On Amazon's new dramedy Transparent, Tony and Emmy-award winning actress Judith Light plays the ex-wife of Jeffrey Tambor, whose character just announced his transition to Maura. His adult children—Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann)—find out one by one, but Judith's character, Shelly, is non-plussed when her kids confront her. "It's his little kink!" she says in the trailer, which is the perfect example of how flippant Shelly can be about serious subjects.
"It’s like whatever—you’re doing whatever, go do whatever you gotta do," Judith said in character with her best Jewish mothering voice during a Transparent press day. "But a lot of that is to cover over so many other feelings she has going on. The issue for her is that Mort wanted to be Maura and so the devastating information of that, because he wasn’t there for her anymore, was the problem for Shelly. But the real truth of it is is that Shelly loves them for who they are."
Amy Landecker and Judith Light
Shelly's relationship with her children is comfortable but still strained because she has unresolved feelings about her marriage and divorce.
"We’ve been talking, too, how the fact there’s this other mother so there’s this mother/daughter relationship with Maura and there’s this mother/daughter relationship with [Shelly]," Amy said. "And I think one of the things when we first starting exercising our relationship in this Joan Scheckar workshop, I kept just wanting to hide from her because she’s so—her character, her way to try to get you is to bombard you. [She’s] almost like a whirling dervish of energy. And so the kids kind of—but then when I see her actually being hurt. There’s a scene where Josh is really laying into her, and I immediately come to her defense. I’m sure a lot of that can relate to us with our mothers. It’s like when you’re on me it’s like “Oh my god.” But if it’s someone else, 'Don’t you talk to my mother like that!'"
Judith said the Shelly/Sarah relationship is a special yet complicated one, as Sarah is the first born.
"One of the things that we talked about a lot in this show is that I’ve been very much the absent mother and extremely narcissistic mother—person who really needs and wants desperately to connect and has absolutely no idea how to go about it and ends up getting the exact opposite result of what she actually really wants," Judith said. "And so whatever closeness we have is complicated by this dynamic of something that we didn’t know that was always in the 'space' of my husband, Mort, who actually always really believed she was a woman. So our relationship is very fraught in many ways."
But when Sarah comes out to Shelly about leaving her husband for her ex-girlfriend, Tammy, Judith says Shelly has no reservations. She's totally OK with her daughter's decisions, and has supported her queerness since she met Tammy during a family Thanksgiving years before. Judith also teased that there is lot's of "lady girl sex." "And the two of them together are gorgeous," she said of Amy and Melora Hardin.
"There’s plenty of lady girl sex and yes, she’s with the family often," Amy said. "I go full into—in episode 2, I go full into Tammyland. The rest of Season 1 in Tammyland. Tammy runs Tammyland and she’s hysterical. She adds a perfect dimension to the family and we had a very hot summer, I’ll say that."
And while Shelly is remarried to a man who is dealing with both dementia and aphasia, she is still reeling from her relationship with Mort and now Maura.
"There’s this deep and profound love there and that’s never gone away. Because of the stuff that you see in a flashback—I mean really Shelly has had more time to process a lot of it," Judith said. "The fact that she, Maura, is now dressing like this for all the world is news to Shelly. But the other part is not the news for her. So you’ll see in the flashback this upset that takes place in their relationship is in the past. In the trailer you see, the kids come back and they say, Dad’s dressing up like a woman now.' And I say, 'That’s his little kink! Everybody has a little kink!' So you know there’s not a lot of process like the kids are having to go through now. This has happened, the process. What’s new is how much Shelly has never let go of him, and now her. So we’ll see how their relationship—in the second season, what transpires."
Amy said her character's relationship with Maura, though, starts out pretty strong but takes a turn when she is going through her own life-altering process of leaving her marriage.
"His ability to be open and bold makes her go, 'Fuck it—I’m gonna do that!" Amy said of Maura's transition. "Jill and I talked a lot about—there’s always that first reaction to really big information and for some it’s acceptance and it’s all fine and later you deal with, 'This is a massive change in my life.' So, you know, as we go along in the season, I kind of lose my footing. I sort of start in a very solid place and then lose it more and more because I think you have to deal with all of those changes. Not just Maura but what happens when she leaves her husband, what happens when you go into a relationship you think is going to solve everything and you’re still there. So I think she gets—she moves farther away from him actually as the first season goes on. It starts very intimate. People have seen the first couple of episodes, it looks like a very loving relationship with him. Which I think is true too but I think she starts to realize she’s going to have to do deal with the intensity of this shift not just with him but with herself."
Amy Landecker and Melora Hardin
Judith and Amy both have a background in LGBT activism, and Judith calls her being cast on such a progressive show "divine choreography."
"I think Jill knew that I had been involved in some way," Judith said of director Jill Soloway casting her in the role. "I don’t know how much she actually knew." Judith began her activism back in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis.
"My friends were dying of AIDS. It was really very straightforward, very simple. And when we saw a lot of the work I’ve been doing—my managers and I have been doing that work for forever, from mid-80s when the pandemic really hit. What started to happen was we saw how profoundly and devastatingly homophobic the country as and how nobody was talking about it. And so, to me, it was like, 'Those people are my family. You’re talking about my—they’re in the hospital. They’re on their last leg. They can’t tell their parents they have AIDS or come out to them. And you’re not doing anything, and you’re not saying anything?' And people said 'People may not watch you' and I got letters after doing this movie The Ryan White Story' that said 'I’ll never watch you again.' I thought 'OK.' Really!"
Judith has never stopped her support as an ally, and has also maintained an incredibly successful acting career in television, theater and film. She said she's been inspired by the LGBTQ community, by the "authenticity and courage and how to live an authentic life."
Judith with Billie Jean King
"You would watch how people came together and you would watch how the lesbian community came to the fore and said to the gay men, 'Get out of the way, let us help you, let us be here for you,' because there had not always been that kind of connection and they were there in spades," Judith said. "I mean we were burying people on the weekends and giving eulogies and going back to the hospital and helping people through Project Angel, feeding them and delivering food and it was just—I watched how the community took what could have been this 'We’re victims and we hate you and get out of our face!” and they were gracious and powerful and helping each other and I said, 'This is the world I want to live in.'"
Similarly, Amy worked with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago before she had to leave for her role in Transparent.
"When I got this job, I was like 'This is like taking the job that I had that I loved'—and I hated leaving, it was my paying job and I said 'I need to leave now, I'm so busy' and they said, 'We’d rather you be famous and make money and come back,'" Amy said. "But when I got this job, I thought this is like getting to do that job and being an actor at the same time. You’re in a civil rights movement, you’re doing something important and you’re getting to be an actor. It’s so sublime."
The people that make up Transparent are as much of a reason to support and watch the show as the content itself. It's like an added bonus that every facet of the series is so damn queer and so damn good.
"And that’s what Jill always talked about at the beginning of every table read," Judith said. "The gratitude we had for being able to do this work and also change the culture in a major way and really talking about the things we’re talking about with you right now."
Season 1 of Transparent is available on Amazon Prime now.