Judith Light has been a staple on television for nearly 40 years, playing a number of memorable characters -- Karen Wolek (One Life to Live), Angela Bower (Who’s the Boss?), and Claire Meade (Ugly Betty) -- but none more important or as relevant as Shelly Pfefferman on Amazon’s Transparent.
“I feel doubly blessed,” Light tells ET about the role, which has revitalized her career -- just this year, she was nominated for a Critics’ Choice Television Award and Golden Globe -- as well as aligned her longtime activism for the LGBTQ community with her onscreen work.
On the award-winning series, Light plays an aging, neurotic matriarch -- the character seemingly a decade older than her own 66 years -- and ex-wife of Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), her husband who came out as a transgender woman. Over the course of two seasons, Shelly’s been forced to face her own morality, sexuality, and the family’s growing list of secrets as the Pfefferman family comes to terms with Maura’s identity.
“It has always been the story about Maura and her transition, but it's also always been this story about this family and how each one of them relates,” Light says of the show, which asks the question, “I’m telling you my truth, now what is your truth?”
For Shelly, particularly in season two, she’s confronted with her loneliness. “She so deeply needs a connection and has simply no way to know how to do that,” Light says. “In her attempt to connect with people, to connect with Maura, she ends up pushing her away.”
That comes to a head in episode two, “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump,” when Shelly is pleasured by Maura in the bathroom. “There is this more-than-understanding of mature people and their sexuality, which is something we've never seen on television,” Light says of the scene, which has garnered tons of media attention. Though, it’s more than an “orgasm scene” (Light’s preferred description). “I think we're learning about her needs and wants and her desperately trying to connect.”
The moment itself also proved to be the most challenging for Light. “The thing about it is, was Jeffrey and I really needed to spend time talking to each other about what we were both nervous and afraid of,” she says, crediting both Tambor and creator Jill Soloway for creating a comfortable space to film. “When I first read it, I was very nervous. I said to Jill, ‘I'm terrified.’ She just heard me and she just let me talk.”
“You take a risk. You don't know how it's going to come out,” Light says. “I put myself in Jill's hands. We all just held hands before we started. It was very potent and very powerful for all of us.”
What followed was an intimate moment on the set with her, Tambor, Soloway, and cinematographer Jim Frohna. Soloway herself poured buckets of bubbles on the actress, and Tambor took his place on the side of the tub while Frohna handled the camera. Following filming, Tambor sent the actress a text: “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Before the final scene was put into the episode, Soloway pulled Light aside to show her what came together onscreen. “Then I saw it, ‘Oh, this is right and this is important,’” Light says. “Then I said, ‘Godspeed.’ It was a real process. I feel very proud of it.”
That pride also comes in showing that mature people can be -- and still are -- sexual. “We don’t see sex between people of our ages on television,” Light says, proving that audiences want to see honest, authentic storytelling. “If you do something intimate and powerful and truthful and groundbreaking, they want to see it.”