Jill Soloway has worked on some of the best loved shows on television, including Six Feet Under, Grey’s Anatomy, The United States of Tara and, alongside her out sister Faith Soloway, Jane Lynch‘s hosting gig on the Emmys. Last year she wrote and directed her first feature, Afternoon Delight, which was a Sundance favorite and starred Kathryn Hahn as a bored housewife who befriends a stripper (Juno Temple).
Just recently Amazon launched several original pilots, asking viewers to watch and help decide which would be made into series for the online retailer. Jill’s Transparent seems to be a frontrunner based on all of the accolades its received so far, which is great news for the queer community because Jill is telling our stories.
Transparent, which you can watch for free on Amazon.com, follows Jeffrey Tambor as Mort, the the divorced father of three adult children, all of whom are struggling to find happiness within themselves and their very separate communities of Los Angeles. Sarah (Amy Landecker) is married with children, but finds herself thinking of her newly returned ex-girlfriend. Josh (Jay Duplass) is a music producer with some interesting sexual habits. Gaby Hoffmann plays Ali, a lost soul who denies she’s lost at all. Judith Light is their remarried mother, Mort’s ex-wife, and by the end of the pilot, viewers learn that this family has some big changes coming their way, as Mort will be coming about his transition, and there’s no chance you’d want to miss out on watching it all go down.
We talked with Jill Soloway about why she created such a queer family for the show and her new web project called Wifey.TV.
AfterEllen.com: I was just thinking about how before I even watched Transparent, I knew I would love it, and I did! It’s gotten such rave reviews—are you feeling all the love and support?
Jill Soloway: It’s great. I think it’s sort of shocking and really, really exciting. I had just finished Afternoon Delight, and the trajectory I was on before was like, “Try to make something. Try to get somebody to pay for it. And then try to get somebody to show it to people.” And this was kind of the reverse. Amazon is showing it to people and immediately—the distribution is happening up front almost. Not waiting to prove yourself to a bunch of people. Amazon is saying, “OK everybody, who buys paper towels—woman, man, feminist, not, gay, straight, trans, Jewish, not-Jewish, Midwest— everybody, have a look!” And I had this overwhelming four or five days after it came out, just sort of onslaught of love and so yeah, it’s been incredibly, incredibly exciting as a creator.
AE: What was behind your decision to leave the reveal of Mort’s character transitioning until toward the end of the episode instead of hinting at it up front?
JS: That was actually a discussion I was having with Joe Lewis from Amazon. I think in my very first draft I did want to start the episode with her coming out, and that was the one thing Amazon was incredible in terms of notes — but that was a really great conversation with me and Joe about where [that part] lands, when you’re working on an entire season, instead of one episode. Normally if you are working on a half hour, you want the information to come out five minutes in. In Six Feet Under, Dad dies in the first minute and five minutes in, Nate’s asked, “Do you or do you not want to inherit this funeral home?” Then ask all the questions: How are you going to feel about your inheritance as it relates to your experience with death, or near death?” And so I think that was my very first question, because I wrote the script that I brought around to the usual suspects—networks—and in that version, she came out five minutes in. And when Amazon bought it, they said, “We love it—just one change: We don’t think she should come out until the end of the episode.” So yeah, we went back and forth a little bit in a great way, in a really kind of cool way, where it was just me and Joe and we could really go back and forth about the benefits of each, and ultimately looking at that cliffhanger moment at the end of the episode really allowed everyone to ask that question, “Oh my god, what happens next?” I really felt, yeah, the closer to the end, the better.
AE: I think people really responded that way, from what I could tell on AfterEllen. The LGBTQ community can be a difficult one to please. How much did you worry about that and how involved were queer or trans people in the writing of the episode?
