Since its Amazon debut in 2014, critics have fallen madly in love with the Pfeffermans, a difficult family trying to make sense of their lives in the wake of their father coming out as trans. Earlier this month,Transparent's second season earned Jeffrey Tambor and Jill Soloway their second consecutive Emmy awards for Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and Directing for a Comedy Series, respectively. On the heels of Transparent's season three premiere, here are 15 facts you might not know about the groundbreaking show that cemented Amazon as a major player in the TV game.
1. A STORY ABOUT COURTENEY COX'S BUTT HELPED JUMPSTART JILL SOLOWAY'S CAREER.
While working her first L.A. writing gigs at The Steve Harvey Show and Nikki (which she called "the worst sitcom in the world"), Transparent creator Jill Soloway had some time on her hands to mess around on a show called Sit 'n Spin with her friends. The show involved people reading monologues and/or fiction, for which Soloway penned the hilarious "Courteney Cox's A**hole," a work of fiction told from the perspective of Cox's personal assistant.
Soloway later sent the piece to a handful of literary magazines, while her agent passed it on to Alan Ball, executive producer of HBO's Six Feet Under. Ball was impressed, telling TIME that the story, albeit a few pages long, was able to "convey the very real pain of a soul yearning to be authentic in a completely inauthentic world." Also: He felt confident she'd be able to "write the hell out of Claire and Brenda." Soloway won a spot in the Six Feet Under writer's room.
2. SOLOWAY AND LENA DUNHAM COMPETED FOR THE SAME HBO SLOT. (DUNHAM WON.)
This huge victory was not without a series of painful rejections, too. In what The New Yorker called a "downward slide"—the period immediately following her Six Feet Under residency in 2005—Soloway was fired from both HBO's United States of Tara and Grey's Anatomy. Then, she was beat out of what seemed to be a promising HBO slot by Lena Dunham (who would go on to create Girls). To add insult to injury, Soloway recalls people would frequently ask her if she was related to Dunham—"People were, like, it’s you, but younger and better.”
3. TRANSPARENT IS EXACTLY TWO PERCENT AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL.
Soloway knew she wanted to make her own family show ever since working on Six Feet Under. What she didn't know is that her father would come out as trans at the age of 75—a pivotal moment which would eventually become the central storyline of the hit Amazon series. Speaking to Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air, Soloway called it her "creative destiny."
Soloway has also gone on record saying that the storyline of Shelly and Ed was informed by the death of her mother's husband, who had frontal temporal dementia. Nevertheless, Soloway has been resistant to the label of "autobiography" through the years, telling Rolling Stone back in 2014 that Transparent is "98 percent fictionalized."
"The Pfeffermans are just very real people," she said. "The reason I wanted to cast Jeffrey [Tambor] is because he's always reminded me of my parent. They really have a very similar sense of humor and that was just immediate. Other than that, it's not really autobiographical."
4. IT'S THE MOST TRANS-INCLUSIVE PRODUCTION IN HOLLYWOOD HISTORY.
producer Rhys Ernst told OUT that he felt strongly about casting a trans actor to portray a young Maura (Tambor) in season three's flashback sequences, ultimately bringing 12-year-old Sophia Grace Gianna (who had recently transitioned) on for the part.
This trans-inclusiveness has been a through line for the show's three-season production: Ernst said that the show has employed more than 50 trans and gender-nonconforming people in the capacity of "crew members or as actors with speaking roles." That doesn't include what he estimates to be "hundreds of extras."
5. JAY DUPLASS FELL INTO THE ROLE OF JOSH PFEFFERMAN.
During a get-together for directors that Jay and his brother Mark regularly hosted, Duplass got to talking with Soloway, who told him that she was struggling to find someone for the part of Josh Pfefferman. After he'd rattled off a list of actor suggestions, a light bulb went off in Soloway's head: He was just the guy she was looking for, even though he wasn't an actor and was already swamped with work on developing Togetherness for HBO. In Soloway's mind, Duplass was the "wildly charismatic and wildly insecure" Jewish guy in his mid-30s that she'd been looking for the whole time.
