When actor Jeffrey Tambor first read the script for the Amazon series Transparent, he remembers being bowled over. The series, created by Jill Soloway, tells the story of Maura, a 70-something divorced parent of three who comes out as a transgender woman.
"I had never read anything quite like this," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I loved it from the very beginning."
After he landed the role of Maura, Tambor says, he anticipated that his largest challenges would be external — things like Maura's nails, hair and makeup. But, he says, "that was very, very easy for me."
Instead, Tambor has been surprised by the ways that his character is exposed emotionally — and, by extension, the vulnerability that creates in himself as an actor.
"That journey, that uncomfortability, that vulnerability, that transition, as it were, is very, very interesting to me," Tambor says. "I loved playing that. Maura's like a teenager. She doesn't know where her friends are, she doesn't know where her home is, she doesn't know what to do at the LGBTQ center."
Playing Maura, Tambor says, "I find myself much more vulnerable and I find myself less protective. ... That's not to say that women feel more than men or anything like that, but I do know that there's a different feeling in myself."
On dressing as Maura for the first time
I was scared stiff, and we began the makeup and they did the hair, and I remember Maura just appearing on my face, and I went, "Well, that's exactly how she looks." And we dressed her up and we went out dancing at a place called The Oxwood, and I remember walking through the lobby of that hotel and my legs were just shaking, and I said to myself, "Never, never, never, never forget this moment, because this is exactly how it is to live as Maura."
On his experiences being ostracized
I have ... [examples] I can point to, but what's dangerous about me pointing them out is that I could never say that either one of them even equals what it is to be a transgender woman or a man; however, I do know what it is to be "other-ized" in the community. When I was a young boy in San Francisco, I remember being sent home from playing with a friend, and I remember the mother saying, "Tell Jeffrey to go home." And I said to the girl, "Why?" She goes, "My mother says that you're the people who killed Christ." And I got home and what was the worst part of that was I remember at dinner when I told that to my parents, and I remember them looking up into each other's eyes, and I will never forget that, because it wasn't even fear, it was like, "There it is."
On losing his hair in high school
It was awful. It was terrible. I remember — my father cried, first of all, and that's true. ... He was very upset. The thing that turned out great was I would go to summer stock and I would play all the older men. When I was growing up, there was a character on TV, there was a character stereotype, it was personified by Mel on The Dick Van Dyke Show. ... I was a young actor who was bald, but at that time there was a thing on television that, there was a prototype or a stereotype of a principal who was bald and mean with glasses, or there was ... the angry boss who was bald. ... So that was the sort of thing that I aspired to, I said, 'OK, well, I'll be the bald character man who will always be number 6 or 5 or 4 on the call sheet, and that's where I will live my life.' And literally that was my sort of career concept.
On how he got cast in Arrested Development
I was a day-player, basically, for that. I was actually signed up on another series. ... I wasn't on for the run. So I remember having so much fun, and we did the boat scene first, and then we did the jail sequences, and I had so much fun, and I was praying for this other venture to fall through, and it did, and they ... called and said, 'We would love you in the series; how many would you like to do of 13?' I said, 'Oh, uh, 13.' Because I loved it so much. It was wonderful, and I love the cast and I love Mitch [Hurwitz]. They're like my kids anyway.
On how being sober has helped his acting
I can only speak for me ... but in my life, I find that in sobriety I feel much more, and I have much more depth. I also feel, not to segue, but as being a parent of five kids, I can bring much more to my acting, and so I'm all about anything that gives you more feeling and more depth. ... In feeling more, the waters can get rough, but so what? Let the waters be rough. If I hadn't been sober I don't think I would've even been around for Transparent. Your resources are feeling, your resources are depth, your resources are learning, your resources are touching and feeling, and to me sobriety helps and aids all of that.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Jeffrey Tambor stars in the Amazon series "Transparent" as a transgender woman making her transition from male to female late in life. Tambor won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his performance. In season one, Tambor's character, Mort, started transitioning to Maura, revealed her female identity to her three adult children and ex-wife and started appearing in public in women's clothes. All the episodes of season two will be available for binging starting tomorrow.