JS: I feel like I’m on safe ground as a feminist and I even feel on safe ground with lesbians, at this point. I feel like I have a membership card, somehow, where I can talk about lesbians—like how Sarah is bi, I feel like has been kind of not been addressed [negatively] in any way, which I’m grateful for. The trans stuff is so much more sensitive and I think everyday involved learning more and more about the transgender community. We have three transgender people — two trans women and one trans man—helping us think this through at every moment, as well as queer people. It’s definitely a queer staff. I have felt like I’m sort of in vaguely safe territory around a cisgender actor playing a transgender character in that there are so many different ways of being trans and that medically transitioning is one of the ways, but a lot of older trans women socially transition but never medically transition. It would be a very tall order for me to find an already medically transitioned trans woman with the sort of acting chops and awareness of Jeffrey Tambor that is able to play a trans woman who may or may not medically transition ever. She may not medically transition, but for me, I felt safe in casting Jeffrey. I question whether or not whether she’ll medically transition, there are transexual crossdressers. There are people born intersex, there are people who are queens and kings. So under the trans umbrella are so many different kinds of genderqueer people that I think the notion that somebody that has already medically transitioned is the only one right for this role is not necessarily right. So I feel like there’s a little bit of safe ground in there for me to stand on so far the trans community has been incredibly respectful about the possibility that we’re gonna get this right and should we go to series, we have multiple roles that will be played by trans actors.
AE: That’s awesome. I’m obviously already invested in the Sarah and Tammy relationship. Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to have a woman who identifies as bisexual or queer to be one of your major characters?
JS: I just want everybody to be queer. I kind of want it to be about a queer family. I think, if all goes well, I want Sarah to start questioning around the word lesbian as an identity. I think of Gaby the actress as sort of a genderqueer person with a lot of genderqueer potential. When I look at that shot of her in the mirror I see someone who can really inherit the legacy of genderqueer and what that means in many different ways. Ali is also a queer child. And I think Josh, as he realizes he’s the son of a queer father, will have his own working out to do. I just like queer as an umbrella for the whole family and within it to be able to have those conversations that are even hilarious within the queer community, of whether or not Sarah wants to use the word “lesbian,” or whether to use the word queer, or use the word bi. You know, storylines for a woman going through that feels so exciting and comical and deep.
AE: What was the impetus of setting these characters in Los Angeles?
JS: I think when I made Afternoon Delight, there were various versions of [the script], so when I first wrote [the movie], I set it in Evanston and then our producers were like “Oh, we can’t shoot in Chicago, but we can shoot in San Francisco so set it in Marin,” so Rachel lived in Marin, and the stripper lived in the city.And then when the time to shoot Afternoon Delight was getting close, and it was like, “Hey we gotta make this thing,” I was like “OK, we’re going to have to make this maybe at my house, maybe at my kids’ school. OK I need to make this around my life just as exercise, and see if we can get this script to come in under budget.” And in doing so, I found my voice. I was like, “Just show your world. Your family. The Jewish community. The people you know.”
And in that sort of brutally honest way of writing about m everyday life and putting it into the Afternoon Delight script, I realized that’s my voice for everything, and it was just simple with Transparent. It was like “Oh yeah, a family that has no idea why they’re holding on so tightly to their childhood — they don’t know what the secret is that magnetizes them to their past, and something about this secret has pulsed them all out to different parts of LA—it’s sort of like, shattered like an explosion. One person’s in the Palisades, Shelly is in Marina Del Rey, there’s a kid in Hancock Park, a kid in Silver Lake, and a kid in Koreatown. They’re so far away from each other in a city where you’re allowed to do that but sort of all held together by something. So yeah, LA is so spread out that there’s all different kinds of communities, and it felt like the perfect canvas to express this metaphor about family.
AE: Is there anything else you’re working on outside of Transparent?
JS: The only other thing I’m working on is a website called Wifey.TV. It’s a similar sort of idea about these underserved communities and I feel there was a missing piece for adult grown up women who were aspirational about ideas, who want content that isn’t about fear of not being hot enough, or fear of being a good enough mom but in a context of adult people. So it’s a brand of website we’re missing that’s going to hopefully appeal to all kinds of women—gay, old, young, cisgender, transgender. I think identifying my audience, hopefully, for this show will something I can bring to other things. And so yeah, check out Wifey.TV!