Interview: 'Transparent' Stars Gaby Hoffmann & Jay Duplass On Exploring Non-Binary Relationships
On Friday, the fourth season of Transparent was released on Amazon Prime. We spoke with Amy Landecker (Sarah Pfefferman) and Rob Huebel (Len Novak) about lack of boundaries, filming kinky sex scenes, and turning L.A. into Israel. We also got the chance to talk to Gaby Hoffmann (Ali Pfefferman) and Jay Duplass (Josh Pfefferman) about the new season.
Below, we chatted with them about how the backdrop of Israel reflected on their characters, exploring non-binary relationships with the world, and how Trump's election affected the new season.
(Spoilers for season four ahead)
What was it like being on set after the election? How did the cast and crew react to the significant change in the country?
Gaby Hoffmann: I think this was our hardest season. And I think that although the unsettledness and fear and anxiety and anger and emotionality of a Trump America wasn't necessarily the subject of the season, the conscious subject of our feelings was a huge force.
Jay Duplass: Yeah, we do this box thing every morning. Do you know about this thing? It's a lot. [Laughs.] Before we shoot we have this wooden box and the whole crew and cast gathers around, and anyone can get up and say whatever they want. And people talk about cancer, or they just talk about their kids having a milestone. And what it kind of does is, it brings the whole world into the room, the energy of the world as it's happening.
We work on a very socially activist set, you know? We have lots of transgender people working with us, people who are just non-gender conforming in general. And so, the energy of what people are living through is put right into the scenes that day, which is incredible. I mean, the fact that we take 30 minutes or so to do that, no one does that. And so, beyond the fact that Jill invites us to include our psychic energy into what we make, we also sort of take in everyone else's and we just let that affect what we make and how we make it. So it affects the humor and it affects the tone of everything that we do. That sounded really pretentious, but it's fucking cool.
Gaby: That's true.
Because of Trump's sort of immediate hostility toward the transgender and LGBTQ community, was there a sense that the show has a different mission or attitude at all this season?
Gaby: I don't think the mission changed. It just might feel like it has even more immediacy because we've taken such giant steps backward when, in previous seasons, it felt like everything was moving forward. Maybe not as fast as we wanted it to, but at least there was forward motion. You know, I think the mission of humanizing those who are being dehumanized at every level right now is what our mission has always been, it's just...the stakes feel so much higher.
The Pfefferman clan take a big, intense trip to Israel together this season. Even though the trip is only like a week long, just about every family secret that has been lingering over the last couple years seems to come out there. Both of your characters are on slightly different, parallel journeys, but I think for both of the characters, the trip to Israel provides a really fascinating insight into where they're at. I was wondering how you thought the backdrop of Israel, and this constant conflict that's going on there, reflected on their journeys this season.
Jay: I think Josh's purpose for being in Israel, and for this season really, has to do with his mother and his mother's abuse, and how that relates to him and how that relates to Rita, his dead babysitter, who he's still in a relationship with. I think in a nutshell, that's what he's doing there. And I think he doesn't really know why he's there. I think for him, he has got this momentum towards healing himself at home and he gets pulled away and has to go to Israel. He feels like it's a distraction, but it ends up being the thing that opens the door for him.
There are a surprising amount of parallels with his relationships with his mother and Rita that come to the forefront this season, especially with Shelly's predilection for kissing him on the lips...
Jay: The fact that I've made out with my mom more than any other person this season? [Laughs.]
Yeah, I was going to say, this is probably Josh's least horny season.
Jay: For sure. He's depressed. He's chubby, he's not dressing in a fashionable way. He's doing the work and it's not pretty. So it's very different season for Josh for sure.
It feels as though, even towards the end of the trip in Israel, he's still protecting his mother. He has that big, beautiful moment at the Dead Sea where he lifts her up and carries her in. So much of his story is about escaping, I think, the way that his relationship with his parents have negatively affected him. But that moment, especially the way that he then draws strength from her at the end of the season, it seemed like a positive thing, even if it is from a messed up dynamic.
Jay: You saying this right now makes me feel really good, 'cause it means that you got it.
Gaby: It means that it worked.
Jay: I think personally as an actor, I was working with a lot of ideas that Jill and I discuss abstractly. Ideas about Josh trying to become a man, not knowing what that means. Stuff that I've told Jill about my own life, where I'm confused about what being a man means in my own life, like I've respected women more than men and it's been confusing for me. And this idea of what society's idea of what a man is and, without giving away the inner momentum of the show, Jill and I have talked about being present in relationships. But on a surface level, I think Josh sees his mother as the most endangered Pfefferman and I think he might be second in line for total cataclysmic, just epic depression. Vulnerability and darkness, you know?
And I think Josh feels like he can harbor his mother and help her. He obviously doesn't know what happened to his mother and the connection that they have. So I think on a surface level, he's just trying to help his mom be okay. And if he can do that for her, then maybe there's hope for him. I think that's really where he's operating from and it does relate to Rita and it does go somewhere at the end of the season. And I'm just realizing it all right now in a pretty cool way, how it all comes together. It's a light touch. I think people will feel it. I don't know if they'll be able to articulate it as well as you just have, because I couldn't. [Laughs.]
