In 'She Wants It,' Jill Soloway Gets Transparent About Their Life And Work

Oct 21, 2018
Originally published on October 21, 2018 2:01 pm

Jill Soloway is the Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning creator of the show Transparent, and also the co-creator and director of the show I Love Dick.

Their new memoir is called She Wants It: Desire, Power and Toppling the Patriarchy. And despite that title, let's note right away: "She" is not their preferred pronoun.

"You know, when I sold the book I actually didn't identify as either queer or even nonbinary," Soloway says. "Towards the end I think I asked my editor do I need to change it to They Want It, or We Want It, or She Wanted It, or any of these things."

The title stayed, and She Wants It became a memoir about family, about creating Transparent and about coming into a nonbinary identity.


Interview Highlights

On the phone call which inspired Transparent

I was just working in Hollywood, kind of banging my head against the glass ceiling. I had had a whole bunch of success, I guess on paper, working on fantastic shows like Six Feet Under and Gray's Anatomy. [I] had just gotten a film into Sundance, and was starting to think of myself as a director, but feeling very, like, crawling towards this goal in this very maybe way. I wasn't sure if I was ever going to quote-unquote make it.

And it was just a regular morning. Got a phone call — my parent called me, and we were talking about something else, and within that phone call, my parent came out as trans. And I think that was like a huge lightning bolt that really kind of shattered my reality for a little while. But also there was this moment where my thought was: Oh, this is the show you're going to write.

On questioning their own gender and sexual identity

Growing up in this sort of typical Jewish upper-middle-class family, my sister had come out as gay, and I guess there was some reason that I thought in my head: OK, she's the gay one and I'm the straight one. Like, let's just be quote-unquote normal. And then when my parent came out, I started to just kind of instantly feel in some ways that I now had this genetic legacy of queerness and even of transness, and that not only would it not be odd if I started to explore the idea of my own queerness, but that in fact it would be weird if I didn't. And then from there, I think a couple years later, the idea of, like, wait a minute, I also may not need to identify as a woman. Meeting so many non-binary people in the world of Transparent, and literally just looking at people who didn't necessarily see themselves as male or female, but somehow both, and neither, and either in every moment — it seemed a really comfortable place to live.

On the struggle to find success in a male-dominated Hollywood

I wasn't experiencing it traumatically. I was sort of going, "Yeah, I'm not ready, they're right. There's something I don't know yet — I don't really know enough about cinematography or lenses. So they're probably right. I should probably learn." I didn't understand just the depth of the ways in which white, cis men will always lean toward hiring other white, cis men because they're ending up unconsciously protecting their own privilege.

But I am working with Time's Up, with an organization called 50/50 by 2020. So we're specifically writing this narrative within people in Hollywood to say that women, people of color, queer people, trans people, disabled people and other otherized people are all suffering from the same problem, which is that patriarchy and white supremacy have a hold on storytelling. And other people want their chance.

On casting Jeffrey Tambor (a cis man) as the lead in Transparent

I was really ignorant about trans politics. I guess first, before I unpack everything that happened, I always want to say that Jeffrey Tambor's portrayal of Maura was absolutely astonishing and beautiful, and Jeffrey's a fantastic actor. But also I was making a huge mistake around trans politics by having a cis man play a trans woman. Because for trans women, they are being accused by people of "being men dressing up as women." That's what makes trans women so vulnerable in public. So having even Jeffrey Tambor dressing up as a trans woman may have translated to people who weren't in the know as: This is what trans women are — men dressing up as women. So not only was it a problem with casting. It really was a very, very, very dangerous, dangerous thing for trans women.

On whether they would make a different casting choice now

You know, people ask me that question. And I think time-machine questions are really odd, because I couldn't go back, because the world has changed so much. And when I was making Transparent, I myself really didn't understand my own parent's transness yet. And I still had so much of my parent's image in my mind of when she was presenting as a cis male that it didn't even occur to me to cast a trans woman. So I think it is what it was, and what it was was the show it was with Jeffrey in it.

On their reaction to the allegations of sexual assault against Jeffrey Tambor, and whether they were a surprise

Yeah, they were ... It was so interesting, because I was with the people of Time's Up, and agitating for this notion of, you know, one of the things that I wrote on a Post-it is, I was like: What do we want in this moment right now? — I wrote "unlock all NDAs." NDA stands for nondisclosure agreements. I felt that what Hollywood really needed was to make an accounting of how much money was spent to put tape over women's mouths.

And then I was faced with this instance, on our show, where some trans women wanted to tell their story. And I was confronted, I think, with my own trans misogyny, where I didn't immediately say to [accusers] Van [Barnes] and Trace [Lysette]: "Let's stand up and tell your story." Instead, I went a little bit into protection mode and, as you said, thought about the show. And thought about everybody's financial earnings. I thought about what the world would think of a show like Transparent if it was connected with this reckoning. What I needed to recognize, but it took me a minute, was the heroicism of both Trace and Van for taking their stories and being willing to say them out loud, and in many ways sacrifice themselves. So in retrospect I would like a time machine on that one.

On Soloway's advice for those caught in similar situations

For me, this is a time for emotional tenderness toward everyone, especially toward the victims who are willing to sacrifice again. It's a very sacrificial act. And in terms of the men and the people who are being accused, I think it's really about men deeply, deeply, deeply spending a lot of time and energy trying to understand how patriarchy protects their privilege, and thinking of actual ways and tactics that they can take to begin to make up for the harm they've caused before they ask to come back. That doesn't mean we don't treat them with tenderness and love.

