On the Set of Transparent (Or, That Time I was Paid to Be Naked)
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past year or so, you’ve probably heard about the Amazon original show, Transparent, created by Jill Soloway.
Season Two debuted on Amazon this weekend, and my girlfriend and I marathoned it in one sitting. It’s amazing television, delving deeply into issues, concerns, and plotlines that were merely hinted at in Season One. The characters are richer, the plots go further (and deeper into history!), and the show has become even more inclusive, if that’s even possible.
I know that for many trans folks, as written about here at TMS by Marcy Cook, a show that stars a cis actor playing a trans female role will always be a dealbreaker. That’s completely understandable. However, as Marcy pointed out in her piece, trans people aren’t a monolith, and for every trans person who doesn’t like the show, there’s another like my girlfriend who sees herself in it, not just because of her gender identity, but because of the way it delves into Judaism, the way it deals with LGBTQ+ relationships, the way it deals with polyamory and kink. It’s a show designed to give a voice to anyone who feels marginalized because of their gender or sexuality or culture.
And perhaps this is just because I live in Los Angeles, but I know that a lot of the trans community here has embraced the show, not only because it has provided trans actors and creators job opportunities both in front of and behind the camera, but it has used the platform it’s received to shine the light back on the trans community. The show has been a huge presence at Trans Pride events, and at every opportunity, both Soloway and series star, Jeffery Tambor, make sure everyone knows that they know whom they serve. Transparent co-producers Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst not only advise on the show (and have been on-camera), but they developed a supplemental docu-series called This is Me, which chronicles the lives of real-life trans people in Los Angeles, and was nominated for an Emmy. My girlfriend, who was concerned about getting work after coming out, was the production sound mixer on that project.
Is casting a cis actor to play a trans role still shitty? Absolutely. At the same time, Tambor having this one role has translated into many more trans artists being gainfully employed both in front of and behind the camera, which is a huge deal. There are lots of trans people working on Transparent in several departments that deserve support and recognition for their work, too. And this season, there are even more employed than last season.
The Transparent cast and crew are like the most awesome, tolerant, open-minded, queer-friendly, sex-positive family you’d ever want to be a part of! Which is why when Zackary posted on her Facebook that they were looking for cis women to be background performers as part of a Womyn’s Music Festival episode for Season 2, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to get on that set and be a part of this loving community. And apparently, they were paying more money if you were willing to be naked in the episode. So I said, Sure, why not?
Nicotine Patch Woman
When I arrived at the set staging area, I knew that I’d need to eventually get naked (and apply LOTS of sunscreen. We were filming outdoors and there was a heatwave in L.A.), but when the background performers were told that they had to leave everything at the staging area taking only the essentials as we were bused to the actual set, I started freaking out. Was I really doing this? Was I really going to walk around on a set with hundreds of other people wearing nothing but a pair of Birkenstocks? But then I thought 1) it’s a female-heavy set today and 2) film crews have generally seen everything as they sit behind the camera setting up shots, pushing buttons, or getting props. In other words, they could probably care less about my naked butt.
So, wearing nothing but the aforementioned Birkenstocks, my underwear (which I would remove during takes), and a thin robe I’d brought from home, and carrying nothing but a water bottle, I got in the van to set. Having my boob poke out from behind the robe in a van packed with people already had me feeling pretty damn adventurous.
When I got to set, there was a flurry of activity as the crew finished setting up the “Idyllwild Womyn’s Music Festival” a fictional version of the now-defunct Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival which ended this year after notoriously having a “womyn-born-womyn” guideline that excluded trans women in practice if not in theory. And so the episode of which I was a part, Episode 9 – “Man on the Land,” examines that and how it affects Maura and those with whom she interacts.
When I got there, the Assistant Director announced that they were looking for a background performer willing to be naked for a featured bit, and my hand shot up. My hand totally didn’t ask my nerves permission, however. And as I made my way over to where willing participants were being “auditioned,” I continually asked myself what the hell I was thinking.
They needed a Nicotine Patch Woman. When the women of the Pfefferman family arrive at the womyn’s festival, a woman crosses their path wearing nothing but a nicotine patch and sandals was supposed to walk past them, and Gaby Hoffmann’s Ali Pfefferman says “Nicotine patch as accessory. I like it!” So me and a couple of the other nude-willing ladies stood in front of Jill Soloway and were asked to turn around and show our bare backs. Now, I guess I’m an overachiever or whatever, because at this point, I took everything off to ensure that she could make an informed decision. (Also, I legit thought that’s what I was supposed to do). She and the other crew members she was with were like “Whoa! Didn’t need you to show us all that, but I love your enthusiasm. You’re up.”
Wait. So, did I just really wanna be naked in front of hundreds of people? Maybe I wasn’t as shy or nervous as I kept telling myself I was, because my body kept doing other stuff, like volunteering and dropping trou.
As I stood waiting for my “bit,” the other, not nude-willing ladies around me kept telling me how “brave” I was. And I wasn’t quite sure how to take that. A part of me was angry, like Oh, because I’m a fat girl, taking my clothes off in front of people is an act of bravery?! How dare you! But then I realized that it was mostly thin women saying this. In other words, they were calling me brave, because they didn’t feel brave. So maybe I was. I didn’t know. I really wasn’t thinking about it that hard. I was just throwing myself into something I don’t ordinarily do just to see what would happen. It was an experiment. Is that bravery? Or stupidity? Or both?
