Hers was the voice creator and show runner Jill Soloway was searching for to bring an added authenticity to critically acclaimed "Transparent."
Our Lady J — a classical pianist and singer-songwriter — joined the writing staff of the Amazon dramedy for its second season as part of Soloway's efforts to dig deeper into the journey of seventy-something transgender character Maura, played by Jeffrey Tambor, and her trans friends. The show's second season launched Friday.
Our Lady J's road to joining the "Transparent" fold comes after a bit of a detour. She originally auditioned for the role of "Davina." But when a deficit in the number of transgender writers in Hollywood prompted Soloway to launch a workshop on writing episodic drama for television, Our Lady J found herself among the selected participants. By the end, she was asked to join the writing staff.
We spoke to Our Lady J about the experience, her thoughts on Season 1, and what she wanted to do more of in Season 2.
[Note: Cis, or cisgender, is a term used by some to describe people who are not transgender.]
The writers room has already opened for Season 3, right? Do you feel like you're sort of in a cocoon, as far as tuning out the chatter surrounding Season 2?
Yeah, the writers room for Season 3 began in September. We’re definitely in a little bit of a cocoon. Even with reviews for Season 2 coming out, we just took a moment today to acknowledge it because we’ve been so consumed by Season 3. It felt good to step outside of that Season 3 bubble and celebrate Season 2 for a minute.
Talk about your road to joining the "Transparent" writers room. You are part of creator Jill Soloway's 'Trans-Affirmative Action' initiative to bring in trans persons to the crew and writers room.
I originally auditioned for Davina in Season 1 and I did not get the part, but I stayed close with Jill and the “Transparent” family. Ian Harvie (Dale in Season 1) is a friend of mine who introduced me to Jill, and then Ian said that Jill was looking for a writer for Season 2, specifically a trans writer. And, so, I wrote a short story and I sent it off to Jill, and she asked me to take a writing workshop that she held for five other trans women and myself. It was basically a crash course in screenwriting. We created a writers room with Jill as the show runner and we wrote a pilot in a week. After that week was over, Jill called me and asked me to join the “Transparent” writers room, which I happily said yes.
Jill has a mission to topple the patriarchy. Really, the way to do that is to educate people and employ people. She acknowledged that there was a lack in the number of trans people who were writing and working in Hollywood. And so she wanted to teach us all the tools so we can write our own shows or be staffed on other shows. It’s just a way of giving the tools to trans people to actually make a living in this town.
What was your short story about that got your foot in the door?
It was like a mystical, supernatural story about a group of trans women who lived in a house with a sordid history.
Was there anything that struck you about the process?
I was surprised by how easy Jill thinks the job is — it’s not that easy! She’s like, “I’ll see your draft in a week. You’ll be fine." Season 2 has passed and I’m still learning. I feel a lot better at it for Season 3.
The first day must have been daunting.
Well, the first thing we did was we went to a retreat in Santa Barbara, so it was pretty atypical. We had a shaman come in and we roasted s'mores by the campfire. It was pretty much a get-to-know-you thing. And then we started pitching the season, and Jill gave us the direction she wanted the season to go. It really felt like a natural ease into writing — from talking to pitching to writing things down to finally writing outlines and then writing scripts. By the time I got to writing my script, I felt like I had almost tripped into it. Like it just happened.
When you initially heard this show was being made, how did you feel about it? And is there anything about Season 1 that you would have fought against or added had you been part of the writing staff then?
When I first met Ian Harvie and we became friends and he was telling me about this show, he was raving about it and he was raving about Jill. They had just made the pilot and it looked like it was going to get picked up. So, I watched the pilot knowing how much trans people were involved in the making of even just the pilot and how many more trans people were going to be involved in Season 1 and, naturally, I got really excited about that. I saw it — and still see it — as an opportunity for trans people to tell their own stories.
A lot of us within activism, that’s been what we’ve really fighting for, is for trans people to tell their own stories. There are still cis people who are involved, obviously. I think that’s the best way to move forward, is to integrate as a queer, cis, gay, straight, trans — for everyone to just work together to create an authentic narrative because the show isn’t just about trans life, it’s about the family members of trans people. I guess my initial reaction was just excitement that this was happening in Hollywood.
As far as things I wanted to improve in Season 1? I thought it was pretty damn near perfect. The one thing I wanted to know more about was Maura’s friends, Davina and Shea. And so we’re going to see a lot more of them in Season 2. Also, all the cis people on the show have these crazy sex lives, and I wanted to see that with the trans people as well. We did do that for this season. All the trans people are getting sexed.
They sure are — there was some NSFW stuff going on. How about, did you/do you feel pressure to represent the community? And how do you reconcile that?
I did and I still do. I’ve really made an effort to stay close to the community and make sure that I know what’s happening in the news everyday. We get this thing called the Trans Daily Digest that gets emailed out to everyone involved in “Transparent.” It’s the headlines of the day and where we’re at right now with the movement. There’s a lot going on. I have really made an ardent effort to absorb all of that and to witness and to stay awake to what’s happening. And, at the end of the day, also getting to know Jill’s parents and collaborating with everyone else on set who is trans. It is a responsibility, but it’s a shared responsibility. And as an artist as well, all I can really do is be truthful to my experience and try to empathize with other stories and other experiences.
