A few weeks ago, I wrote about Mark Ruffalo’s major misstep in creating a movie about trans people without casting or consulting any trans people. The same day I published the post, I got an email — would I like to talk to Silas Howard, Transparent’s first trans director, about the issue? A big fan of Transparent, I of course said yes — and snuck in a few questions about season 3 as well. Please note: This interview happened just before the Emmys, which means Jeffrey Tambor hadn’t yet said that he would be happy if he was the last cis man who was cast to play a trans woman, and Jill Soloway hadn’t yet said that she would cast a trans woman to play Maura Pfefferman if she were casting the series now.
How did you get involved with Transparent?
I knew Jill [Soloway] from writer friends we had in common. I reached out to her when I heard that it was happening and she met with me. For season 1, they ended up deciding to have just one other person directing, but then they brought me on for season 2, and I came back for season 3. I got to do two episodes for season 3, and I had a consulting producer credit.
Before you came on and you were watching season 1, did you feel like the show was what you had hoped it would be?
It was much more. Pardon my language, but it was queer as fuck. With queerness on TV, you have to do it in a certain way — we call it the “explaining phenomenon": as long as you’re constantly explaining your otherness, you earn your screen time. You don’t get to be just a fucked-up human, because that’s not interesting if you’re not a white dude, apparently. But Transparent was so queer, and it felt like a new language in the evolution of character on TV.
There’s such a discussion about how Jeffrey Tambor is a cis man playing a trans woman. How do you feel about that — do you wish a trans actress had gotten that chance?
It’s a complicated question. Jill says that when she cast Jeffrey, it was because her parent was a late transitioner and Jeffrey always reminded her of her parent. And also, when talking about transitioning later, it’s a different relationship to gender. I transitioned later, so I lived as a gender-nonconforming, female-identified person for most of my life, and that really informed how I moved through the world.
Trans people need more access to creating shows from the ground up, not just casting. I want a day when trans actors can play cis roles, too. But we’re not there, so I don’t want to reduce it by saying, “Oh, everybody should play everybody,” because that’s not what happens. In a perfect world, we would have equal access. So it is painful.
What Transparent has done, though, is that Jill brought on consultants — Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernest — and she brought on a trans woman in the writers’ room. She brought us all in so she could be accountable every step of the way. It is amazing to be on set where there are trans people all throughout the production. And I will say that Jeffrey is so present and vulnerable — he’s just phenomenal.
When talking about the whole Mark Ruffalo situation, for example, how do you think they could have gone about that in a better way?
I believe Mark has reached out to Jen Richards [the Emmy-nominated actress, writer/producer of Her Story, and trans woman who called out Ruffalo on Twitter] — who I’m doing a project with, by the way. But they could certainly have started by going, “Oh, I fucked up, I didn’t mean to.” Good intentions are great — I’ve had them myself, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s difficult to go, “I was wrong in this situation.” It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, it means I did not know something outside of myself.
I think what has to happen is that trans people are considered first and foremost for any role that’s about a trans person. Starting with that as the first priority would have saved them a lot of difficulty. It’s also about financing and movies, and all of that is not an easy fix — it’s a whole system that needs to value story over celebrity in the financial structure.
You’re working on a project with Jen Richards?
We’re doing a project with the MAC AIDS foundation — they brought me on to direct a documentary series that follows six different trans characters. Being trans is a big part of my identity, but if I were listing things, it would be like writer, director, bad guitar player… We’re flipping that script, so we have a black trans minister in a mostly white congregation in Massachusetts, and we have a defense attorney who had all these clients on death row who she had to go talk to because she didn’t want them to feel like their cases were compromised by her transitioning.
I really wanted to highlight those stories to show a more integrated approach instead of a bubble of trans-ness where it’s like, “I’m just a trans person running around talking about trans things.” That’s not really what we do in our day-to-day. Nobody does. And we did a PSA-style “Trans 102” video that’s a really fun, direct-to-camera, array of amazing rock stars in the trans community talking about different things, like media representation and health care.
Do you feel like, as Transparent’ s first trans director, you’ve had to become a spokesperson for trans people?
Definitely, there’s that pressure. But I’m a director first, and the stories I tell come from my cumulated experience of my life and film. It’s weird because I’ve been directing for a long time, but when you get access to a show as amazing as this, it’s like you’re just born in the eyes of the media. I’m not a spokesperson as much as someone like Laverne Cox is, but I’m just so grateful that she’s an activist.
You know, visibility doesn’t necessarily translate into access or safety. While there’s more visibility, there were more trans women killed this year than any year before. I’ve personally lost friends to suicide. It’s a bit of a mindfuck. The youth are still struggling so much. They need our help, so it’s a little bit hard, but they need us to be visible, and it’s important for me to say that I’m a trans person and this is my experience. I try to do that through my work and to tell the stories that are really important.
And of course, we have to talk about season 3 of Transparent.
In this season the Pfeffermans, in a very Pfefferman way, really do confront white privilege. And what really makes the show work is that is it’s so grounded in this family and how each person affects the other. I know one thing Jill has talked about through the character Shelly is that when one person in a family transitions, everybody does. That’s true in families, and it’s true in our communities, and it’s true with the people next to us at work. Coming out of hiding is a big thing in season 3. I directed episode 2 and episode 4, and I did the whole sequence of the turtles in the walls of the Pfeffermans, which was the funnest thing to make.
I was reading an interview with you that you did with Vulture where you talked about how Transparent doesn’t use the male gaze, it uses the feminist gaze. What does that mean?
Jill just did a keynote speech for Toronto International Film Festival and she talked about the female gaze in this incredible way. It’s about not being the object. You can feel the difference when you watch something — the male gaze is when you see a woman and you’re looking at her in a certain way because the camera is placed in a certain way, but with the female gaze, the camera is placed with a certain emotional response in the way you’re looking at it.
When people say that it doesn’t matter who’s behind the camera, like that whole thing with Matt Damon and Project Greenlight — that’s such a male thing! Of course it doesn’t matter who’s behind the camera when you’re always behind the camera, or your buddy’s behind the camera. To me, the female gaze is a completely different approach — and maybe it’s the female gaze or the queer gaze or it’s not gender-specific — but it’s about flipping the narrative of who’s owning that camera and what it’s telling us about how we look at things and how we feel about them.
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