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EXCLUSIVE: How Jill Soloway Is Planning to ‘Topple the Patriarchy’

by Stacy Lambe 9:25 AM PDT, September 23, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

“Topple the patriarchy,” Jill Soloway said while accepting the award for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series at the 2016 Primetime Emmys on Sunday at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. Those three words quickly became a rallying cry for women and unheard voices, a defiant and proud hashtag on Twitter. It’s also a mantra of sorts for the creator of Amazon’s Transparent. They were the same three words she said during a conversation with ET at the Crosby Hotel in New York City ahead of the awards show.

“I have huge ambition,” Soloway says, when asked about becoming a Shonda Rhimes of Amazon (or “a Normal Lear,” she suggests), where, in addition to Transparent, she has produced and directed a pilot for I Love Dick -- the new comedy starring Kevin Bacon and Kathryn Hahn is currently streaming and awaiting pickup -- is developing a musical comedy with writer Ethan Kuperberg and is set to co-write and direct the coming-of-age film Ten Aker Wood. “I think as many shows as I can manage to put under our little Topple -- our production company, as in topple the patriarchy -- the more shows we can do about people who normally haven't been the subjects of television, then the better.”

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“When you take women, people of color, trans people, queer people, and you put them at the center of the story, the subjects instead of the objects, you change the world, we found out,” Soloway said at the Emmys during her speech, adding: “I always wanted to be part of a movement -- the civil rights movement, the feminist movement -- [and] this TV show allows me to take my dreams about unlikeable Jewish people, queer folk, trans folk, and make them the heroes.”

Those heroes, specifically on Transparent, which returns for its third season on Friday, Sept. 23, are the Pfeffermans, led by Maura (Jeffrey Tambor, who picked up his second consecutive Emmy for the role), a transgender woman, who, in her 70s, came out to her ex-wife, Shelly (Judith Light), and three kids, Sarah, Josh and Ali (Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffmann, respectively).

Photo: Amazon

The show itself is loosely based on Soloway’s family and her transgender parent, Carrie, who she and her siblings call “Moppa, which we got from the show,” she says. “A lot of the show is Soloways and a lot of the show is Pfeffermans.” Season three plays on the dynamic of each parent figuring out their role in the family.

Episode three, “To Sardines and Back,” co-written by Jill and Faith Soloway, sees a lot of that dynamic play out in a rare group scene featuring the entire Pfefferman clan and Maura’s “chosen” family members, Davina (Alexandra Billings) and Shea (Trace Lysette), and girlfriend Vicki (Anjelica Huston) all gathered around the dinner table to celebrate Maura’s birthday. After getting a makeover and a hairdo strikingly similar to Shelly’s, Maura, no longer satisfied with being called “Moppa,” asks for a new name, much to her ex-wife’s horror.

“My Moppa actually loves the name ‘Moppa.’ She hasn't asked for a new name,” Soloway says, but concedes that “the feelings of Moppa versus Mom -- who gets more attention -- is absolutely something we experience in our family,” which weighs heavily on the characters in the episode. “We also played Sardines in my house,” she adds, referring to the game of nighttime tag seen in the episode.

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It’s also a pivotal moment for season three, setting up much of the show’s story arcs for the remaining episodes. Shelly’s obsession with her “brand” takes hold, Sarah finds out she’s been rejected from her the board of her temple, the seeds for Josh and Shea’s romantic interlude are planted and Ali is left wondering how deep feelings run between her and girlfriend Leslie (Cherry Jones). “I made a big grid. I had all the characters down the left and the beats of the scene that I filled in to help the actors stay on track,” Soloway says of directing the episode. “It’s like I’m in NASA, sitting in the control room, trying to make sure every star and every single astral plane is getting attention.”

But as director (or writer, or producer or creator), it’s not just on Soloway to deliver a great show. That she does already, as the critical praise and eight Emmys have demonstrated. Rather, it’s on her to expand the narrative. And in Transparent’s case, it’s not just telling a transgender story, but hiring and nurturing transgender talent at various levels of production.

“It's absolutely incumbent upon all writers, directors, creators who have privilege -- whether it's coming up as white writer or the privilege of coming up as a middle-class person -- it's important we all absolutely need to identify, find, hire, train, groom, distribute and promote people who haven't had access to the voice,” Soloway says. “And that includes trans people, of course.”

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Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst have served as producers from the beginning, and Silas Howard has directed three episodes. Our Lady J joined as a writer in season two after participating in a workshop for trans writers and has written two episodes. “Being in Hollywood for four years at that point, I had heard so many directors -- they had taken me to lunches, saying, ‘You know I want to write a trans story’ -- and it never came from some place personal. It always felt exploitative,” Our Lady J says. “Jill was the first director that I met that it didn't feel like that.” She also appeared in season two with breakout actor and model Hari Nef.

Soloway’s date to the 2016 annual Directors Guild of America Awards was Lysette, to whom she wanted to pay it forward. “I was thinking about a couple of women who reached out and helped me in. I remember Diablo Cody saying, ‘You’re ready to direct,’ and she wrote something for me and I made it for Funny or Die. Jamie Babbitt was like, ‘You can do this,’” Soloway said on the red carpet at the time, acknowledging that her female peers -- not her male ones -- were the first to give her an opportunity. (Season three's directors were predominantly women, with two were directed by Howard.)

“After my first movie, when I hadn’t really done anything yet, Jane Lynch brought me to this red carpet as her date and just said, ‘Let’s do this together so you can be recognized as a director,’” she continued. “That’s why I brought Trace Lysette with me tonight … I wanted to use my opportunity to allow other women and queer people the opportunity to be seen and known.”

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Newcomer Alexandra Grey, who appears in season three’s first episode, “Elizah,” and has since been cast on Laverne Cox’s new CBS legal drama, Doubt, was discovered by Soloway at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, where Amazon and Transparent was the only financial backer for trans pride. Soloway says Tambor also teaches acting classes at the LGBT Center to transgender and gender nonconforming people.

“We take very seriously making an attempt to look into the larger world to find people who wouldn't necessarily already have these giant, successful careers and making sure we're helping trans people find their way in,” Soloway says. “They want to be able to create their shows, they want to direct. They want to write, they want to produce, and they should have the opportunity to.”

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