Tambor also co-starred in the TV series "Arrested Development" and "The Larry Sanders Show." "Transparent" was created by Jill Soloway and was inspired by watching her parent come out at the age of 75 as a transgender woman. Let's start with a clip from season one's first episode. Maura is at her transgender support group and is describing how she just started testing out appearing in public wearing women's clothes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
JEFFREY TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Well, I went to Target, and I just - I took her out. You know what I mean? And I got into, you know, the checkout line. And the girl at the cash register said, I need to see some ID with that credit card of yours. And you know what that's like right? And I just knew. I said this is going to not be good. This is going to get ugly. And so she just kept looking at me. And then she said oh - like that, you know? And she rung up the batteries - something. That was a - and that was a big victory. And I didn't - I was like do not cry in front of this woman. Do not cry in front of this woman.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Thank you for your share, Maura. Thanks for being vulnerable with us.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) One more thing - I made a commitment here last week that I was going to come out to my kids, and I didn't do it because it just wasn't time, you know? But I will, and it will be soon.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) And I promise you. I promise you. I promise you.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) They are so selfish. I don't know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.
GROSS: Jeffrey Tambor, welcome to FRESH AIR.
TAMBOR: Thank you.
GROSS: So did you ask for the part on "Transparent," or did they come to you?
TAMBOR: Well, I was out in Los Angeles. I live in New York, and I was out in Los Angeles to do a talk show. And when I got off the plane, there was this script. And my agents said this is a fabulous script. You should really look at this. And I read it, and I called them back immediately. I hadn't even gotten to my hotel from the airport yet, and I said, I'm in, I'm in, I'm in, I'm in.
GROSS: Do you have any idea why they thought of you to play the part of Maura?
TAMBOR: Actually, Jill told me that I remind her of her Mapa (ph) - of her parent. And so...
GROSS: Mapa is her word for Mother, Papa - her parent (laughter).
TAMBOR: Her parent, Carrie. Yes. And I think something our- well, we have sort of our humor and our sort of dry humor and the way we - you know, we carry ourselves in the world. And I do remember the day Carrie came on the set. Actually, it was my 70th birthday. And I was so nervous, but I somehow won her approval, and she was very kind and very supportive.
GROSS: How did you find the part within yourself that could identify as a woman 'cause you need to identify as woman to play this part?
TAMBOR: Well, one of the things that I am amazed at is I thought that the hardest part would be the external - would be the - oh, nails and the hair and the makeup and the dress and the heels and the blah, blah, blah, blah, blah (ph). And actually, that wasn't the hardest. That was very, very, very easy for me, and I liked it. And I even liked, you know - I mean, who doesn't like a good mani-pedi? I - and so that came all very easy. What's interesting about playing Maura is that I get to use more of Jeffrey that I've ever used in any role and probably even in playing Jeffrey. And I think that's the remarkable part about it and truly the most surprising part about doing this role.
GROSS: Can you give me an example of something you have to play as Maura that you never had a chance to do before or that you learned about yourself?
TAMBOR: I do - well, I do - I do notice that when I'm playing Maura, I am - I'm much more - and I want to be - I'm sort of careful of the words because they're so stereotypical - but I do - I do find myself much more sensitive. And I find myself much more vulnerable. And I find myself less protective and less protection and less armor, and that's a real - that's a real surprise to me.
GROSS: Well, you're also playing somebody who is very vulnerable because they're transitioning...
GROSS: ...From male to female and feel like they're being stared at all the time and passed judgment on.
TAMBOR: Right, right.
TAMBOR: And not only that, but Maura's not very good at it. And doesn't really know how to make herself up. Maura's like a teenager. She just - I mean, she doesn't know where her friends are. She doesn't know where her home is. She doesn't know what to do at the LGBTQ center. And that to me is very, very interesting and very, very wonderful. Those are many wonderful notes to play as an actor and a person.
GROSS: Now, your character isn't glamorous and fashionable in the way that, for instance, Laverne Cox - one of the star of "Orange Is The New Black," is. When your character, Maura, dresses in more formal attire, like a long purple dress with, like, sequin-y, spangly things all over it, I am reminded of what my parents' generation - the women of my parents' generation used to wear to, like, weddings and bar mitzvahs (laughter). And I'm wondering when you dress in that women's formal attire, who do you see when you look in the mirror? Do you see people that you know, relatives that you know, friends?