It seems there’s this perception that we’re awash in trans characters. What are your thoughts on that? And what's your perception on the balance of the projects that are doing it to further the conversation as opposed to those that are doing it for show?
I think it’s combination of everything. I really do believe there are people who are trying to make change happen for the better and trying to tell authentic stories and represent an underrepresented group of people. But I also do think there are people who are jumping on the bandwagon of the trans trend. I’ve had people send scripts to me saying, “How can I make this character trans?” And I’m like, “Well, you wrote it as a gay man. He’s still a gay man even if you make him trans.” I don’t know. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and at the end of the day, if the story is authentic, then the story is authentic. That’s the telltale sign of an artist’s intentions.
What have been some of the storylines — either that made it in or didn't — that generated the most discussion or debate.
We mostly debate over where to order our lunches. It’s a big deal every single day! That’s really the only time there are heated arguments in the room. Whether it’s going to be Tinga or Fresh Corn Grill. I mean, so much gets brought up and so much gets written and so much gets edited and so much shot and then edited out, so it’s really hard for me to pinpoint one.
Is there a moment from the season that you're excited for people to see?
I think I'm just really eager to see what my community thinks about Davina and Shea and furthering their storylines. I’m really proud of what we’ve done with them. And the actresses that play them [Alexandra Billings and Trace Lysette] are so wonderful, what they brought to those characters. There are a couple of new characters that pop up in the episode I wrote [Episode 5] and they are Christians, that sort of explores how no one comes in and out of this show being labeled good or bad. And I think that’s one of the beautiful things about the show. I think people are going to be conflicted about how they feel about certain characters, about how they feel about their favorite characters, maybe how they feel about Maura and Sarah, and Ali and Josh. No one is innocent and yet no one is to be blamed. It’s just life happening to these people.
Maura is such a so-called likable character. She's someone everyone champions, but talk about whether we're going to see a side of her that maybe will conflict with that.
We do get into Maura’s past a little more, what she was like before she came out, before she was able to live and be honest and had to hide. We look at what does hiding look like on someone and what does that do to their personality. And how does that come out in their personality even after they’ve started living their authentic self. Any time you make a change, you’re still haunted by your past. Maura is very much haunted by her past this season.
There's a moment this season — one of many, I'm sure, that you suggested as a storyline that involves the regendering of childhood photos —
Yeah, my episode begins with Davina getting a box of photographs back that she had regendered. It’s just an exercise that I had started in healing my own path to my own history. I always had a problem looking back at photos because there I was assigned a gender that I did not choose and, yet, I didn’t want to ignore my past. I wanted to embrace it and stay close with my family and friends. And so I just played around on PhotoShop one day with regendering some photos of mine. It was really kooky and really silly. And I gave myself bad hairstyles from the '90s. I found it very therapeutic and healing to give that child what that child wanted on a very basic, surface level. And, so, when Davina does this, it’s an emotional moment when she gets these photos back and she’s what she would have looked like had she not been assigned the wrong gender at birth. It moves Maura to look back at her own past. She goes and she does the regendering herself eventually at the end of the season. But, also, it’s a much deeper metaphor for how does she perceive herself and how do you look back on a painful past.
And it’s something most people take for granted.
Yeah, yeah, it’s true, it’s something cis people take for granted. But it's sometimes those little things that seeps into the most microscopic aspects of trans people’s lives.
Maura is someone who goes through her trans journey late in life. As someone who went through the process far earlier than she, was it harder or easier to relate to than what you expected?
I think most trans people feel like they’ve come out too late, no matter what age they are. I’ve met 20-year-olds who feel like they’ve come out too late. I was 27 when I came out, and I’m 37 now and feel like I came out way too late. We always compare ourselves to other people. I look at these trans kid who are out and living out and are in school and I’m like, wow, I wish I had that. I try to just stay in gratitude for when I was able to come out, that I was about to come out — because not everybody gets that chance. I think Maura feels a bit of that as well — just to have this experience in her lifetime. Whereas, if it were 20 or 30 years ago, Maura would not have come out in this lifetime. It’s really about embracing the time that you do have left and making the best of that.
There's a scene that comes up mid-way through the season when Maura is in a club with her friends and she's reluctant to join them as they dance. And then she finally gets up and let's loose. It was a powerful scene.
Well, and those Marines, too. That might have been a historical situation of mine.
I mean, I don’t want to get too much into my sex life. But, yeah, a lot of what Davina and Shea go through this season — most of what they go through — I’ve been through personally. I mean, we find out in a moment this season that Davina is HIV positive, and I’m really proud that we’re taking about that. There is so much stigma, and it affects such a huge population of the trans community. And hopefully we can get more into that in Season 3 as well.
I'm just really excited for people to finally see it all.
Did you ever think you’d end up on this path?
My background is in music, but I’ve always been a writer. I recently went back home to my parents' farm in Pennsylvania, where I’m still cleaning out things, and I found boxes and boxes of writing. The way that I was able to express it in the past, the tools that I had, was with music. I wrote songs, I wrote musicals, I wrote cabarets and theater pieces. TV screenwriting was definitely new and something that I had not seen coming — although I’m living in L.A. and it seems like everyone is working in television. I had done a bit of other work in front of the camera and behind the camera, but this is my first time writing screenplays. And I hope it lasts a while.
I tweet about TV (and other things) here: @villarrealy