Interview: 'Transparent' Stars Amy Landecker & Rob Huebel On Kinky Sex Scenes & Turning L.A. Into Israel
Over three seasons filled with inherited trauma, queer politics, and Jewish neuroses, the ridiculously narcissistic and perennially-searching Pfefferman clan has annoyed us and endeared us to them in equal measure on Amazon's wonderful Transparent. For the fourth season, which was released on Friday, the intensity of the Pfeffermans became almost claustrophobic when the entire family headed to Israel, and family secrets just started tumbling out one after the other.
In the first of two interviews with the cast, we spoke with Amy Landecker (Sarah Pfefferman) and Rob Huebel (Len Novak) about the lack of boundaries in the family, what it was like filming kinky sex scenes, turning L.A. into a stand-in for Israel, and the importance of stories about trans people in popular culture. "That's why we're in Israel," Landecker says. "Jill's trying to talk about this original conflict, this never-ending conflict that somehow there's a border and you're different. How are we ever going to get out of that? We still haven't. It's not going to be easy, but we've got to talk about it."
(Minor spoilers for season four ahead)
One of the big themes of the season is boundaries, and the lack thereof, within the Pfefferman family. Why do you think they have such problems with these sort of structures, with knowing when to pull back?
Amy Landecker: Well, if you look at Shelly... [Laughs.] If that's one of the two matriarchs... Shelly is like a force of nature [when it comes to] boundary crossing. I think families learn their own systems from their parents. I think between Maura's secrecy and Shelly's neediness, you learn to lie and cross boundaries. I think that both of those things are going to be talked about this year.
Rob Huebel: You even had that line, right?
Amy: I said something about how "lying is a boundary," which I think is really interesting. That you need privacy, because everyone's in your stuff.
Rob: You're lying just to set boundaries, so that people can't figure out what you're hiding. Yeah, it just seems like they're very curious about each other's shit all the time .[Laughs.] Everyone wants to know how fucked up the other one is.
Amy: I mean, there's a deep love in that, too.
Rob: Yeah, for sure. It's like wanting to be close but wanting it too much. They're just too intense. They're just an intense family.
Because of the nature of this season—with everyone going to Israel together—there were more family scenes this season than I think there have been ever before. One of the things I thought was really wonderful was how it captured the noise and the chaos and the intensity of what it's like when everyone is together. What is it like filming those scenes?
Amy: It's so fun. I think Jill [Soloway] had shown us clips from a movie called Krishna before we started this year, which has that sort of vibe. We have like a workshop before every season, and we were told that that sort of vibrating buzz was going to be part of it. You see it throughout this year—the swirling of familial energy. This is a very tight group of people who really worship each other. It's weird.
Rob: That first episode, for sure, is very heavy like that. It's almost like a dream.
Amy: When we come into Josh's place?
Rob: Yeah. It's just like a lot of chaos and people talking over each other.
Amy: We have an incredible composer, Dustin [O'Halloran], who did all that music. If you look back, like when we get on the bus, it's happening. There's a lot of scoring this year that's bringing out that kind of heartbeat underneath everything. But it's always really fun because we miss each other. It took awhile to get to those scenes. We were shooting separately for a long time, you and me and Alia [Shawkat, who plays Lila]. I didn't see Gaby or Jay or anyone for the first month. I thought, "Where is everybody?" Then we got to Israel, and it was really fun. We want to hangout together all the time.
Rob: For the audience too, I feel like people really respond to that, people love that about the show. Seeing everybody together is always special.
Amy: It's like the first barbecue scene in the pilot, which people always reference.
Rob: Just like that wedding photo scene [Editor's Note: that scene kicked off season two], where everyone's getting situated, and it's all like one long shot. It's a quick way to catch up on everybody. You can kind of see a family portrait, you can see what's going on with everybody.
Rob, you have been a little bit on the margins of the family up until now.
Rob: Yeah, I never know if I'm going to get killed off. [Laughs.] Get cancer or something.
What was it like going full-Pfefferman this season?