TAMBOR: No, I don't. I actually see - as I said, I do see Maura. I remember when Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker and Jill Soloway came to my hotel room when we were just preparing. And we sort of did our first sort of field trip. And we were going to take Maura out for her - for the first time. And I was going to meet Maura for the first time. And so we went into the bathroom. We - after a long, long talk - we had many - much talk. And I was scared stiff. And we began the makeup. And I did the hair - or they did the hair. And I remember Maura just - you know, just appearing on my face. And I'm, well, that's exactly how she looks. And we dressed her up. And we went to a - we went out dancing at a place called the Oxwood. And I remember walking through the lobby of that hotel. My legs were just shaking. And I said to myself, never, never, never, never forget this moment because this is exactly how it is to live as Maura. And the odd thing is, no one was looking at me.
GROSS: So what was it like for you to feel like you passed?
TAMBOR: I don't know if I passed. I think I got through the night.
GROSS: Were people staring at you?
TAMBOR: Not at the Oxwood, and not at the hotel. That was what was very odd. I did go on another field trip where I did have that, where I went to a grocery store. And I was in the middle of the aisle. And I was just, like, doing what if Maura went shopping. And I wanted to find out what Maura would wear and what she would buy and things like that - you know, just not to sound too actor-y, but that's how you research. And that's how you find - and one person did stare at me in the aisle and had somewhat of a sneer on their face. And I also said, do not forget this because this is what it looks like to get clocked. And I don't know if they were looking at me and saying, well, that's Jeffrey Tambor or that's a trans woman. I have no idea. But I do remember - I remember the sneer on the face. And it wasn't pretty.
GROSS: Maura's in the position of having recently started appearing in public as a woman, in women's clothes with a woman's wig. And sometimes she kind of passes, you know, unnoticed and just blends in. And other times, people stare at her with kind of, you know, confusion or anger, hostility. And I'm wondering, like, in your own life, as you - as Jeffrey Tambor - if you were ever in a similar position where people were just - based on how you looked, that you got, you know, hostile or mocking looks from people.
TAMBOR: I have two things I can point to. But what's dangerous about me pointing them out is that I could never say that either one of them even equals what it is to be a transgender...
GROSS: Oh, of course not.
TAMBOR: Woman or a man.
TAMBOR: However, I do know what it is to be other-ized in the community. When I was a young boy in San Francisco, I remember being sent home from a person - playing with a friend. And I remember the mother saying, tell Jeffrey to go home. And I said to the girl - I said, why? She goes, my mother says that you're the people who killed Christ. And I got home. And what was the worst part of that was when I - this is really getting me as I'm saying it. I remember when I told that at dinner to my parents. And I remember them looking up into each other's eyes. And I will never forget that because it was - it wasn't even fear. It was like, there it is. So I kind of know what that was. And also, I remember - I grew up - and I don't think I've ever talked about this. I grew up with a lisp. (Speaking with lisp) I talked like this because I had braces. And so my name was Jeff.
So everyone in my school called me Cliff, unfortunately. And I'd say, no, (speaking with lisp) Jeff, Jeff.
And so they called me Cliff Cliff. People would make fun of me because I had this lisp.
GROSS: How did you lose the lisp? Was taking off the braces sufficient?
TAMBOR: No. I went to - I went to so many people. And at San Francisco State College, I still had it. And there was a man named Dr. Joe Mitzak (ph) who one day, they said, have you ever heard your lisp? And I said, no. So he recorded it. And he said, that's - you're saying (speaking with lisp) ef (ph). And I went, oh. He said, this is how you say S - S. And I went, oh, S? And he went, that's correct. And that's what it took.
TAMBOR: I had to hear it. I had to hear it.
GROSS: That's so smart.
TAMBOR: Is it? Isn't it amazing? Yes.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Tambor, who stars in the Amazon series "Transparent." Season two starts on Friday, although the first episode is already up. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk about some of your other roles.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Tambor. He stars in the Amazon series "Transparent" as a transgender woman who is transitioning late in life. When we left off, Tambor had told a story from his childhood about an anti-Semitic insult directed at him.
So after somebody accused you of killing Christ...
GROSS: ...Because you're Jewish, and you told your parents, did that lead to things that they had never told you before about anti-Semitism either they or your grandparents had experienced?