Well thank you. For Ali, she's off on her own exploration of identity and gender this season. She seems to be hovering toward being non-binary, though she never exactly says that, it's just her family who starts speculating about it. I'm not sure if it's appropriate to assume anything there.
Gaby: I mean, if we start talking about appropriateness in relationship to the Pfeffermans, well... [Laughs.] But yeah, she's been pin-balling around for three seasons, living over here, having sex with these kind of people, living over here, looking like this, trying this out, putting this on, trying this out, asking, "Who am I? Who am I? How does this feel? How does this feel? How does this feel?"
She's really diving in wholeheartedly into all of this, which is what we do to discover how we feel about the world and ourselves. And I think that she's reached a point at the beginning of this season—with all the things we talked about earlier, with that building anxiety of the state of the world. She's at her job and her newfound career and there's a fucking poem about her pussy circulating, like, "This place doesn't feel good at all, in any way, and nothing I've been trying to do is working and I still don't know who the fuck I am or what I'm supposed to be doing. And I've got this family..." Living in her family, in the basement of her family house, with the German guests upstairs, It's just...it's not working.
She's closer to where she wants to be, but I don't even think she realizes that yet. And I think that the arrival in Israel/Palestine and the confrontation with the conflict and the binary that exists there with that is an opportunity that she really takes on. She's so excited and turned on by this group of people that she meets who are probably the first people we've ever seen her engage with who are interested and activated by something outside of themselves. She is so lit up at those dinners and that place with those people, I feel like it's another Ali that we've seen maybe in sexual encounters in the past, where there's some energy, but something is new in her and I feel like her move toward non-binary or gender queer is actually less about being non-binary and more about not labeling herself as anything. So the family can do it, but she's like, "I don't want to exist in this world where there's this binary that we can apply to everything and seems to be the source of all of this pain and conflict. And it's happening here. And it's happening in America. And everybody is pitted against each other."
What does it mean to do away with all that? Then we're just left with the truth of who we are without these labels and walls and compartmentalized ideas that are so fixed and so unreal. She just needs to be still and tear down all those walls and see what's there, and start from that. So I see it as less of, "I am now making an announcement that I identify as non-binary," and more, "Don't put that shit on me. Let me just be and see what that means." I have no idea where it's leading, but I think it's a starting place. It's not the revelation.
It's the step towards the revelation.
Gaby: It's the first step toward a true journey of self-discovery that will lead toward, I'm sure, many revelations.
There are so many rich parallels between Ali's journey and that place, which helps explain why she is so energized by this group of people. They're trying to break down these physical and mental borders, and she then is able to apply that to herself. It unlocks something. I guess that was what she was searching for.
Gaby: Yeah. And the stakes are high for them in a real way. But the stakes are high for her too, you know? And if we all can apply those kind of stakes individually to ourselves, then we're working toward a true awakening of consciousness. And I don't think she knows that yet, intellectually, but I think she feels it.
'The personal is political' personified. I think one of the important scenes for Ali comes in the first episode during that very hectic, very dizzying family gathering, when she has this flashback that, when I first saw the episode, I didn't quite understand how it all fit in. I wondered whether she was molested or something, but by the end of the season, my interpretation was that this was her connecting with this sense that she always felt a little out of touch with her body and her own identity. And the people around her were the ones dictating that or trying to lead her toward something.
Gaby: Right. It's like what I meant when I was saying, "Don't impose all this shit on me," right? She's having an experience that is, in and of itself, confusing. And then she's got people telling her what it means, what to do, how she's supposed to behave based on who she is and what gender she is, and this constant commentary that is imposed. It's biological, of course, but it's also cultural and sociological and political and those are the things that are, I think, the forces that she is trying to quiet and eliminate by sitting on that land all by herself and not having to be anybody and not having to hug anybody and not having to have that commentary. I don't know how long she's going to sit there. [Laughs.]
Doesn't she have a job to go back to?
Gaby: Well, that is a very interesting question. She just walked away from that. Her students are still like, "hmm..."
The impetus of the journey for her is very much escaping the problems of her life in L.A.
Gaby: Yeah, but I think one of the themes of this season was the old tricks aren't working for the Pfeffermans. I think of Josh going to Dr. Steve and being like, "Okay, give me that [pot]." And Dr. Steve's like, "Oh, no. I don't do that anymore and that's not what you need." And by the end of the season, Sarah and Len are like, "Okay, that escapism of [polyamory] isn't working." And Ali is just out of ways to escape in L.A.
I wanted to ask about the Dr. Gunderson scene at the end of the season. Was that just a summation of this spiritual journey she is going on at that moment? Why did she stay in Israel?
Gaby: Yeah! She is literally searching for God. And my personal belief, as Gaby, is that God is within all of us. She may think that God is a person who has a name somewhere in that place, [Laughs.] so she has to stay in that place. But I think actually where Dr. Gunderson is leading her is to herself, alone, quietly.