Rob: It was really fun. Obviously, just personally being with everybody, it's a really fun group of people to shoot stuff with. I feel like I never really know what I'm in for, like I'm a little bit of a passenger sometimes. Even in the story, I feel like I'm always kind of a passenger to whatever [Sarah Pfefferman] wants. I feel like Len is mostly about indulging whatever she needs. I think that comes out of a love. We have kids together, and we have this history together and everything. So we're trying to work things out, whatever that takes. In this season, it's like, "Okay, if you want to have a three-way with someone, I guess we'll try a three-way." [Laughs.]
It seems like you guys would share the award for the horniest Pfeffermans this season. [Laughs.]
Amy: Well, there's a true story that I turned down the audition for the show because I didn't want to do on-camera sex.
Rob: Is that true?
Amy: Yes! You never heard this story? Jill asked to have lunch with me. At the time, I'd probably done a few guest stars in shows and films. I was like, how the hell does Jill Soloway know who I am? But she'd seen me on Louie and she grew up listening to my dad, he's a disc jockey in Chicago. She saw this scene in Louie in this episode called "Bully," and she's like, "That's Sarah." She always casts like that. She's very intuitive. It doesn't matter who anyone is, it's if she had the vision. Actually, Jill's parent is very similar to Jeffrey, if you meet them both. She always said, "It was always Jeffrey, it was always Jeffrey."
But anyway, she took me to lunch. She's like, "Why don't you want to do my show?" I said, "I just don't really feel comfortable doing on-camera sex scenes." [Laughs.] She's like, "Well, I think you might find it different with a female director. Will you watch my movie Afternoon Delight?" Which I absolutely was obsessed with. Then I was like, "I'm in, I'm in, I'm in." Now every year, I'm like, "Jill, are you subconsciously torturing me for that?" Because nobody has more on-camera sex on this show than I do. [Laughs.]
Rob: That's so funny.
Amy: This season was the most. I think we had five sex scenes...they even cut one. We were going to do a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon one swinging from the rafters. We were going to do a dream sequence threesome, no joke.
With Lila's swing?
Rob: Yeah. We were going to like fly from that.
Amy: Yes, that was going to have silks, rope. We had stunt coordinators coming in.
Rob: We had several meetings on how to have sex on wires. We were really trying to figure it out. Finally, it was like, this is going to cost way too much money. It's going to take like a month.
Amy: Well, it also was the amount of time. It was getting absurd. The scene that was the weirdest, I thought, and the hardest in a weird way, was the FaceTime-ing one. Which, first off all, I want to give you an inside scope which is hysterical. We lose our connection with Alia, and the screen freezes, you know? That's actually just Alia acting frozen. [Laughs.] She's so good at it that they never even changed anything. She's like, "Uh, uh, uh ... Uh, uh, uh." We never did stuff [like that] together really, through all the seasons. So it was like the first time that Rob was like really on me from behind. I was like, "What is Rob doing?" It was weird. That was the weirdest one.
Rob: But it's also like...they're not sexy.
Amy: They're silly.
Rob: There's a fucking guy with a boom two feet away.
Amy: Plus, most of them have some comedic element to them. Like you pushed my face down. As we got into it, it got funnier and funnier. But I walk in, and the stand-ins are in the position, and you're like, "This is a weird day."
Rob: You know it's going to be a weird day at work when you get to set and the stand-ins are already naked. [Laughs.] "Oh, is that what we're going to do?"
Amy: In doggy style position. "So you're bent here, and he's in you from behind." "Okay, thanks!"
Does it feel more comfortable doing these scenes with female directors? Do you feel like it's a safer environment?
Amy: For sure. I think that's why I've gotten pushed to places I would never normally go, because I feel so safe. And the editors on this show are so kind and careful. I've never seen an edit that I thought was exploitative in any way. I've always thought they edited it so well, and I really was safe. So it's not just the directors, it's also the people who choose what are the shots that they're going to use.
There's such a yearning, searching quality to the Pfeffermans and their journey that can be both beautiful and frustrating. Do you feel like Sarah is someone who's almost in an arrested state of adolescence, where she's still learning about herself?
