Judith Light Talks 'Transparent' Musical Finale and Wild New Role on 'The Politician' (Exclusive)
“Whenever you have something as impactful as a show -- impactful on so many levels -- like Transparent, it’s important to find some kind of completion,” Judith Light tells ET about the fifth and final season of the Amazon original series, which closes out with a movie musical on Friday.
First premiering in 2014, Transparent was not only impactful, but it was also groundbreaking at the time. Based on creator Jill Soloway’s own family experiences, the series told the story of Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), the Pfefferman family patriarch who comes out as transgender late in life, inadvertently sending her kids -- Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) -- and ex-wife, Shelly (Light), on their own journeys of self discovery.
A hit with the critics, the series earned 11 nominations in its first season, putting Amazon on the map as well as helping to usher in what Time called a “tipping point” for transgender visibility in the media. While Tambor is cisgender -- he won two consecutive Outstanding Lead Actor Emmys -- the series made strides behind the scenes, hiring transgender directors, writers and producers, with the likes of Our Lady J and Silas Howard to go on to earn an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series for their work on Pose.
Then, everything for Transparent came to a halt when allegations of sexual misconduct were made against Tambor, who maintained his innocence, leading to the dismissal of the actor. How would the series continue on without Maura, whose transition and life as a transgender woman was central to the story?
The Amazon series pushed forward, however, with Soloway finding a way to give fans, the crew and cast alike an opportunity to say goodbye to the Pfefferman family and close out a series. Like Light says, Transparent was “impactful on so many levels,” from giving rise to greater transgender visibility onscreen and expanded inclusivity behind the scenes to transforming the 70-year-old actress’ career.
“Everybody was on board,” Light says of the finale, which transforms the half-hour dramedy into a dazzling musical fantasia as the Pfeffermans deal with the loss of Maura and reflect on their own journeys thus far. It’s not so much an ending, she says, as it is another transition for the family and series.
One of those transitions, so to speak, is what Light calls Shelly’s “coming out.” The musical caps off a journey of a once-jilted ex-wife who has increasingly found her voice and place among her family’s ever-evolving identities that often required her to politely accept them as is. Over the first four seasons, the family matriarch not only struggled to be heard but also came to terms with her sexual abuse as a child, giving the actress plenty of buzzy material to work with -- from a much-talked-about orgasm in a bathtub to a show-stopping cover of Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket,” leading Vulture to recently praise Light’s performance as “Shelly Pfefferman, the underappreciated Jewish mother.”
“This was an evolution of that,” Light says of the finale, which sees Shelly directing a local musical production about her family -- a truly cathartic experience for her -- with one number, “Your Boundary Is My Trigger,” that sees the mother chastising her kids over their withholding nature. She finally comes out of her shell, “which subsequently creates her transformation,” Light adds.
While speaking with ET shortly after wrapping production on Transparent earlier this year, Light said, “I love this character. I loved her from the moment I began to play her.” Months later, that sentiment hasn’t changed. “It’s been one of the greatest gifts of my life. I can’t describe it any other way,” she says. “Every single moment of playing her is something that I treasure and I cherish, and that I will miss profoundly.”
Light adds, “There are very few people who would think of me to be playing that character,” which has earned her two consecutive Emmy nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress. The role since opened the doors for more unexpected opportunities, including an Emmy-nominated performance in Ryan Murphy’s FX anthology drama, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, as well as playing the mother of Richard Newell, who was accused of being the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Bomber, in the upcoming second season of Lionsgate’s anthology true-crime series, Manhunt: Lone Wolf.
“It’s really an extraordinary piece of work,” Light says. “It is quite remarkable, and I feel very fortunate to be able to do that as well.”
But Light’s most unexpected turn yet comes as a longtime incumbent New York politician in Murphy’s first Netflix original series, The Politician, which debuted the same day as the Transparent finale. Without giving too much away, Dede Standish acts the part of the perfect congresswoman but hides a deliciously, scandalous secret that plays out beneath the sheets in her brief appearance in the finale of season one. “When I found out what it was going to be, I was like, ‘This is why Ryan is a genius,’” Light teases.
The episode, which also features Bette Midler as Standish’s chief of staff, Hadassah Gold, sets her up as a new rival to Ben Platt’s ambitious, young politician, Payton Hobart, in season two, which begins filming in October. “A fun character to play,” Light shares, adding that “having scenes with Bette is just a dream. She’s amazing. Leave it to Ryan to come up with that.”
“Having that character and Shelly come out on the same day is surprisingly different and wonderfully interesting,” Light says, crediting Soloway and Murphy for the unexpected and newfound attention paid to her career over the past few years. “When there are opportunities like this, there are people out there that begin to relate to me in a new way.”
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