When Co.Create caught up with Amy Landecker, she was in the car on her way to an activity that the Chicago-bred actress would have never even conceived of five years ago.
"I’ve got to go get my lashes done for my party tonight," she says with a laugh. "It’s very Hollywood."
This is what happens when, at 46, you star in one of television's critical darlings after years of acting in relative obscurity. Five years after the theater and voice-over vet moved to Los Angeles to play Paul Reiser's wife in his ill-fated NBC sitcom, The Paul Reiser Show, she finds herself having to deal with newfound fame as one of the stars of Amazon's hit series Transparent.
Landecker has approached the whirlwind with the detached amusement and amazement that usually happens when an actor finds fame mid-career. "Oh, I’m so glad this didn’t happen to me at 25," she says. "I think you have so much more grounding in your life and in your craft. You’re just more free and confident.
"I mean, there’s so much that comes with aging that is not fun. We always hear about it, like 'my skin’s wrinkling, my eyes are going, my back hurts.' But there are also these glorious gifts that come that I don’t think we talk enough about, just like being comfortable in your own skin, not caring what people think, being more pleasant, being grateful because you have struggled for so long or you’ve tried for so long, so you don’t take it for granted at all. I mean, you’re really present. You don’t take the awards for granted, you don’t take the work for granted, the writing for granted, or the money for granted. I’m very aware that this is very rare, and I don’t think I overvalue the hype around it. I think I have it in a better perspective because of my age, and it can’t change me because I’m too far along in my life as who I am."
Landecker plays Sarah Pfefferman, who over the show's first two seasons has gone on a journey of personal exploration of her own after her father Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) announced to his family that he's transitioning into a woman named Maura. While Sarah offers her support for her "MaPa," the mother of two decides to divorce her husband (Rob Huebel) and rekindle a relationship with Tammy (Melora Hardin), her old college flame. Season two opens with a wedding-dress-clad Sarah sobbing in a bathroom stall, realizing that she doesn't want to marry Tammy. From there, she tries to figure out what she wants from life, including sleeping with her pot dealer and finding out that she likes to be dominated.
During much of the season, Landecker was called on to look less-than-camera-ready, including a scene where she defeatedly slouches naked in front of her microwave, looking at her bleak life while eating a snack. But this kind of real and figurative exposure is old hat to Landecker.
"People always remark on [the show's] realness and our bravery, and I’ve been doing stuff that’s charged or controversial" for years, she says. "I mean, I was doing Tracy Letts's plays in Chicago 20 years ago. So I think when you come from a theater background, you’re not as wrapped up in image or judgment. You’re used to being open and raw. It is certainly a new experience, and it’s permanent and on camera, but it’s not something that’s new to me as an actor."
The microwave scene is something that's also not new to her, and she took pains to make it as unsexy as possible. "My makeup artist suggested I might want to stand up straight and I was like, 'She is depressed. I can’t stand up straight. I can’t look good here,' and then of course when you see it, you’re horrified. But I’d rather tell a true story than let my vanity win out. I mean, it’s not like I’m intentionally trying to look bad. I just kind of felt like Sarah was not in a place where she’d be getting a blowout and putting makeup on."
Landecker, the daughter of legendary Chicago disc jockey John "Records" Landecker, spent the bulk of her career in Chicago theater, which she was able to do because she found a lucrative niche doing voice-over work. "I’ve been doing theater in basements, delis, and restaurants in Chicago. I had a theater company above the China Club in my 20s with my sister and friends. I’ve been just doing that so intensely and with such great love. I mean, Chicago has I think the best theater in the country, and I was working at Steppenwolf and the Goodman—and when you’re in Chicago, you do the work. There’s no agent who’s going to come see you and put you in a movie. You’re just doing it because you love doing it."