Suddenly, I was getting completely naked for the first time on-set, and my stomach was doing flip-flops. A fake nicotine patch was placed on my arm:
And as I stood at my mark, Ali, Sarah (Amy Landecker), and Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) arrived and sat in the car directly across from me. They all smiled. Tambor waved and I waved back. The very first thing I had to do on set was be naked across from George Bluth, Sr. It was weird. Hoffmann was standing outside of the car and said, “Hi! I’m Gaby.” I said, “Hi! I’m Teresa. I’m naked.” She must have been very amused by my awkwardness, as she’s been naked on TV plenty of times. But she was really kind, and all three of them were being super-chill and trying to make me feel better.
And then, Jill arrived and directed my butt. Well, she directed my whole self, but she was primarily directing my butt and the nicotine patch, trying to ensure that they were where they needed to be for the shot to be successful. I crossed in front of the Pfeffermans a lot. It was hot, my areolas felt like they were on fire in the sun, and I was quickly covered in a not-so-thin layer of sunscreen and dust which had congealed onto my skin. But it was certainly an experience to tell the grandkids.
The scene ended up getting cut, but you can see my butt in other places throughout the episode – once in particular while facing one of the music stages – and I was touched when my girlfriend picked me out in the crowd. “Aww! You know my butt!” I said. “I’d know your butt anywhere,” she said.
Gender-Neutral Bathrooms, and the Chillest Crew
The thing that stood out to me the most was how comfortable the set was. Not just because it happened to be a female-dominant set that day, but even the men on the crew were super chill, respectful, and knowledgeable about stuff like pronouns and gender. All the bathrooms were gender-neutral, and everyone treated each other with respect and kindness. After a while, I totally forgot I was naked, and I was prancing around chatting with teamsters and it was totally OK. There was one crew dude in particular whose name I sadly can’t remember, so let’s call him Joe. He always happened to be around corralling my group of extras, so he was always chatting with us.
On one of my set days, Joe wore a shirt that said “If it ain’t tight, it ain’t right,” which I thought was awesome. His girlfriend had given it to him! However, about halfway through the day, someone had requested that he change his shirt, because they took offense to it. It’s always so interesting to me where different people’s boundaries are. I’m thinking “tight” like musicians playing a good set together, and someone else will read the same word and think vaginas and patriarchy.
Regardless, he turned his shirt inside out without hesitation or much complaint, because despite liking the shirt, he and the rest of the crew on that set had been trained to be respectful of others, and he valued that. He had “fucked up,” and was willing to change to ensure that the set remained a safe space. I liked that. Even though I also liked the shirt.
The Stars and Soloway
In addition to the crew being great, the main cast was also awesome. The above photo with Hoffmann happened when I asked her if I could take a picture of her. “But you’re going to be in it with me, right?” she asked. “C’mon. Don’t make me pose by myself like an asshole.” I laughed and reminded her that I was naked right now. “So what?” she said. “Come here!” And so a nearby fellow background performer snapped this and other full-body shots of me and Gaby Hoffmann. I’m saving those full-body shots for my memoirs. In any case, I was really impressed by how Hoffmann was the first of the three main cast to reach out and speak to me, and she was totally gung-ho about taking a photo with a random naked lady she’d just met. Very cool. Also, peep that eye makeup game. Shout-out to the Transparent makeup department!
At one point, Amy Landecker came up to me saying “Nicotine patch lady!” I nodded, and showed off my “costume.” She touched it, wondering if it was real, and I said, “No, it’s just gauze. I think it’d be dangerous if it were real.”
I threw my robe back on to talk to Jeffrey Tambor, as he is an actor I’ve enjoyed for a long time (and also a dude), so going up to him naked to chat felt weird. He was sitting with Van Barnes, another amazing trans woman who’s not only been on camera and been in the writer’s room (advising on the role of Davina, played by Alexandra Billings), but she also worked in the set design department. Anyway, they were chatting, and I excused myself and told Tambor that I wanted to tell him how wonderful his performance is on behalf of myself and my girlfriend, and he was grateful to hear it.
Then, I wondered aloud how it feels to know that there are many trans people who aren’t happy with the fact that he was cast at all, and he said, “I think about that all the time.” He seemed at once guilty and hopeful that, despite a trans actress not having his role, that his performance would do some good. He was very conscious of “doing things right” and proceeded to list off a bunch of recommended reading to me about transgender issues that he found helpful when navigating Maura.
Of course, at that moment, I was called to be in a scene, and I immediately had to drop my robe. As I passed Tambor, he joked, “Now I recognize you!” and I was all SHUT UP!
Soloway herself was an awesome, fun, laid-back presence. She’s the type of director who’s so good at directing you don’t even realize she’s doing it until it’s too late. You’ve already been directed. BOOM. And you’re left wondering how that chill conversation you were having with this chick named Jill ended up being a take. She also seemed to be having fun herself, and that feeling was infectious. She was extremely kind to the background performers (a lot of directors aren’t), and she encouraged everyone on set to take risks and be creative.
If you watch the episode, you’ll totally see Soloway Alfred Hitchcock-ing it all over the place, bopping to the music in one scene, and being led around on a leash by genderqueer porn star, Jiz Lee in the next.
And then, on the second day of shooting, the Indigo Girls were there to perform, and after performing “Hammer and Nail” for the show, Soloway asked the crew to turn off the cameras and for everyone to gather round and enjoy an impromptu performance of “Closer to Fine” that was just for us. She was clearly giddy about sharing a stage with the Indigo Girls, and that moment was awesome. Except for the fact that a lot of the younger girls around me had no idea who the Indigo Girls were as I was singing along to every lyric, thus making me feel mad old.
A huge amount of love and joy (and sunscreen, and heatstroke, and dust, and sweat) goes into making Transparent, and I’m thrilled to have been a part of it. Not only did I get to be a part of a show I love, but I did something that challenged me, and taught me that my boundaries are way farther out than I expected. It was an awesome experience.
Even if Nicotine Patch Woman didn’t make the cut.
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