TAMBOR: No, because we were in that generation that - they were second- generation. And that was the thing where everyone was trying so hard to blend and so hard to fit in. So, no, they never talked about it. They absolutely never talked about it. Yeah, I was bar mitzvahed at gunpoint, by the way.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, so this walks us right to a clip I want to play from the first season. So there's a flashback in the first season where we see that as you're starting to figure out that, you know, you really want to dress as a woman and that there are other men who are that way too, you find out that there's this, like, weekend getaway - this kind of camp for men who dress as women. And you very much want to go. Problem is, it coincides with the bat mitzvah of your daughter. And so one weekend, she comes to you and says - and this is all in flashback - she comes to you and says, I don't want to do my bat mitzvah. I don't believe in God. What's the point of this? I don't want to do it. And you kind of say, OK, (laughter) fine.
GROSS: And then you use that as an opportunity to cancel the bat mitzvah and then kind of sneak off to this camp where you can dress as a woman with other men.
TAMBOR: Right, Camp Camellia. Yeah.
GROSS: So flashing forward to the present, in the final episode of the first season, your daughter has just found out that that's why you agreed to cancel her bat mitzvah. And on that day, she's left totally alone. You're at this camp, so she finds out that you really went to this camp. And now she's going to confront you about that. Here it goes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
GABY HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) So mom tells me that you canceled my bat mitzvah so you could go to some dress up camp in the woods. Is that true?
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) No, no, not at all. No. I - it was a - I let you cancel it.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) I was 13.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Honey, you canceled your bat mitzvah.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) 13-year-olds don't get to cancel bat mitzvahs.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Honey...
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) ...You canceled your mat mitzvah...
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman): Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman): ...We made an agreement, I respected your mind. I can't get you to do your haftarah. What do you want me to do, point a gun at your head? So don't be so self-centered. There's another world out there.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) OK.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) It's not all me...
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Right,
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) ...All Ali, all my feelings.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) In this room, I'm the one who's self-centered. That's...
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Well, I believe so.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) That's good. That's rich because I don't need Judaism. Who wants to be Jewish, you know? Who needs guidance in life? I mean, what on earth would I do with God, you know? So thank you.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) You can keep your voice down, all right?
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Oh, keep my voice down? Because that's our family religion - right? - secrecy.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) You're being just a little bit too much, I mean, even for you.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Here's some money to go to college, but don't tell anybody. Don't tell Josh and Sarah.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Oh, my God, Ali.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Why are you always pushing money on me?
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Because, my beautiful girl, you cannot do anything. You know, you have so much more to say now than when I was writing your checks, giving you loans, which by the way, aren't actually loans because you don't pay back [expletive]. Do you understand? Not one cent - I'm paying for your life.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) I don't need or want or give a [expletive] about your money. You can't [expletive] scream at me anymore 'cause I'm an adult, OK? So there we go, it's settled - done.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) I have a question - now that you're not on the payroll anymore - do you like me? If I didn't give you any money, would you even talk to me?
GROSS: A great scene from "Transparent" from the first season with my guest Jeffrey Tambor as Maura and Gaby Hoffmann as his daughter Ali. So he says to her in that scene about the bat mitzvah when she says, what did you want me to do, point a gun at your head? And you said that you were bar mitzvahed...
TAMBOR: At gunpoint.
GROSS: ...At gunpoint.
TAMBOR: And I was being euphemistic.
GROSS: So what happened at your bar mitzvah?
TAMBOR: I was bar mitzvahed at Beth Shalom, and I had trouble. I didn't quite get it all. Part of it was I had a teacher - a wonderful teacher - but he could be very strict. And I remember I asked him - he said - I said can I ask any question? And he said, yes. And he said, take your time. Questions take a long time. What is it? And I said, how do we know there's a God? And he said, get out.
TAMBOR: So he threw me out of Sunday school.
GROSS: That's an answer?
TAMBOR: And I sort of...
TAMBOR: And I had a little problem with it. And also, I just wasn't into it. Anyhow, I had a bar mitzvah. I learned it from Cantor Bornstein. Actually, I think I was a little dazed during it. Do you remember there used to be a drug called Miltown? Do you know that drug?
GROSS: Yeah, it was like one of the early anti-anxiety pills.
TAMBOR: Yeah, yeah. And so my mother - we got out of the car and my mother said - my mother was really interesting - and she said, are you nervous? I said, yeah, I'm really nervous. She goes, here - and she gave me a Miltown.