Amy: Totally. We were talking about this last night. When someone transitions or someone comes out as gay or there's a huge shift in life, you sort of go back to your adolescence, because that's where you started lying and keeping things secret and having sexual desires. I think that even Sarah supplanted her own desires because she was supposed to be straight and in a marriage and a mom. Of course, she had this affair in college with Tammy, who comes back [in season one]. But also, her parent being who they are, inspires her to say, "What else about me am I keeping down? Am I not allowing myself to have a life?" An adolescent is very much not really in touch with that. They're trying to figure out who they are. So I think that's a perfect description.
It's probably subtle and no one notices, but we play with changing Sarah's look every year, like how teenagers change. It's like, now I'm goth and now I'm this and that. Sarah's not sure. She's like bohemian this year, we were doing Lauren Hutton in American Gigolo. I think it's trying on identity. I think the reason that transness is something that we can all relate to is also that idea of finding identity and finding how we want to present ourselves to the world, and how we want to be related to. That's an adolescent journey, exactly.
Rob: Talking about your character, I do feel like Sarah's just an unsatisfied person. Just like chronically unsatisfied.
Amy: I think unsatisfied people, though, are kind of what move culture. They're important. They're annoying and you want to kill them, but they push things. They need to seek.
Speaking of adolescent moves, do you think that it was inappropriate that she sparked this connection with Lila through the sex addiction group?
Amy: Yes. To me, it's also hysterical.
Rob: Don't we say it at some point, "she's barely a sex addict."
Amy: Of course Sarah picked up someone at the twelve step meeting. That's the part of her that makes everybody crazy. That's the boundary crossing. That's not uncommon, I've heard, in SLA. I know that's got to be hard, when you have a bunch of people who have a proclivity for—
Rob: What are the rules for a real sex addict, can you not go out with each other?
Amy: You're not supposed to, but no one's in charge of twelve step programs. You're basically bound by your kind of agreement.
Rob: So it's just a fuck fest. [Laughs.] "Well, we're here. Why waste time? Let's do this."
Amy: I love that she uses it as an excuse when Len calls her out. She's like, "It's an anonymous program," to cover up how she met her. That's the thing too, people ask, "When are the Pfeffermans going to get healthier?" Well, that's not interesting. You don't want Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm to become kind and warm. That's not funny. I don't think Sarah should ever totally stop her highjinks, otherwise I think we're done.
It's hard to imagine anybody in this family totally figuring their shit out. How do you guys feel about where Len and Sarah leave this season? Are they in a better place than when they started?
Rob: Well it ends on cliffhanger, so it seems like things are about to get complicated.
Amy: Yeah, I think so too. [Laughs.] I think we had a really good moment. We had some really loving times, but I think it's hard to sustain a three-way and a marriage, I would imagine.
Rob: We don't know what's going to happen with that little cliffhanger situation. Things could get pretty complicated, fast...I wonder if we should murder Alia's character?
So like the Friday Night Lights season two method?
Rob: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.]
Just go full-Landry.
Rob: That would be so funny if our characters just took on this crazy storyline.
Your story just turns into a murder mystery.
By the way, what was it like filming in the Dead Sea, and filming in Israel?
Amy: We did not film in Israel.
Rob: That's some movie magic.
Amy: We were going to go to Israel, and it got like really complicated, and there was a lot of political stuff going on at the time. I think we felt like it would be too rigorous to be in the actual Dead Sea and at the Wailing Wall. So we had these amazing production designers who replicated the Wailing Wall when you used the green screen, and we replicated the Dead Sea.
Rob: There is some stuff shot there, the B-roll. When you see Israel, that is Israel. But we weren't there.
Amy: For the Dead Sea, we were in a big tank, and we wore floaties that matched our bathing suits. We wore big diapers so it looked like we were floating.
Rob: Are we bumming you out?
No! I mean, I was just really curious what it was like filming there, especially since I haven't been myself.
Amy: I wish I had experienced it.
Rob: You know, it's very salty. It's so easy to float.
Amy: That's what they said. They're like, "Trust us, you don't want to be there... " And also it's really hard to maneuver cameras in that kind of situation. They needed more rigging. But most people can't tell. It's pretty cool.
I couldn't tell at all.
Amy: Our settlement is like Santa Clarita. Our Bedouin camp is Simi Valley. [Laughs.] I did ride a camel. Those were real camels.
Rob: All of that is real, it's just like crazy locations in L.A.
