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Influencers: ‘Transparent’s’ Jill Soloway on Upending the Hierarchy and L.A. Melancholia

Influencers: ‘Transparent’s’ Jill Soloway on Upending the Hierarchy and L.A. Melancholia: Emily Shur

Emily Shur

Above the Silver Lake reservoir are hipster burbs where families are raised, water features trickle and screenplays are written. This is the world of Jill Soloway, whose elegantly casual home looks like a house on her new Amazon show Transparent. Like the storyline of the show—Soloway’s dad also came out as trans later in life— Soloway’s Los Angeles is lifted from precise experience. The city through her eyes matches Transparent’s complicated characters—in love with their own sadness, the warm personification of June gloom.

Transparent begins with trans woman Maura (played by Jeffry Tambor) figuring out how to tell her three adult children that after living many decades as a man, she’s always felt like a woman. The siblings—played by Gaby Hoffman, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker as the eldest—are often too consumed with their own sexual storylines to know how to deal; other times they’re scared shitless, and that conflict is both funny and risky. The characters take drugs, fuck, and fight in a way that feels all too real. And if you live in the bohemian part of L.A. that Soloway is focused on, the attention to detail can be startling. (Hoffman’s Ali doesn’t just get too high on MDMA and take a cab home—she pops L.A.-raver “moon rocks,” then over-shares with her Armenian Uber driver.)

This is an edginess we’ve seen before in Soloway’s earlier work like Showtime’s The United States of Tara and HBO’s Six Feet Under (both of which she wrote for and co-executive produced), infamous for its intimate gaze at a deeply conflicted family. What sets Transparent apart is not just the questions it asks about sexual identity and desire—or the bitterly funny tone with which it asks them. (“It’s his little private kink. Everyone has them… right, Rabbi?” Maura’s ex-wife says later in the season.) The show also manages to celebrate difference and contain the momentum of a movement—a movement towards love.

I have been to Soloway’s home many times for moonlit parties after her first feature film Afternoon Delight earned her a director’s award at Sundance. (I worked on the project as a consultant.) Success has not changed her style. When I asked Soloway for this interview, she requested that we meet in her home instead of a coffee shop “so we can hang.” At her kitchen table, her vibe is bubbly and happy, post-yoga cute in a soft vintage t-shirt and loose waves of red hair. She looks like she could run a 10-k, film all day, then bake a pot roast for the fam—the epitome of Silver Lake babe. We hugged, then we discussed sex, secrets, the pumping trans heart in her new series, and L.A.’s marine-layer melancholy.

PLAYBOY: How and why did you write Transparent?

SOLOWAY: My dad [whom Soloway now refers to as “my parent”] came out as trans three years ago. My response was I love you. I’m proud of you. I support you. And my second thought was ding-dong: this is my TV show. My next step was to shepherd my parent slowly into this process of writing about what happened in a way that did not harm their privacy. The story seemed to write itself. I felt like a stenographer. The characters existed before the show. I just had to listen for their voices and listen for what they want.

PLAYBOY: Your parent was at the premiere in the row across from you, beaming. What was that like for them?*

SOLOWAY: I asked them: Do you feel like queen of the world? I think they are very excited. When you are in your 70s and you think—I can’t I can’t I can’t—and to then look into the world and say, I did and look what happened in the world when I did. I just can’t imagine how that feels to them. There is a lot of joy, but it’s also intimidating to them, I imagine.

PLAYBOY: Are they intimidated by all the attention the show is getting?

SOLOWAY: I think maybe the world is more ready to be trans then they are.

PLAYBOY: Stopping on the word ‘trans’ for a second—Is Maura a transsexual, a cross dresser or a trans woman?

SOLOWAY: So, let me clarify: there is something called the transbrella, and there is conflict around the question of whether cross-dressers are welcome under that transbrella. Problems around identifiying happen around ground-zero locations like public restrooms and other gendered spaces. Some trans folk believe that cross-dressers are problematic because of the part-timeness of their gender expression. Trans women need to feel safe, and they don’t want their access to gendered spaces harmed by a cross dresser who appears to be a man in a dress. So that said, is Maura a cross-dresser? A full time cross-dresser? Genderqueer? A trans woman? The gender she expresses is not the gender she was assigned at birth. This conversation is exactly what we’re excited to bring to the world through Transparent. But no matter what, Maura is trans.

PLAYBOY: The trans question is intricately weaved within layers of identity on the show: queerness, Jewishness, bi-ness, and class. Where do these points meet specifically?

SOLOWAY: A lot of the things that have been these separate braids for me can really start to come together in the show through the characters. The best way to name the spiritual thing behind all of this is the love for otherness. The upper-middle-class part is there because I am bad at fantasy. I couldn’t write about politics or dragons if there was a gun to my head.

PLAYBOY: As a landscape that creates tone and character, what do you think Los Angeles added to Transparent?

SOLOWAY: What’s beautiful about LA besides the warmth is that you can feel a palpable love for sadness. I have a few names for it: I call it the Marine Layer Melancholy. June Gloom. On the West Side, the sadness gets translated into consumer culture and Kardashian hatred. On the East Side there is a smoginess that dilutes the sharpness that can feel a little bit like Spain—blur your eyes a little bit European. There’s a slowness that can feel a little bit South American where people move a bit more slowly. I think that Woody Allen had melancholy in New York that was Jewish and that was his, so my version of it in L.A. is sort of that musical texture I bring to the imagery.

PLAYBOY: On the set of Afternoon Delight, you brought actual sex workers and strippers to play strippers working in the club. In Transparent, you have brought in the queer, trans community as crew, writers, actors. Trans artist Zachary Drucker makes a recurring appearance as a support group leader. What are you hoping to accomplish with this?

SOLOWAY: I’m trying to upend the hierarchy. When I treat extras like they are friends and artists, it freaks people out. They say things like “What is she doing?” You’re not expected to make eye contact with the extras, let alone be their friend and talk to them about the fact that they are artists. I specifically talk to extras about creating art and thank them and say I am grateful for the ability to make art that day. I ask them to go to their risk place. I try to inspire them.

PLAYBOY: Transparent calls into question the very idea of desire and secrets coming out into the light and being claimed or acted out. What are other big ideas marched out in Transparent?

SOLOWAY: The idea that everybody wants to have sex with everybody. Everybody is attracted to everybody. We know that men want to fuck women. A lot of women want to fuck men. Many women want to fuck other women. And some “straight men” secretly want to fuck other men. The character Ali in the episode where Maura comes out to her—she talks about the slut being the vessel that allows to men who want to fuck in the same room. This idea was about porn and asking straight men who watch porn: Do you have trouble looking at another man coming when you are coming?

PLAYBOY: It seems like what is also being challenged in Transparent are secrets and sexual boundaries in the show—knowing where I end and you begin being so important in the characters. What would you say is the pumping heart of Transparent?

SOLOWAY: The traditional conception of power is on its way out. There is something about being okay with ourselves that really privileges the other. The pumping heart of love is in the show is this: What if you had to feel for everybody? Where would war, violence go if you had to love everybody?

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Soloway wrote to clarify that she uses the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ to refer in singular to her trans parent, and the interview has been updated to reflect that.


Antonia Crane is a Los Angeles-based writer, teacher, performer and author of the memoir Spent. 'Influencers’ is Playboy.com’s series on people who are changing the game—whatever their game is.


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