If there’s one thing Melora Hardin, who famously played Jan Levinson on The Office and is up for an Emmy as Tammy on Transparent, can do, it’s really melt down onscreen. And in the case of Amazon’s critically acclaimed series, that skill earned Hardin her first nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.
“I said, ‘We have to write something next year that makes the critics notice Tammy,’” Hardin tells ET about an email she sent creator Jill Soloway after the show received multiple Emmy nominations in 2015. Transparent, which tells the story of Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a family patriarch who comes out as a transgender woman, uprooting the family’s sense of identity and place, took home five Emmy awards for season one, including one for fellow guest star Bradley Whitford. “She writes back, ‘I’m going to write you your Emmy episode.’”
“And then she really did it,” Hardin says, almost in disbelief that Tammy had her watercooler moment when the character confronted ex-wife Sarah Pfefferman (Amy Landecker) at their former home.
In season two, the couple goes from bliss to horror in less than 30 minutes (of television time) as Sarah recoils in regret over her decision to marry Tammy. It sets straight-laced Tammy (the most masculine character on the show, according to Soloway) on a downward spiral. What transpires is one of those great acting moments, as a drunk Tammy stumbles through a party, lobbing insults and eventually throwing their wedding cake into the pool.
Soloway, who directed the episode, “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump,” which happens to be the same episode that earned Judith Light Emmy attention for her role as Maura’s ex-wife and mother of their three kids, instantly recognized Hardin’s achievement.
“I completely remember the moment where I was like, ‘That was fantastic. You just got yourself an Emmy nomination.’ We're going to do it again,” Soloway says with a laugh.
“What I tried to do as a director there is to not get a performance out of a person, but instead make the party feel real and let Melora stay in connection with her tool, which is her body and her voice, and keep a crucible of safety around her so she knows to go there,” she adds. “Then she did go there.”
“She is so freeing,” Hardin says of Soloway’s directing skills, adding that her confidence helps lay the groundwork for all the actors to deliver their best work.
A second-generation actor (“I had parents that really taught me the craft,” she says), Hardin has been working since she was a toddler, first appearing onscreen on the NBC anthology crime drama Police Story when she was 9 years old, before going on to appear in just about every one of your favorite TV shows, with recurring roles on USA’s Monk and The Office.
Hardin’s knack for meltdowns was first perfected onscreen over a series-long arc as Jan, a successful corporate executive who eventually sinks to candle-making out of a condo she shares with Michael Scott (Steve Carell), later getting breast implants and surprising everyone with a baby (and uncomfortable mothering skills). One of Hardin’s moments happens during “Dinner Party,” a season four episode that saw Jan’s contempt for her life with Michael boil over in front of her former work colleagues.
“I think people like to watch me unravel because Jan and Tammy have an outward sort of perfection about them,” Hardin says. “And they're similar in that way that they have a very together facade and when they don't, it's heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time.”
“As the actor, I recognize the hilarity and the heartbreak of it,” Hardin continues. “Then I have to get completely inside of it and just be completely committed to what that means to them in their truth. In their lives. In their reality.”
While there was Emmy buzz for Hardin’s work as Jan, she never earned any individual recognition for the part, though she did collect two Screen Actors Guild awards for the show’s ensemble wins in 2007 and 2008 and “Dinner Party” earned a Emmy nomination for writing.
Yet, Hardin does feel like her current nomination is a nod to her previous work. “It’s also saying that we loved you as Jan -- and a lot of other things that you’ve done,” Hardin says. “I’ve been doing this all my life. I’ve been working since I was 6 years old and I’ve never been nominated for an Emmy.”
And despite that personal attention and success, Hardin recognizes winning is bigger than herself. Portraying a member of the LGBT community on a show with a transgender character as the central focus, a win is “a greater discussion than just me,” she says. “It’s really about opening our arms to a faction of our society that has been mistreated and is still mistreated.”
“I feel so grateful that Jill embraced me as Tammy and then that others do too,” Hardin says. “It’s quite amazing.”