Amy: We had a bunch of Israelis and Palestinians. They're so many people living in L.A. It really felt like we were somewhere else.
Rob: That desert stuff, the Bedouin camp, that was a sand mine in Simi Valley, where they mined sand for golf courses. Way out in L.A. It looks like the moon. We were walking around, it's like, "What is this?"
Amy: There's no cell service at all, which is so rare now. So when we were on set, it really felt like we were in another country. There were all these animals. It was really fun.
Rob: You might recognize that camel from his Geico commercial. That's the same camel. [Laughs.]
Amy: Is it really?
Rob: Yea! He goes like, "Hey, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, what day is it? What day is it?" He's like, "It's hump day." Or something like that.
Amy: Oh my God!
Rob: He's a very famous camel.
I knew he looked familiar.
Amy: Someone said to me something about how the Pfeffermans like humping and so we must like the camels. I'm like, "Oh man, that's a bad pun."
If I'm not mistaken, you guys were filming right after the election, right? What was it like on set during that period, and how did Jill handle it in terms of talking to everybody?
Amy: You know, we did one table read, I don't know if you remember, where we literally sat in silence for five minutes afterwards without anyone saying a word.
Rob: Yeah, we read the script. I forgot which episode it was, but it just hit everybody so hard. Literally, there was like five minutes of silence. Of people just thinking about, like, oh fuck, we are fucked right now.
Amy: We're like everything that a certain part of this country that's gotten a voice recently thinks is wrong with this country. We are in this sort of utopian world where people love and accept each other and create art, and the two don't make any sense to me in the world. The fact that people feel threatened by the people who we are telling the stories of is beyond comprehension. When you get close to people who've been through the journeys that trans people have been through, I've always said, It's such a generalization, but: a class of people that's discriminated against everyday they walk out the door is a class of people that's stronger, kinder and more compassionate than anyone you'll ever meet. Because otherwise they would be in constant turmoil.
They have to be able to accept people's anger. They have to be able to accept people's judgment. They have to be able to strive and find ways to function in this society that doesn't accept them. So those are the people that we work with, that we love, that we're finally getting a voice in Hollywood, and we're getting jobs. Caitlyn [Jenner] came out, and the whole country was waking up. Laverne Cox is like a fucking judge on America's Got Talent. You just think like, "Here we are. We did it. We're doing it." Then this administration comes in and some of the first actions taken were stripping away protections of people legally. Then saying, "We don't want you to serve in the military, either." It makes us all want to weep. It's fucking infuriating.
Rob: I think Jill said something last night, too. It really does make things feel more urgent, as far as the show goes. Because we were all thinking that the country was moving in the right direction. We had an awesome president with Obama, and then suddenly...
Amy: We had the first openly trans person serving in the White House. We went and premiered season two at the White House. That's where we were.
Rob: Yeah. So now it feels like it's taken a big step back. But I actually think that it's this smallest minority [to blame]. It's just old, white men that are like, "B-but, not, uh, no." I think the truth is that the majority will overwhelm this minority of old men.
Amy: The only way to really educate people is to see stories. I think we learned about being a gay woman by watching Ellen. We learned about being a gay man by watching Will and Grace. We learn about transness from Transparent and Orange is the New Black. But especially Transparent, because we tell the story of a family and people who just function in the world. They're not under any particular duress. They're just human beings living their lives. I think that's how people open their minds, and that's why the storytelling feels so important.
People don't feel like they know trans people, and we need them to know them so that they're not afraid of them. Just like every other transition we've ever had to go through culturally to allow people who are different than us, to accept them. It's always through knowing them. If you look at people in this country that are afraid of Muslims and gay people, they're living in communities where there just aren't that many.
There's no exposure.
Amy: There's no exposure. It's all about access. It's all about integration. That's what this show is trying to do. That's what we're doing on set. We talk about that all the time. I have more access to trans people than anyone else I know. They've just been separated. Once you get to know them, that's how we heal everything. That's why we're in Israel. Jill's trying to talk about this original conflict, this never ending conflict that somehow there's a border and you're different. How are we ever going to get out of that? We still haven't. It's not going to be easy, but we've got to talk about it.