GROSS: So you were drugged, basically (laughter)...
TAMBOR: Basically drugged...
GROSS: ...To do your bar mitzvah.
TAMBOR: Drugged at my bar mitzvah, yes. But I gave a great speech.
GROSS: (Laughter) What did you say?
TAMBOR: A great - I just sort of did it - I kind of went off script and just started thanking anybody that was in the synagogue.
GROSS: You were feeling good (laughter).
TAMBOR: I was feeling good. I was in the moment.
GROSS: But, you know - but that leads to an interesting point, which is I think if you were given, like, rote religion without meaning, it's going to have no meaning for you. And if you're, you know, brought up with religion that is really, really, like, vested with deep meaning...
GROSS: ...That maybe you'd be - you know, one would be more positively inclined.
TAMBOR: Well, I also think this - and this is sort of, like, adjacent. This is question adjacent to what you just said. But I also think that when we were in San Francisco, we were very much like the Pfeffermans. Not really just running...
GROSS: Like the characters on "Transparent," yeah.
TAMBOR: Exactly. We were just - we didn't run to the synagogue. We went to -on the high holy days we went, you know, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. And we did the Seder and we did all that. And we had the Sukkot and things like that. But we were sort of, you know, West Coast Jewish. You know, we did the same delicatessen runs that Shelly does. And that was another thing when I read the script - I went, I'm in here. This is my family. I'm right in here. And that sense of humor that they have where pain is humor and humor is pain and you zig and you zag - Jill knows that like the back of her hand. She is brilliant at that. So you're laughing at a funeral and you're crying at a comedy show.
GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Tambor. He stars in the Amazon series "Transparent." All of season two will be up tomorrow. After we take a short break, we'll talk about going bald in his teens and about the famous commercial he was in back in the late '70s. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jeffrey Tambor. He stars in the Amazon series "Transparent" as a transgender woman transitioning to female late in life. All of season two will be up tomorrow. Tambor co-starred in "Arrested Development" as George Bluth, Sr., and on "The Larry Sanders Show," he played Hank, Larry's sidekick on his late-night TV show.
You've said in other interviews that your father gave you the advice - don't celebrate. They'll take it away from you. And this is - this is the kind of advice from, you know, like long periods of suffering and persecution that Jewish people, you know, faced through the centuries. But were there times in your family where it was an official celebration, it was your duty to celebrate - like, you're not supposed to be too happy, but on these days, it's your job to be happy?
TAMBOR: Well, my dad's thing was - I mean, we practically had Don't Celebrate printed on the napkins.
TAMBOR: It was serious business. But his big thing is - I would say, Dad, Dad, Dad, I'm on Broadway with George C. Scott. And he would say sh-sh-sh-sh (ph), don't say anything. Don't tell anybody. Dad, Dad, I'm getting married. Sh-sh, don't say it. Nothing, nothing. Don't do anything. And that was sort of the thing. So when I get awards, there's a little agita that goes on with this 'cause I can hear my dad going sh-sh-sh, don't say anything. Don't celebrate. So he honestly - 'cause he was taught - don't celebrate. They'll take it away from you. And his parents were taught that, and his parents and parents - because if you did celebrate, and you were visible, it could be very, very dangerous.
TAMBOR: So part of it is just, you know - part of it is trauma, but part of it is fact.
GROSS: But it doesn't exactly lead to understanding how to experience pleasure and pride and confidence.
TAMBOR: Right. I don't know - I don't know how to answer your question (laughter).
GROSS: I guess it wasn't really a question. Yeah.
TAMBOR: Except to go - uh-huh (ph).
GROSS: Did you - was that your...
TAMBOR: But do you want to hear a great moment - a great NPR moment?
GROSS: Yeah, sure.
TAMBOR: And it has to do exactly with what we're talking about. So when we started coming out with our show, and the reviews were just coming out for the first season, you know, I was very proud of it, but, you know, it could - it could go any way. And so I am taking my son up to his Boy Scout - Cub Scout camp for the day, and we're in the car. And it's on a Saturday morning, and we're driving. And NPR - we are both NPR fanatics. And he loves NPR, and he's 11. And all of a sudden, the NPR review comes on of "Transparent." And I look in the back seat. You know, I'm looking at the rearview mirror. And the reviewer - and it was a very nice review - mentioned by name. And I looked at him, and we both - and he had this smile on his face. And I will never, never forget that moment because I think for the first time, he knew what I did for a living.