6. PEOPLE HAVE A HARD TIME SEPARATING JAY DUPLASS FROM JOSH PFEFFERMAN.
Living in Eagle Rock—a neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles, and the same general area where Transparent is filmed—has created a host of funny situations for Duplass. Particularly because people can't seem to separate his on-screen character as the "roving male id" from his off-screen one as a father and husband when they bump into him at a Trader Joe's. (Yes, he's been known to have locals tell him not to "mess things up" with the rabbi—as if that were something he had control over.)
The differences don't end at father and husband, either. Duplass told Gold Derby that he grew up going to Catholic school and "being overly responsible to everyone around [him]." Also, the sex: "I think Josh Pfefferman has more sex in season one than I've had in my entire life," he said.
7. SOLOWAY EMBRACES IMPROVISATION ON SET.
Season two of Transparent opens with a four-minute scene so perfect and categorically "Pfefferman," it likely did not occur to you that the whole thing was predicated on a mistake. The whole family is gathering for a wedding portrait and we hear the photographer mis-gender Maura. Maura doesn't let the flub go unnoticed, snapping back, "Did he just call me sir? This is over."
Gaby Hoffman told Vanity Fair that this scene began as a "one-line moment in the script." That is, Soloway stepped back and let "everybody [say] whatever the hell he or she was saying." It was Tambor who made the snap decision to incorporate this mistake into the scene.
Michaela Watkins (Yetta and Connie in season two) echoed Hoffman's sentiments in an episode of WTF with Marc Maron, telling Maron that she remembered Soloway encouraging her to just use the script as a "roadmap." "Throw it out, you know what happens. You do it." Coming from such an accomplished writer, these words left an impression.
"She's not ego-driven," Watkins said. "She didn't do it because she needed to be revered. It's how she does every single scene—whether it's with two people or 100 people. She just horse-whispers you before it. And then you shoot it, and you're operating from this other place."
8. CHERRY JONES'S CHARACTER IS BASED ON POET EILEEN MYLES, WHO IS SOLOWAY'S GIRLFRIEND.
Among Transparent's slate of new cast members introduced in season two is Leslie (Cherry Jones), an intense feminist scholar who lures Ali in with her sexual confidence and wisdom.
Soloway's writing staff had encouraged her to read up on the work of Eileen Myles while fleshing out the character. Later, the two met while speaking on a panel at a museum event in San Francisco. When the opportunity presented itself, Soloway asked Myles what she meant by a line in one of her journals. "Whoever falls in love with me is in trouble," that line read.
“It could also be true that anybody who falls in love with Jill is in trouble—deeply, deeply in trouble," Myles responded. "If you both have strong wills, you’re always pushing the boundaries. Love is trouble, you know, which is one thing that is so great about it.”
(Funnily enough, the real Eileen Myles later appears as an extra in a scene opposite her "copy." Her poetry is recited by many different characters throughout the season.)
9. CARRIE BROWNSTEIN WAS ORIGINALLY SHORTLISTED FOR THE ROLE OF TAMMY.
As the story goes, Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein was so adored on the set of Transparent that a role was created just for her. "Originally, when we were trying to cast Tammy, her name came up," Soloway said. "But I always felt Tammy was really tan and blonde, like Lady Diana or someone who spent some time in her childhood on a ranch. And Carrie just seemed too Jewy to play Tammy, but I really, really wanted to work with her, so in the writers' room we created this character of Syd for her."
10. SOLOWAY HAD GABY HOFFMAN IN MIND FOR THE PART OF ALI AFTER SEEING HER IN LOUIE.
In the season three premiere of Louie, Gaby Hoffman is introduced as Louis C.K.'s girlfriend just as the relationship is about to end. Though brief, her role in the larger arc of the series is vital, forcing C.K. to confront his introversion head-on. Soloway was blown away by the performance, telling Rolling Stone:
"I just loved the way she was talking the whole time and he's trying to get a word in edgewise and he lets her break up with him. I just loved the way words rolled off her tongue and nothing seemed written. I loved how free she was. I was just like who is this really cool, Jewish lady? And she's not even Jewish."
