December 16, 2018

Festival Honoree Jeffrey Tambor Reveals How ‘Transparent’ Brought Him Back to His Jewish Roots

Jeffrey Tambor has won two Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for playing transgender matriarch Maura Pfefferman in the Amazon Prime series “Transparent.” On Nov. 5, he will receive another honor: the Israel Film Festival’s Achievement in Television Award at the festival’s opening-night gala at the Steve Tisch Cinema Center at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.

In a telephone interview with the Journal, Tambor, 73, discussed the tribute, the ways playing Maura has changed him, and how a fictional trip to Israel in “Transparent” reconnected him with his real-life Jewish roots.

Jewish Journal: What does this award mean to you?

Jeffrey Tambor: When I first got the news, I was shocked. I was really stunned by it. I went, “Aw, shucks, do I deserve this?” But I will take it! It’s such a huge honor. I thought of my mom and dad — they’d be so pleased. I saw the [clip] reel they put together and it’s astounding. But what stood out was the number of weight changes I’ve had. And you can see the hairline recede.

JJ: Have you attended the festival before?

JT: No. And I’ve never been to Israel.

JJ: Didn’t you go there to shoot “Transparent” this season?

JT: We weren’t able to go because of scheduling and shooting reasons. Only a second unit went to shoot some external scenes. The [Western] Wall was built on the backlot at Paramount. No one would have known. As a Jew, I wanted to go [to Israel] so very much — it’s a life goal. But I felt as if we did go. And I felt changed by it. That moment at the Wall was one of the most astonishing days of my acting life. I completely burst into tears because they made it look so authentic, with the background artists praying against the Wall. It was very transformative, like an awakening. This whole year [of “Transparent”] got me more in touch with my Jewish roots, shocked me awake. It’s ironic that Maura led the way, but I’m much more connected than I’ve ever been.

JJ: Do you go to synagogue? Pray more?

JT: No, I have my own way of expressing my Judaism. I’m just more in touch, more interested, more spiritual. My connection is much more strong.

JJ: What memories stand out from your Jewish childhood?

JT: I went to cheder [Hebrew school] in San Francisco at Temple Beth Shalom in the early 1950s. We put a quarter in for planting trees [in Israel] every week. My bar mitzvah ceremony was beautiful but a little stressful. It was a long haftarah. I could read Hebrew well, but I opened the Torah for the first time and there were no diphthongs or vowels, like we studied in cheder. And nobody told me that the congregation would say “amen” at the end of each phrase. That threw me off track. So I went off book at my first performance.

JJ: What does it mean to you to star in the most Jewish show on TV?

JT: People come up to me and say it’s spot-on. I love it. Sometimes we’re allowed to ad lib a little bit and these Yiddishisms that I didn’t know that I knew come out. In one scene, I was signaling to Judith Light and I said, “Farmach da pisk.” It means be quiet, shut your mouth. I’m channeling my parents, who spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want me to know what was going on.

JJ: Where would you like to see “Transparent” go from here?

JT: I don’t know — I ask them not to tell me because I want to be surprised. What I can say is what Maura finds out this season about her family will change her and connect her more to her Jewish roots. The whole family is transformed. It’s a journey, a road. We all start out in ignorance, thinking we know where we’re going, but we don’t. We all think Judaism is this or that, but it’s older and wiser than I or my character ever knew.

JJ: “Arrested Development” is coming back to Netflix. Any details?

JT: No, but I can say that it’s [creator Mitch Hurwitz’s] best season yet. It’s hilarious. He’s pulled out all the stops. I think playing Maura has given my acting strokes a little more color, and I think Oscar and George [twins played by Tambor on “Arrested Development”] are better as a result. We’ll finish in a few weeks, and around Jan. 29, we start the fifth season of “Transparent.” So this is a very interesting time for me, a very lucky time.

JJ: You have some movies coming up. Tell me about “Magic Camp.”

JT: I play the owner and head magician. I’ve never done magic, and it was not done with special effects. I had trouble. I remember the rabbit in the hat looking at me like, “Just pull me out, schmuck!” There was a certain trick with a cane that drove me crazy. But they trained me and I got pretty good at it. A magician came to the house to work with me and he performed for my family. It was one of the most wonderful afternoons we’ve ever had.

JJ: You’re also the voice of God in the animated film “Adventures of Drunky.”

JT: It’s the story of Job. My God is a little ironic. He’s Old Testament with a malevolent, satiric bent. I did a play called “J.B.” in college, by Archibald MacLeish, and I played Job. I went from Job to God.

JJ: Did you ever think you’d have so much success later in life?

JT: When I was in repertory theater in Detroit, Mich., another actor read my palm and said, “It’s going to happen for you, but very, very late.” Boy, was he right. Now I get the pleasure of playing Maura. What an honor. I thought it was going to be Lear, but it’s Maura Pfefferman. I’m very lucky. This is what I wanted to do all my life. I think we all come into this life for a purpose, and sometimes it gets revealed and sometimes it doesn’t, but I’m glad I answered the call. I have a wife and four kids — 12, 10 and twins, 8 — and just watching them evolve is one of the deepest pleasures of my life. They’re my teachers and my inspirers. I couldn’t be happier.