TAMBOR: And it was a great moment.
GROSS: And you were allowed to be proud.
TAMBOR: And I was allowed to be proud.
TAMBOR: I was. And actually - you'll pardon the expression - kvelled.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's Yiddish for kind of, like, shivered with joy.
TAMBOR: (Laughter) Yes. It's the opposite of don't celebrate.
GROSS: You grew up in San Francisco. Your father was a flooring contractor, but I think he'd been a boxer before that. Is that right?
TAMBOR: Yeah. He was a light heavyweight. Legend has it - legend is that he sparred with Joe Lewis. And again, let me really reiterate - legend. And his mom made him give it up because she was so worried about it. But I do remember once when he was selling tile out in the front of the store, and I saw him - he was a very big man. He was about 6-foot-1, and he was stooped over in this position. It was very odd. It was very submissive position. He was talking to this guy - this short guy - and I later found out that was his boxing trainer. And he was assuming the position that you do in the corner listening to his trainer. It was a very memorable thing.
I also remember once when I was - after he had passed away - and I really - I really loved my dad. I was very, very close to my dad. And my dad was very sort of funny about the don't celebrate, and he would rather I had been a teacher. And, you know, he was very, very nervous about my being an actor. And I went to clean out his office, and I never knew that - he just never really - he just worried, worried, worried about me being an actor. He didn't say much. He didn't - you know, in other words. And I went to get his trophies and his stuff out of his office. And I opened his office door, and there wasn't a single piece of wall space that did not have my picture or reviews on it. It was unbelievable. He had saved every review, but he'd never said anything.
GROSS: So that's great. He was kind of proud and kind of bragging to himself in a space that no one would see (laughter).
TAMBOR: Exactly - which is exactly right, and exactly what...
GROSS: It fits perfectly.
TAMBOR: And exactly what that generation did. He did - he did see me on Broadway. I was with Robert Preston in "Sly Fox." And then he saw me just before he passed away in my first film role with Al Pacino in "...And Justice For All," so that's - that was good.
GROSS: So here's this, like, large, I imagine, kind of really strong, physically imposing guy 'cause he been a boxer. So did you - did he want you to be that kind of, you know, like, masculine, physical kind of guy?
TAMBOR: I think he had sort of a push-pull on it. You know, it was interesting. He worried about me a lot. He couldn't understand why I was getting up and going to acting classes at the age of 12 and getting on the bus and going down and taking acting classes in San Francisco. He didn't quite get that. And yet he would come to the plays, and it was very odd. I later found out - somebody came up to me and said, you know, your dad supered at the Met. And I said what? They said, yeah, your dad held a spear at the Met on Saturday. Supernumerary - in other words, an extra. And...
GROSS: So a Metropolitan Opera.
TAMBOR: Yeah, yeah. And so I went - so maybe - I think there was a grudging sort of - there was a lot more to be said about Barney Tambor than he was getting - letting on to.
GROSS: Right. Now, you start losing your hair when you were still in high school.
GROSS: Was that a big deal? I know people who that happened to and to whom it was just, like, incredibly upsetting.
TAMBOR: It was awful. It was terrible. I remember going - I remember my father cried, first of all, and that's true.
GROSS: Probably because he felt that he was bald, and you inherited it from him, and it was his fault or something. Right?
TAMBOR: Right. And that was his - that was his whole -that was another thing that was on the napkins. It's my fault.
TAMBOR: And so he was very upset. The thing that turned out great was that I would go to Summer Stock, and I would play all the old - older men. When I was growing up, there was a character on TV. There was a character stereotype. It was personified by Mel on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Do you remember Mel?
GROSS: Mel Cooley, who was the head writer for the - was he the head writer or the producer?
TAMBOR: Yes. He was the producer.
GROSS: The producer.
TAMBOR: And so I was a young actor who was bald, but at that time, there was a thing on television that - there was a prototype or a stereotype of a principal - it was always a principal - who was bald and mean with glasses. Or the boss - the angry boss who is bald - that was personified by Fred Clark on "The Eve Arden Show." And so that was the sort of thing that I sort of aspired to. I said OK, well, I'll be the bald character man who will always be number six or five or four on the call sheet, and that's where I will live my life. And literally, that was my career concept.
GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey tambour. He stars in the Amazon series "Transparent." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This FRESH AIR. My guest is Jeffrey Tambor. He stars in the Amazon series "Transparent" as a transgender woman. All of season two will be up tomorrow.
I think probably the first place I ever saw you, although I didn't know it was you, was on an Avis ad. And Avis Rent a Car had this ad campaign. There was a...
TAMBOR: How can you possibly remember that?
GROSS: Well, because...
GROSS: No, in looking up your work, I found this ad. And I remember these ads.
GROSS: It was a period when Hertz had - Hertz was like the number-one rental car agency.
GROSS: And they had this ad with O.J. Simpson...
GROSS: Running through the airport to get to the Hertz counter.
GROSS: And the gist of the ad was, Hertz, for people in a hurry, you know.
GROSS: And it was like the superstar agency for people in a hurry. So Avis, that was always, like, the we're-number-two-but-we-try-harder rent-a-car agency. They had an ad in which, like, you're this, like, person on a business trip is what we presume. And you're very beleaguered. And you're running through the airport like O.J. And you're jumping over a velvet rope like O.J. in the airport. But you're panting. You're, like, mopping your forehead. And, in this ad an Avis representative catches up with you and says, like, you don't have to run. And you go, oh, I don't have to run.
TAMBOR: I remember this. I remember...
GROSS: Let's listen to it. Let's listen to it. And the first voice we hear...
TAMBOR: Oh, my god.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. The first voice we'll hear is the Avis representative. And then we'll hear Jeffrey Tambor.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Avis representative) Sir, what's the hurry?
TAMBOR: (As businessman) Oh, I'm going to rent a car.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Avis representative) Oh, well, you don't have to run.
TAMBOR: (As businessman) I've got to run.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Avis representative) Oh, no. If you had an Avis Wizard Number, you could walk.
TAMBOR: (As businessman, laughter) Yeah, walk.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Avis representative) Call toll-free and let our Wizard system do the running. Just show a major credit card, license, sign and get the car.
TAMBOR: (As businessman) I don't have to run through airports?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Avis representative) Not with Avis.
TAMBOR: (As businessman) I can walk through airports.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) We try harder, Avis. Avis, we don't know another way.
TAMBOR: (As businessman) I'm walking through airports.
Oh, my god. I don't know - I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was Newark airport. And I was exhausted by the end of the day. Isn't that funny that you - you know, I forgot about that.
GROSS: So what affect did this Avis ad have on your career? Did it help you get anything else, other commercials or actual roles?
TAMBOR: You have to understand, I've done about - by that - about 10 to 12 years of regional theater. And then I decided to come to New York, and I had to start all over again. So I made my living doing commercials. And I did a lot because again, there was that young husband, balding husband sort of thing that was very attractive to advertising. And I did that for years. I made $40,000 my first year here.
GROSS: What did that...
TAMBOR: But I couldn't get arrested in any legitimate theater.
GROSS: So one of the great roles that you played was on "The Larry Sanders Show." And Larry Sanders was played by Garry Shandling. And Larry was this late-night "Tonight Show"-style host. And you played the sidekick, Hank. And your catchphrase was - you want to do it for us?
TAMBOR: Hey, now.
GROSS: Yeah. And so I want to play a scene from "The Larry Sanders Show" in which Larry Sanders tells you that maybe it's time to drop your catchphrase, hey, now. So here's my guest, Jeffrey Tambor, with Garry Shandling on "The Larry Sanders Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW")
GARRY SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) You know, Hank, I was just wondering why you say that hey-now thing.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) What do you mean?
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Well, it's just something that you used on the show. And now you're starting to use it in your personal life. And it's an affectation of some sort, isn't it? Did you ever say hey now as a kid?
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) No. I don't - I probably didn't. But I said, hey.
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) And I said, now. I mean...
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Sure, sure.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) At different times.
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) I see.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) But I - no, I never put them together until later in life. So in that sense, it's part of my personality.
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) You know, Hank, this isn't easy for me. But would you mind not doing it on the show anymore - 'cause frankly, I'll you the truth...
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) Well, wait a minute. Are you telling me that when you...
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) Do your - you do this...
