Jeffrey Tambor has a specialty – playing unlikeable characters in a way that makes them, well … likable. There’s Hank Kingsley, the sidekick from the Larry Sanders show, who can best be described as cloying. There’s George Bluth Senior, the dysfunctional patriarch who made a fortune building houses in Iraq for Saddam Hussein. And then there’s Maura Pfefferman.
“I think she’s still a teenager,” Tambor said about Maura, who celebrates her 70th birthday at the start of the show’s third and most recent season.
Maura has one thing in common with George Bluth Sr. — she’s the head of a dysfunctional family unit, with three adult children who are wildly self-absorbed. Maura, too, is selfish, often ignoring the needs of her family members on her journey of self-discovery. She can be moody and volatile, vulnerable and loving –- she’s not the perfect trans role model some might expect, or want.
“What’s remarkable is that every day of her life, she’s changing; she changes literally every day,” Tambor said. “But remember, she is a 70-year-old person walking into the LGBT Center, where there aren’t a lot of people her age. I know what 70 is, and it’s not 30. The only thing I know more than the writers is there’s a loneliness in that, when you’re of age, you see things differently. It’s a different vantage point.”
By the time we reach season 3, Maura is already transitioning — she’s wearing women’s clothes, she has a supportive group of transgender friends, and she’s in a relationship as a woman with a woman. But something is missing. Early in the 3rd season, she announces to her family that she’s decided to go through the final part of her transition: gender reassignment surgery. “Face, breast, vagina,” she says.
Tambor remembers that scene well.
“I remember being a bit apprehensive about it,” he said. “But that all played into the scene – the actor being nervous about it and of course, the character being nervous about it.”
As it turns out, being a male actor playing one of the first female transgender characters on television is not an easy task. There’s a lot of pressure.
“I’m actually nervous-adjacent playing Maura almost everyday,” Tambor said. “I always want to get it right.”
Tambor has faced some criticism from trans groups who don’t feel he should be playing the role. “There’s the tweet that says ‘how dare you,’’’ he said. He has to be careful and hyper-aware of the way he portrays the transgender experience. And he’s worked hard to be seen as an ally.
When he won his second Emmy for his performance as Maura last year, he said, “I would not be unhappy were I the last cis-male actor to play a transgender woman.” And he meant it.
“Things have changed dramatically,” he said. At the time, it was appropriate for him to be cast as Maura, he jumped into the role immediately. But “the entire world has changed” since then.
And so has Jeffrey Tambor’s life. “It’s not only changed my career, but it’s changed me as a human being,” he said. “Honestly, when you’re given Lear, you have to up your game. And when you’re given Maura, which is the equivalent, you have to up your game. Plus, I really do love her.”
Loving Maura, knowing her as a real person with real fears and needs, is part of what makes Tambor’s performance so special. He’s had to figure out how to get into the mindset of a woman who wants to undergo gender-reassignment surgery — “she’s a woman, she wants to become who she is”– and next season, he’ll be exploring a new scenario for Maura … dating a man.
“I like to be artistically threatened,” he said. “It’s good for the hand to shake.”
Jeffrey Tambor is nominated for an Emmy his performance as Maura for the third year in a row. And his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was unveiled today.
Featured image: Amazon Prime Video.