In Jeffrey Tambor's new memoir, Are You Anybody?, the 72-year-old actor reflects on his early days in theater. "We repertory actors were perhaps a bit overinvested—we were derisive of actors who appeared on television or did commercials," he writes. "We didn't even watch television. We were onstage!" And yet, Tambor has gone on to star in three of television's most celebrated series': as Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show, George Sr. and Oscar Bluth on Arrested Development, and Maura Pfefferman on Transparent, Tambor has been a driving force in the revolution that's transformed TV from laugh track sitcoms to the primary medium for nuanced, complex storytelling.
Tambor discusses these standout roles in Are You Anybody?, which comes out Tuesday, in addition to digging into his complicated childhood ("Something happened in the Tambor family; something broke and stayed broken," he writes), his trials and tribulations as a working actor, and raising his young children amid newfound fame. He'll be discussing the memoir with Transparent costar Judith Light at the 92nd Street Y tomorrow night, but we got a chance to speak with Tambor about his eclectic filmography, his "trifecta" of great roles, and, naturally, The Great British Bake-Off.
I've seen a bunch of your interviews and you seem, for the most part, like a pretty private person. But in Are You Anybody?, you do go into a lot of difficult material about your family, when you were growing up. Well, if you're going to tell a story, tell a story, I say. And I don't know if there is anybody who hasn't sat around a Thanksgiving table who can't relate to any of this. I'm interested in people's stories, so I decided to tell part of mine. That's not my whole story, but that's part of my story.
There's a lot I left out. And I took a lot of passes. I never want to hurt anybody, or anything like that.
The memoir focuses a lot on this sort of shame that I think is just part of the human existence. And especially with Transparent, one of the things that has been so fascinating about the show is how naked everyone's shame is. The characters are very flawed in a way that is very real, but this idea of shame, especially in the third season, it sort of permeates the whole thing. Right. What do you think Maura's shame is?
Well, it seems at least from the third season—I think it's the third season—that a lot of it is derived from her shame growing up, there's Maura's grandfather walking in while she's trying on dresses— Oh, I see what you're saying. Because I think one of the great things about Maura is that she has ... She, before anyone in that family, made the move to extract herself from shame and be shame based, and actually went to a ... But now I understand what you're saying, yes.
I'm reading an author right now, a wonderful author. Have you read Elizabeth Strout?
I have not, no. She's a marvelous author. I'm reading her right now. And it's so interesting, what you are saying, it's so universal that we all have a story. Every family has that secret. Every family has that thing where you go, "Shhh, shhh, shhh." So, I decided to give the memoir a little bit of ours, and no one gets hurt. My intention was for connection, not for any other reason.
You mention a little bit about how you've taken some of your mother and put her into Maura. Like the move of clutching her throat. More than that, actually. I said that in the book and I've noticed that, during this season, there's much more of that. Maura's sense of humor. Maura's very funny because of Jill Soloway and her writers. Then add maybe a dash of my own humor, and then, my mother was very funny. Her wit was amazing. And I've noticed that I incorporated that into Maura because I think Maura's actually funnier than I. And has better word choices than I. And better grammar than I.
In the memoir, you talk repeatedly about this fear of being fat and being called fleshy. In Transparent, it's even beyond the issue of gender identity, there's a lot of focus on aging bodies and what happens to your body as you get older and being comfortable within one's body. Do you tap into this at all when you're Maura? Well, there's a wonderful adage in acting that I think is so wise, in that you're stuck with the character, but the character is also stuck with you. I do remember going shopping with my mother, I think the name of the store was Ruth Atkins. I don't know why I can remember that. It's probably because it's not the name. I remember the salesman saying to my mother, "Well, I guess this young boy needs to back up from the dining room table once and awhile." And I thought I was going to go through the floor. So, blame my whole career on that man.
Can you talk a little bit about the controversy around a man playing a transgender woman? In your Emmy speech you mentioned that you would not be unhappy if you were the last cisgender man to ever play a transgender woman. I'm a cisgender male playing a transgender character and that weighs heavily with me. I consider it a great privilege, a great honor. And there's not a day that goes by that I don't feel the responsibility of it and the tap, tap, tap of "Do this right, do this, do this right." And, I think the revolution is already here; it's already happening.
So, moving away from Transparent, you talk a lot in the memoir about how you considered TV this lesser medium. Oh, we spat on it. We couldn't stand it. I remember somebody coming to my dressing room in New York saying they were thinking of a TV show for me, and I laughed at them. And then a commercial! And now, I'm the voice of a burrito.