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) That isn't the same affectation? That isn't the same as my hey, now?
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) There, you just said it again. And, you know, I asked you not to say it.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) You mean I can't say it offstage, either?
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) It doesn't even exist. Use hey, now in a sentence, Hank.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) Hey, now, that was real funny.
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) You know what, Hank? It's not even in the dictionary, hey now.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) OK, this is - this is how I use hey now in a sentence, OK? You say, and of course, my sidekick Hank.
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) And of course, my sidekick Hank.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) Hey now...
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Hank.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) That's a sentence.
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) No. Hank, listen. I'd just prefer you not do it on the show anymore, OK? I just - it gets on my nerves. It gets on the audience's nerves as well.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) No, sir. No, sir.
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Yes it does.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) No.
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Hank.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) Look, you're not out there. And believe me, it is - it's very big with the audience.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) And I'm going to tell you something else. I think it helps make the show work. It's part of our whole interplay on camera.
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) By interplay, you mean the times we're both awake?
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) Hey, now.
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Just cut down on it. Could you do that, please?
GROSS: (Laughter) That's a scene from "The Larry Sanders Show" with Garry Shandling and my guest, Jeffrey Tambor.
TAMBOR: Everything - when I watched Garry Shandling, I said, whatever he's doing is what I believe in. That's what I believe comedy is. It's not pat - it's not automatic. It's not super-performed. It's sort of messy and very, very funny. And he goes past the laugh to get something else. And I said, I believe in that. And I remember, as I watched that, saying - I - you know - but I never put two and two together. And then I'm in the room. And I think I did - the audition that I did for him is no different than when I did finally film it. I think I have it so tightened down that on the director's DVD, you can still see my audition for that. I do remember being so possessed in the audition that when the character of Larry started to leave and Hank didn't want him - in the audition, I took an entire sofa, picked it up and put it in the doorway. And I remember - to block his exit - and I remember Garry looking over at the casting director, Francine Maisler, and giving a little bit of a nod. And I think I had the role from that moment on.
GROSS: So this final question - this might be heading into territory that's too personal.
TAMBOR: I kind of want - I want - I kind of want to talk to you for the rest of my life.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's so sweet. I would enjoy that too (laughter).
TAMBOR: Yes, yes. Go ahead.
GROSS: So - so you've been sober for more than a decade. I don't know how many years exactly.
TAMBOR: Sixteen - 15 (laughter).
GROSS: Fifteen. I'm wondering if it's liberating to be sober in the sense that - you know, an actor has to be kind of naked, in a lot of ways. Like, you're inhabiting somebody else. But you have to feel free to go to uncomfortable places and everything and to not be - to be open to feeling things. And if you have a secret, like if you've been secretly drinking or something, that has to kind of close you off, in some way. So - I would assume. So I'm wondering if it's easier to be open in a way that you must as an actor when you're sober?
TAMBOR: Well, being sober...
GROSS: Even though people think it's more freeing to - you know, to be high.
TAMBOR: Yeah. Actually, I can only speak for me. In my life, I find that in sobriety, I feel much more. And I have much more depth. I also feel - not to segue - but as being a parent of five kids, I can bring much more to my acting. And so I'm all about anything that gives you more feeling and more depth. You also feel more. And in feeling more, there are - the waters can get rough. But so what? Let the waters be rough. I don't think if I had - if I hadn't been sober, I don't think I would have been around for "Transparent."
GROSS: All right. Thank you for that.
TAMBOR: Yeah. I think your resources are feeling. Your resources are depth. Your resources are learning. Your resources are touching and feeling. And for me, sobriety helps and aids all of that.
GROSS: Jeffrey Tambor, I enjoyed our talk immensely.
TAMBOR: Me too.
GROSS: Thank you so much for doing this.
TAMBOR: Me too. Thank you. OK, so we do - we talk every 10 years. Is that correct?
GROSS: (Laughter) That's true.
GROSS: We could speed it up a little bit.
TAMBOR: I think we're going to have to.
GROSS: We're going to have to.
GROSS: Jeffrey Tambor stars in the Amazon series "Transparent." He was just nominated for a second Golden Globe for his performance. All of season two will be up tomorrow. Coming up, we remember one of the founders of Islamic feminism, Fatima Mernissi. She's died at the age of 75. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.