Hollywood veteran Jeffrey Tambor is in the spotlight for a role so challenging that it made his legs shake
It's late March, just a few weeks before ''Transparent,'' the hit Amazon streaming series, begins filming its eagerly awaited second season. The show’s Golden Globe-winning star, Jeffrey Tambor (B.A., '65), who plays a retired college professor and family patriarch making a late-in-life gender transition -- from male Mort to female Maura -- might be enjoying some well-deserved downtime.
Yet Tambor is hard at work. He's shooting a movie in Georgia (''The Accountant,'' with Ben Affleck), keeping up a relentless publicity schedule for ''Transparent'' (''We just came back from Australia, where it's being received beautifully by the way,'') and, when his schedule allows, playing the college circuit with his one-man show, ''Performing Your Life: An Evening with Jeffrey Tambor.'' He says he performs the show simply because he gets a kick out of talking to young people.
Then it's back home to Cross River, N.Y., for ''bathies,'' bed and story time for the 5-year-old twins Tambor shares with his wife, Kasia Ostlun, with whom he also has two older children, 8 and 10.
''And -- hold your laughter 'til the end,'' Tambor adds, ''I'm writing my book.'' There's no release date yet, but fans should keep an eye on the new-releases table at Skylight Books, the Los Angeles bookstore that Tambor owns with friend Kerry Slattery(attended '62-'64), an acting classmate at SF State.
''I had great teachers -- not only in the theatre department. My physics teacher was brilliant. My Shakespeare teacher was brilliant. It was just a magical time for me.'' -- Jeffrey Tambor
If Tambor seems stretched thin these days, he's doing exactly what he wants, and -- from all appearances -- enjoying every minute.
''This is one of the most delightful times of my career, and certainly one of the most delightful times of my life, so I keep saying, ‘Don't wake me from this dream,''' Tambor says in a wide-ranging interview that touches on how playing Maura has changed his life, why he loves a ''high diving board in life'' (''I love being a little scared''), and his devotion to SF State. ''My manager called and said, 'Oh, your college wants to interview you. Is this high on your list?' And I said, 'ab-so-LUTE-ly!'''
With an IMDb page that seems to scroll without end, Tambor is one of Hollywood's most sought-after TV and film actors, and a regular on the Broadway stage. Though he has taken critically acclaimed dramatic turns -- opposite Al Pacino in ''…And Justice for All'' and on stage in ''Glengarry Glen Ross,'' for example -- Tambor’s forte is comedy.
Anyone who has watched ''Mr. Mom,'' the ''Hangover'' films, ''Something About Mary'' or ''The D Train'' has witnessed Tambor's comic genius. It flowered early, on the Little Theatre stage at SF State, during Tambor's days as a fledgling student actor -- somewhat hobbled by a lisp that he overcame with help from Professor of Speech and Communication StudiesJoseph Miksak. ''He cured it in about six months,'' Tambor says. ''I wouldn't be an actor without that guy.'' At SF State, Tambor was part of a vibrant theatre community that produced a number of luminaries, among them two Tony Award winners: the Broadway director Daniel Sullivan(B.A., '62) and the musical directorPaul Gemignani (B.A., '68).
''Jeffrey was probably -- no, he was -- the funniest guy I've ever known. We were always cracking up, we could never keep a straight face with each other,'' recalls Art Koustik (B.A., '64), a theatre arts classmate who went on to prominence with Orange County's prestigious South Coast Repertory. No less effusive is Sullivan, who shared the stage with Tambor in a student production of ''Volpone.'' He says, ''I saw everything Jeffrey did at State and thought 'he's a genius.'''
Before Maura came into his life, Tambor was best known for two offbeat TV characters. He garnered four Emmy nominations as the sycophantic talk-show sidekick Hank ''Hey, now!'' Kingsley on HBO's ''The Larry Sanders Show.'' As the sublimely ridiculous George Bluth Sr. on Fox's ''Arrested Development,'' Tambor earned two more Emmy nods -- and a devoted cult following.
Hank Kingsley, George Sr. and the rest of the motley crew of weirdos from Tambor's film and TV oeuvre may be off the air except in reruns, but they remain part of his life.
''One of my 5-year-olds woke up the other night and came to the side of the bed,'' Tambor says. ''And I said, ‘What's wrong?' and he said, 'Daddy, it's Halloween in my head.' And I said, 'Honey, it's always Halloween in daddy's head.'''
With ''Transparent,'' though, Tambor is riding a new wave of popularity with a character far more serious than those who built his reputation. Maura's face is etched with the heartache of a lifetime spent ''dressing up like a man,'' as the character says in the coming-out scene with her elder daughter, Sarah.
Critics rhapsodize about the series and audiences find it deliciously binge-able. Since premiering in fall 2014, ''Transparent'' has won an armful of trophies, among them two Golden Globes, for best comedy and for Tambor as best actor. In an emotional speech at the 72nd Golden Globes, Tambor dedicated his award ''to the transgender community.''
''I'm becoming more educated about this area myself, but I am a huge ally of the trans community, and it is a privilege to be a small part of the change,'' Tambor says. ''And people seem to want to hear it. It's in the zeitgeist, it's a civil rights issue, and I'm big on civil rights.''
''Transparent'' follows the Pfefferman family -- divorced parents Mort/Maura and Shelly and their three self-absorbed adult children -- in the wake of dad's announcement that he plans to start living life as a woman. Tambor got the script in 2013 but didn't bother to finish reading it before deciding to take the part.
''Here I am at 70 years old and I get this gorgeous role, Maura Pfefferman, who -- at 70 -- makes a break for her authenticness,'' Tambor says. ''I really like her. She's like a good friend to me.''
Tambor says he was determined not to play Maura as a trans cliche. ''For instance, the coming-out scene with her older daughter, that weighed heavily on me. I wanted to do it right, truthfully and humanly.'' To learn how to ''inhabit a transitioning character on her maiden voyage,'' Tambor says he worked long hours with trans consultants Jenny Boylan, Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker.
''They gave me invaluable assistance, but it was mostly talking about the subject, learning about the subject and reading,'' Tambor recalls. Then, one day, ''They said, 'Let's go on a field trip, and I said, 'Let's!' So they came to the hotel when I was just beginning the role, and we talked for a long, long time, and then we made Maura up and we dressed Maura up and we went out dancing in a club in North Hollywood. And, on another field trip, I said, 'I want to take her shopping. I want to do something very ordinary.'''
''My legs would shake because I was very, very nervous, but I realized quickly that people don’t really look at you,'' Tambor says. ''But it was very instructional for me, because I was hypersensitive -- terrified, actually. I remember saying to myself, 'Don't ever forget this, because this is what it's like to be Maura.'''
Tambor, the 2009 alumnus of the year, insists that he never would have been an actor in the first place were it not for the University's theatre arts program, which he describes as ''magical, very warm and nurturing,'' with an ''enormously talented faculty'' that at the time included Creative Arts Dean J. Fenton McKenna and Professors Jack Cook, Alex Flett, Dale Mackley and Thomas Tyrrell.
Curiously, his first introduction to SF State came not as an undergraduate but as an 8-year-old. Tambor’s family -- his father was a flooring contractor, his mother a housewife -- lived in Park Merced, across the street from the University, and as a youngster, Tambor used to wander onto campus. One day, he stumbled upon a student production on stage at the Little Theatre, and immediately fell in love.
''I just sat down in a darkened theatre and watched it, and I couldn't breathe, it's so beautiful. I just thought, whatever it is they're doing up there, this is what I want to do.''
By ANNE BURKE /// Photos courtesy of SF STATE THEATRE ARTS