LOS ANGELES — Actors, cameramen, grips and producers dodged in between the line of trailers in the parking lot at Malibu’s Zuma Beach. From one of those trailers came the sound of cheers and applause. That’s where director Jill Soloway was thanking the assembled cast and crew as filming wrapped on the second season of “Transparent,” the breakout show that was born out of Soloway’s most personal moments. Days later, on Sunday night, “Transparent” would win five Emmys, including a directing award for Soloway. It was nominated for 11.
The series tells the story of the Pfeffermans, a Jewish family dealing with their father Mort (Emmy winner Jeffrey Tambor), a 70-year-old professor who comes out as transgender — now he’s Maura — and the impact on his three children. While the transgender theme is pivotal, the children — Josh (Jay Duplass), Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) — supply plenty of drama of their own. In one scene, an exasperated Maura bemoans having raised such selfish and self-absorbed children.
The Amazon original series (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post) is the brainchild of Soloway and based in part on her psychiatrist father coming out as transgender four years ago. Soloway, a writer and producer on “Six Feet Under” and “United States of Tara,” also directed “Afternoon Delight,” for which she received a directing award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Despite those successes, Soloway, 49, recalls the days when she was at “rock bottom,” eating soup from her pantry, too broke to dry-clean her clothes and plagued by thoughts that she would be unable to write anything that mattered. But then her father’s decision inspired her.
Given the show’s critical success, she said, it all feels surreal. “I had no idea what was around the corner,” Soloway said. “In terms of my family — what my purpose was. This feels so like this is my purpose.”
She perched on a concrete wall directing the characters Maura and Ali and two others by walkie-talkie and watched on a monitor as they stood on the beach.
“Look at the ocean”
“All four — look at each other.”
“Ali, put your hand on Rose’s shoulder.”
Soloway stopped, jumped off the wall and ran up the beach. She showed the actors where to stand and how to move. Then she ran back to her perch. laughing and explaining that her pants were almost falling down.
“Sun is going down in 15 minutes,” she reminded everyone.
As the beach scene concluded under a dramatic sunset, the director shared a favorite quote of Judith Light (who plays Mort’s wife, Shelley) that seems appropriate; it’s from Kierkegaard:
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
From the day of her father’s revelation, Soloway said, she knew it was a story she must tell. “This would be the thing I could leave behind as an artist.”
With the scene wrapped, the actors, cast and crew hugged. Soloway, dressed in beige jeans, a white gauze top, sneakers and baseball cap, sat on Tambor’s lap, threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.
“We love each other,” she said. “Jeffrey is like my stand-in Moppa” — the nickname Soloway gave her real-life transgender parent.
Soloway told the New York Times last year that she enacted a “transfirmative action program” to widen employment of transgender people on the show. For season two, she hired a transgender writer, Our Lady J, and a transgender director, Silas Howard. Tambor’s assistant, Van Barnes, is a trans woman. Tambor, in an interview with Audible, talked about how he has had his nails done and gone out dressed as a woman to prepare for his role.
“Transparent” has become something more than a television show, Soloway said. “We are part of a civil rights movement. We didn’t really set out to necessarily be part of a movement, but that’s how we found ourselves.”
She said each season will focus on a different sibling. In season one, it was Sarah. In season two, it’s Josh. Plans are for season three to revolve around Ali.
Preparing for Season 2 (premiering Dec. 4) took Soloway and the writers from a yurt in Santa Barbara, where a shaman chanted over them, to a sex dungeon in L.A.’s Koreatown and through extensive research on the Geman Weimar Republic. There are flashbacks that go beyond the cross-dressing camp of season one to the history of Maura’s family and their immigration to the United States.
Soloway said the “secret math” of the show is that “this was a family with all secrets and no boundaries.”
“The secret was the boundary,” she said. “And now that the secret is gone, how do these people know where they start and where others end? They were so busy reaching around for each other their whole lives — this is true of me as well.”
Soloway’s choice to wear an edgy pantsuit at the Emmys rather than a dress and heels was deliberate. “It’s fun to think about the way to do the red carpet with a little bit of a gender wink,” she said.
Berger is a freelance writer.