While her theater experience informed her performance as Sarah Pfefferman, life experience also played a role. "I had a divorce before I started season one that really did do that to me where I questioned my choices. I had a very intense emotional experience around my divorce and making decisions in my life. And so I totally knew that feeling. Am I making a mistake? Am I making the right choice?"
"And I will say the way Jill [Soloway] directs and the way we work is very moment to moment," she says. "The bathroom scene for me, which a lot of people are like, 'Oh, it’s so depressing,' but we laughed a lot, too. You laugh when you cry. I think that’s the lifesaver in a depression or in a life change, you know, when you’re in those really challenging times in your life. If you lose your sense of humor, that’s when you’re in real trouble. And I feel like the show, just like myself, never totally loses its sense of humor, and that’s where you find your light in the middle of all that."
She's recovered in her romantic life—she's currently dating Transparent costar Bradley Whitford—and that distance helped her during Sarah's journey into darkness, despite how tired it seemed her character looked during the season. "I certainly wasn’t exhausted. I was actually falling in love at the time with my boyfriend and my divorce was settled, and I'm getting along with ex and his girlfriend and my daughter was doing well. So it was interesting that people feel like season two for me is so much darker, because it was actually for me as a person lighter, which I think allowed me to do that work without a lot of struggle. I was very alive and it was kind of one of the funnest times I’ve ever had . . . I mean, the wedding, that whole week was probably one of the best times I’ll ever have shooting anything.
"I think actors like to get into the dark. I think that’s part of why we’re performers. I think we kind of get off on it a little bit. I mean, to be honest. It’s a permission to get all in your own, whatever we can’t expose on a day-to-day basis, you’re allowed to go full in. I mean, I have Eastern European features without makeup. I have dark circles and my hair is kind of half Jewish frizzy, and I just showed up, and [Jill] was like, 'We’re not doing anything to this.'"
She certainly believes in the message that Soloway is trying to get across about the struggles of the trans community, and that Tambor's subtle and realistic portrayal of Maura, which is why the Chicago in her comes out when you suggest some people have told you that they won't watch the show because they don't want to see "Jeffrey Tambor in a dress."
"That kind of transphobic language now that I’ve become so close to so many trans people, it’s so upsetting to me," she says. "It’s so wrong in so many ways. It’s misogynistic because it’s like, what’s wrong with wearing a dress? To me, it’s aesthetic. It’s almost like a discrimination against unattractiveness. It’s like, 'Oh, he’s not going to look good in the dress.' It’s discrimination against age. It’s like 'Oh, he’s an older guy in a dress,' and none of that to me is valid. I was really good close friends with someone who transitioned from male to female, and they are so discriminated against in a really scary way. I mean, in a violent way. I mean, they’ve been beaten, they’ve been attacked in restrooms. They get murdered. I mean, none of my friends luckily, but their friends certainly have. So it’s hard for me to get in a conversation with people because they just get my back up."
"I do often say, though, about the show that it’s not just about a transgender parent at all. It’s about Judaism, it’s about faith. It’s like a really good storytelling soap opera sometimes. I mean, everybody is sleeping with somebody that you would want to sleep with. It’s not just gay, bi. I mean, there’s plenty of hetero-normative sex going on if that’s what you’re into. I always say that there’s something for everybody, and it’s really your loss if you don’t want to see the sublime performance of what Jeffrey does."
Transparent has led to some more small roles for Landecker, and a recurring role in Guillermo del Toro's Netflix series Trollhunters, but her experience tells her that she'll still have to make her own way as a writer and her continued voice-over work. "One thing I want to say is patience is really what I’ve learned. I was in A Serious Man six years ago and I thought my life had completely changed at that moment. And what I didn’t know is that it had, but it just takes some time, because A Serious Man led to Louie. So I think people’s expectation is I must be having scripts sent to me and that’s not really true. I’m still working at a level that feels like I’m fighting for what I want a little bit, which is okay. But I do know that eventually it’s going to have a major impact. I just know that it probably takes longer than one might expect."