I'm the voice of a Chipotle Burrito. The world has changed. But, we were arrogant. I mean, even if you did a musical comedy we wouldn't speak to you, at San Francisco State.
The great irony is, you've starred in three of the greatest television shows, now that TV is having its moment. I think the stories are being told now on TV. The other night I was watching a show called Catastrophe. Have you seen this show? It's brilliant. And I remember watching it and saying, "The world has changed." I mean, the world has changed. Theater will never die. That connection will always be. But I think the stories, the real stories, are being told on various screens. And most of them are streaming. I'm glad to have lived in this revolution.
Well you kind of helped create it. I would say that The Larry Sanders Show was, if not the first, at least one of the first shows to really do that. And HBO was just a little baby then. But I remember being very proud of that. And no one knew where it was. I've been on three shows that people go, "How do you find it?" And then they become very successful. I mean when we first started Transparent, people would come up to me and say, "Wow, how do I watch that?" And I would have to instruct them how to get on their Prime membership, things like that. But I kind of like that diving board, as it were.
Are you drawn to shows with flawed characters? Well, I think all three shows on this wonderful trifecta that I seem to have inherited, all three characters—maybe not George Senior so much, but certainly Oscar—are flawed. And I do remember when I saw Hank for the first time, I went, "Oh, I know who that is." I guess you have to be one to know one? Or know one to be one? Or something like that. So, you're drawn to that. And, the characters seem to be true, since we're all flawed. I could just take one of those shows and say, "Well, that's a good career." And that I had three of those, I am the luckiest guy in the room. There's no doubt.
Are there any show on now that you would like to be a part of? Oh, I always do that. I always say, "Oh, I want to be in that." Mozart in the Jungle, I love. I've actually thrown myself at them. I actually did that when I met the people of Catastrophe too. I think someone has to shut me up at these Red Carpet events, because I just throw myself at people, and they go, "You're kidding, right?" And I go, "No!"
But I love actors. I think the world does not know this. I mean they know this, but they don't know this. I went to the theater the other day, and there were these six actors in this play at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles. Six actors doing a play called Citizen, which was about race. These were not household names. But they were some of the finest actors I'd ever seen. There are so many good actors. That's what I love about this TV revolution, is that these great actors are now coming out of the woodwork, and people are like, "Oh my gosh!" You go from Fargo to Catastrophe, to Mozart, on and on. And you think, "I've never seen these actors."
When I was teaching I remember, everybody wanted to have a pilot. But there was only three ways you could go. You could go Channel 2, Channel 4 or Channel 7. And that was it. There were just three ways. And now, there's everything. Am I making any sense?
Well TV now, what HBO and Showtime and Netflix and Amazon are doing, these channels are really putting money and effort into these series. And some seem more like complex character studies as opposed to a plot-focused— And, the dumbing down, the national dumbing-down is over, I think. Shows have got to be smart now. And we don't need to build to the commercial, and build down from the commercial. We don't need to over-explain and we don't need that laugh track.
Why is Transparent marketed as a comedy? Can something really be a comedy if it makes you cry? You know, I can't explain that. I have the same sort of feeling about that. But I don't know what you would call it. I don't know if there's a category for it. I think their thing is if it's a half hour it's a comedy, and if it's an hour, it's not. But you know that [Anton Chekhov]—I don't mean to sound all highfalutin but you know that Chekhov calls his plays comedies?
To Moscow, that's not a gag. But, I think what comedy should mean is ... I think that we should probably call them humanities. You know, half hour humanities. My family was a little like that. We cried a lot in my family. But we laughed hard too. There was a lot of laughter. And, the Pfeffermans are very funny. That's what Jill really does know. I mean, you're laughing at a funeral, for goodness sakes. And then you're crying while they're eating coleslaw.
So, what is it about The Great British Bake-Off that's so relaxing? Well, first of all, there's Mary Berry. I love Mary Berry. And there's just something about it, how they do stuff, all these people, and it's just so funny. My favorite part is not the cakes but the breads. And their characters, I really do love them. I don't really think our American shows are like that. Although I'm a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain and whatever he's doing on CNN. I think that show is magic.
I mean, I love "The Great British Bake-Off." I find it to be the most— What do you like about it? Do you think it's funny?
Well, I like how there's really no competition. There really is no competition.
