages of undress.

“You could get $500 to be naked and $250 to take your shirt off and like $60 to wear wool pajamas,” said Leibegott, eliciting hearty laughs from the crowd.

And while not doffing his clothes, Tambor found himself emotionally naked. Playing Maura — and in this episode especially — was “a huge responsibility” that sometimes made him “throw-up nervous.”

“She’s already estranged, she’s already other-ized in a place where she thinks she is safe,” he said of his character’s predicament. “I think she’s angry because she’s scared, she’s scared stiff. Who can’t identify with that?”

“A lot of us were coming out while we were making the show,” added Soloway, who loosely based the show on her own experience with a transgendered parent. “It was my first TV show that I’d created, it was Ali’s first job (on TV). We had this huge sense of becoming.”

That sense of growth extends to behind-the-scenes players as well.

“I feel like I’m bearing witness to the experience of these people,” said Frohna, who’s been known to dance while shooting scenes. “I cry all the time when I’m operating the camera. It’s about showing up and connecting to the feeling.”

“It is the safest set that I have ever been on,” added Tambor. “It is so nurturing a place. It’s growing and there is no wrong. You feel that support in the environment.”

Soloway admitted that the completed episode — rife with both painful, tender moments and self-effacing humor — was not without some trial and error.

“We were going to write a Nazi musical number,” she laughed. “It was so wrong. It was way too much. We over do a lot. And then we scrape away.”

Perhaps the most touching moment of the night followed Abrams’ question to Tambor about what it was like to transform into Maura for the very first time.

“We went on a field trip to the Oxwood Inn (in Van Nuys) and we went into the bathroom and we put Maura’s wig on and we looked in the mirror and there she was,” he told the audience. “It was like an old friend. And we danced. I was shaking. And I told myself, ‘Never forget this shaking.’ It was a very important night.”

“The world is changing, and for us to be part of it is everything I thought acting was,” he continued. “People’s lives depend on this. Lives are at stake. And that’s quite a mission.”

For Soloway, who grew up “licking envelopes for the ERA” and “lived at the altar of TV,” the critical and commercial success of “Transparent” is still “very surreal.”

“It’s a shocking realization sometimes that it actually happened,” she said. “I feel incredibly lucky and have so much gratitude.”

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