11. JEFFREY TAMBOR USED MORE OF HIMSELF FOR THE CHARACTER OF MAURA THAN ANY OTHER ROLE.
Jeffrey Tambor anticipated the biggest challenge of playing a trans character would be the physical transformation, though this was quickly proven incorrect. He told Terry Gross in a Fresh Air interview that that part turned out to be "very, very easy" for him. The hardest part? Coming to terms with his true self. "I got to use more of Jeffrey than I've ever used in any role. Probably even in playing Jeffrey," he said.
12. TAMBOR WENT "METHOD" TO WARM UP TO HIS ROLE AS MAURA.
Ahead of shooting the pilot episode of Transparent, Tambor was taken on a field trip by producers Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker. To get to the heart of his character, Maura, Tambor was encouraged to put on his full wardrobe and go out in public for the first time. The scariest part wouldn't be the club-hopping but, in fact, the inevitable walk through the hotel lobby.
"I can remember my legs were shaking, literally trembling—not so much because we were going to a club, but I was so nervous about the walk through the hotel lobby," Tambor told the Los Angeles Times. "And I remember telling myself: 'Remember this. Don't forget this. Let this instruct every single one of your shots and your days.' And it did. It has nothing to do with the entirety of what being a transgender person is, by any means, but it informed me."
13. JUDITH LIGHT WAS VERY NERVOUS ABOUT SHOOTING THAT NSFW BATHTUB SCENE.
Two-time Tony Award-winning actress Judith Light's reaction to reading the now-iconic bathtub scene in "Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump" for the first time went something like this: "Oh my god, I can’t do this. I can’t do this." Upon further encouragement from her manager Herb Hamsher, as well as castmates Amy Landecker, Gaby Hoffman, Kathryn Hahn, and Jay Duplass (all quite experienced with the art of the sex scene), she agreed to the intimate scene with her ex, Maura (Tambor).
"When it was done they wrote me and said, ‘That was so beautiful.’ That’s the kind of working circumstance we have," Light said.
“Jeffrey texted me afterward and I believe the text was something like, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this and thank you.’ Thanking me. He’s the most remarkable man. I’ve known for forever how incredibly talented he is. But this really just allows him to shine in a way he has long deserved. For my friend, I rejoice. He was there for me every single second of that scene. We were so present for each other and I think it comes across in the scene."
14. FAITH SOLOWAY, JILL'S SISTER AND SHOW WRITER, WAS HARI NEF'S CAMP COUNSELOR.
One of Transparent's breakout stars is the 23-year-old trans actress, model, and writer Hari Nef, who plays Gittel. Faith Soloway, who is a writer on the show (and also Jill's sister) evidently knew of Nef because she had been her camp counselor at the Charles River Creative Arts Program in Dover, Massachusetts. Nef recalled that she received an email seemingly out of the blue from Jill asking if she'd be interested in being her date to a New York gala. "So I showed up, we hit it off, and she wrote me a part," Nef said.
15. TRANSPARENT'S EMMY AWARD-WINNING MAIN TITLE THEME MUSIC WAS COMPOSED ON AN 80-YEAR-OLD PIANO.
Do not underestimate the power of a man and his 80-year-old piano. The nostalgia-inducing composition at the beginning of each episode is the work of Dustin O'Halloran, who is largely responsible for setting the "understated" tone of the rest of the series. Speaking with Song Exploder, O'Halloran described coming up in a "hippie Methodist church" community and learning to play the piano there.
O'Halloran said that he used a Swiss piano from the 1930s for the theme song, the same piano he had recorded Piano Solos Vol. 2 on. He also admitted that he'd composed an earlier version to be used for the show but felt that it wasn't right. "I was probably thinking too much about it being an opening title piece—more of a statement, like 'the show is beginning!'" O'Halloran's secret for the finished tune: A "fuller" but still understated sound. Also, some killer harmonium.
All images courtesy of Amazon.