You win a cake pan, but— I mean that man [Paul Hollywood] ... I don't know if that's his character, or if they're just putting it on so Mary Berry's the nice one and he's the not nice one, but I love that. And then, I like the British. I just like them.
I was in London making a film for Armando Iannucci this last summer and I love London. I love the British. I love their manners. I love their reticence. I love their politeness. But either way, they're great cooks, all of them. And I love how [the GBBO contestants] get on their knees to watch the bread rise.
So you don't talk about this in your memoir, but you were in Muppets from Space. I was.
What was it like going to space with the Muppets? The Muppet actors are some of the best moment-to-moment actors going. You know, you rehearse with them and then, they disappear, these wonderful puppeteers. They go beneath the floor. The floor is raised and they're underneath the floor. They're watching you on a screen and not commandeering all of the puppets. Sometimes there's another person doing like a hand or something like that.
I was in heaven with them. I would do anything with the Muppets. And Dave Beretta became a friend. He played the bear. And I don't think I've laughed like that. I don't laugh. I'm somewhat dour of character. I was screaming at their brilliance. Loved it.
Have your children seen Muppets from Space? I'm not quite sure. My daughter Evie, once, while I was driving her to a class, turned to me and said, at 10 years old, "What is it you do again?"
I think they don't quite ... They'll be watching Tangled, and they'll say, "That's you." And I'll say, "Yup." Or, now I'm the voice of the burrito for Chipotle, they'll go, "Is that you?" And I'll go, "Yup, yup." Or I'll FaceTime them from my dressing room and I'm dressed as Maura.
I think they're trying to put it all together. They know Daddy is an actor, and they kind of get that. But that's a long way of answering I don't know if they've seen Muppets from Space.
Yeah, I was wondering because obviously a lot of the stuff you've done is a little ahead of them. I don't know if I'd show Arrested Development to anyone under the age of 12 at this point, but Muppets from Space— Well my son, who's 12...This is an interesting story. I said to my son, "What are you reading?" He said 1984. Now, he's 12 years old. And I went, "Isn't it interesting that you're reading 1984 and it's a history book. When I read 1984, it was a futuristic book."
And he's reading Asimov, Isaac Asimov, right now. So, I think he'll be okay with Arrested.
And Evie has come with me to the set of Transparent. And she gets it. She just gets it. I tried to explain Maura to her. And she just cut me off mid-sentence and said, "Dad, I understand. You play a character who is more comfortable being a woman."
I think children are like, "Yeah, of course that's how it is." Whereas adults are uncomfortable. Of course they get it. This other stuff has to be taught. These phobias, these hatreds, and these fears. Those are taught.
Okay, so this is my last question. I've been informed that I have to ask this. Arrested Development season 5: is it happening? Do you know that it's everybody's last question? It's happened all day. It's so funny. I guess all the editors are saying, "Don't come back if you don't ask this."
Yeah, they are. It's imminently imminent. That's all I can give you. Ask another question.
Okay. Which character of yours do you think that you personally identify with the most? I'm sure you get that all the time. Well, you know, you're a writer, so you get this. The sentence that you just wrote is your favorite sentence. I would just say, and I hope it doesn't sound glib, that this trifecta that I've been given, I'm the luckiest guy in the room. I love all three of them. I do love Oscar more than I love George Senior. Him, I don't really admire. He's a little too Darwinian and less of heart for me. And so he's in my mind rather than in my heart. But definitely Hank and Maura are in my heart. Oscar is in my heart.
But I do remember, as George Senior, when they were burying me because I was hiding out as Saddam Hussein. They were burying me as Saddam apparently did, and I remember saying, "Wow, this show business is very interesting."
Aren't you glad you asked that question? One more.
Okay. Let's see. These are coming off the top of my head That's always better.
You talk a lot about the difficult relationship you have with Judaism. In Transparent that's a big theme. I'm Jewish and I don't see a lot of television series dealing with how complicated it is like that. It is a comment that I get a lot, that they don't think they've ever seen a Jewish family portrayed as well.
And West Coast Jewish. I can't even describe what that means. But that family that goes out to Canter's and gets the lox and the bagels and the schmear. That's the same family that went out in San Francisco to get that [The Tambors]. And I can't give anything away, but we really get into the Jewish question in Season 4. I'm sorry to do that to you.
Jeffrey Tambor will discuss Are You Anybody? with Judith Light at the 92nd Street Y on May 16th at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $53 and include a pre-signed copy of the book; purchase here.