On whether that applies to Jeffrey Tambor

Of course. I mean, Jeffrey Tambor is a member of my family. I never want to put the protection of Jeffrey Tambor's career over the protection of Trace Lysette's career, and Van Barnes' career. And I think that's what happens. As a culture, we're naturally patriarchal, so we naturally go "well, what about him?" And I think there are a lot of straight, white, cis men who have had positions of power, and their expectation to continue in that power for the rest of their lives is part of what I think has them unconsciously demanding that they place their pain first before everybody else's.

Denise Guerra and Samantha Balaban produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Jill Soloway is the Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning creator of the show "Transparent" and also the co-creator and director of the show "I Love Dick." Their new memoir is called "She Wants It." And we'll note right away that is not their preferred pronoun.

JILL SOLOWAY: You know, when I sold the book, I actually didn't identify as queer or even nonbinary. So towards the end, I - you know, I - think I asked my editor, do I need to change it to they want it or we want it or she wanted it? - any of these things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the title stayed. And "She Wants It" became a memoir about family, about creating "Transparent" and about coming into their identity. Jill Soloway joins us now from our studios in New York. Welcome.

SOLOWAY: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You began writing the script for "Transparent" after you got a phone call from your own parent. Can you tell us the story?

SOLOWAY: Sure, yeah. I was just working in Hollywood, kind of banging my head against the glass ceiling. I had had a whole bunch of success, you know, I guess, on paper working on really fantastic shows like "Six Feet Under" and "Grey's Anatomy" - had just gotten a film into Sundance and was starting to think of myself as a director but feeling very, like, you know, crawling towards this goal in this very maybe way. I wasn't sure if I was ever going to, quote, unquote, "make it." And it was just a regular morning, got a phone call. My parent called me. And we were talking about something else. And within that phone call, my parent came out as trans. And I think that was, like, a huge lightning bolt that really kind of shattered my reality for a little while. But also, there was this moment where my thought was, oh, this is the show you're going to write.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your parent's transition was also kind of a precipitating event in your life as you were creating "Transparent." You also began to question your own gender and sexual identity.

SOLOWAY: Yeah. Growing up in this sort of typical, Jewish, upper-middle-class family, my sister had come out as gay. And I guess there was some reason that I thought in my head, OK, she's the gay one, and I'm the straight one. Like, let's just be quote, unquote, "normal." And then when my parent came out, I started to just kind of instantly feel in some ways that now I had this genetic legacy of queerness and even of trans-ness and that not only would it not be odd if I started to explore the idea of my own queerness but that, in fact, it would be weird if I didn't. And then from there, I think a couple of years later, the idea of like, wait a minute. I also may not need to identify as a woman. Meeting so many nonbinary people in the world of "Transparent" and literally just looking at people who didn't necessarily see themselves as male or female but somehow both and neither and either in every moment - it seemed like a really comfortable place to live.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are an outspoken feminist. And you write about being in rooms in Hollywood where it was just you and 50 men and how no one would give you a chance to direct. They kept telling you that you weren't ready. What was it like to try to find success in Hollywood for you?

SOLOWAY: I wasn't experiencing it traumatically. I was sort of going, yeah. I'm not ready. They're right. There's something I don't know yet. You know, I don't really know enough about cinematography or lenses, so they're probably right. I should probably learn. I didn't understand just the depth of the ways in which white, cis men will always lean towards hiring other white, cis men because they're ending up unconsciously protecting their own privilege. But I am working with Time's Up, with an organization called 50/50 by 2020. So we're specifically writing this narrative within people in Hollywood to say that women, people of color, queer people, trans people, disabled people and other other-ized people are all suffering from the same problem, which is that patriarchy and white supremacy have a hold on storytelling. And other people want their chance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about "Transparent." You're very open in your book about your decision to cast Jeffrey Tambor, who is not a transgender woman, in the role of Maura in "Transparent." Can you talk a little bit about that decision? Because it received a lot of criticism at the time.

SOLOWAY: Yeah. Well, I was really ignorant about trans politics. I guess, first, before I unpack everything that happened, I always want to say that Jeffrey Tambor's portrayal of Maura was absolutely astonishing and beautiful. And Jeffrey's a fantastic actor. But also, I was making a huge mistake around trans politics by having a cis man play a trans woman because, for trans women, they are being accused by people of, quote, unquote, "being men dressing up as women." That's what makes trans women so vulnerable in public. So having even Jeffrey Tambor dressing up as a trans woman may have translated to people who weren't in the know as this is what trans women are, men dressing up as women. So not only was it a problem with casting. It really was a very, very, very dangerous, dangerous thing for trans women.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You'd make a different decision now in casting?

SOLOWAY: You know, people ask me that question. I think time-machine questions are really odd because I couldn't go back because the world has changed so much. And when I was making "Transparent," I myself really didn't understand my own parent's trans-ness yet. And I still had so much of my parent's image in my mind of when she was presenting as a cis male that it didn't even occur to me to cast a trans woman. So I think, you know, it is what it was. And what it was was the show it was with Jeffrey in it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Transparent" star Jeffrey Tambor was accused by a former crew member and a member of the cast of sexual harassment. Were those allegations a surprise to you?

SOLOWAY: Yeah. They were.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A lot of focus has been on what happened there. And we've had so much conversation since those allegations happened about believing people who say they've been harassed or assaulted. And after the initial allegations, you were really worried about the effect on the show. And you wrote, I knew it was over for Jeffrey. And that meant Maura, the show, our TV family, my own family, my parent's reputation, everything. And you acknowledged that one of the accusers was upset about that reaction. I know you don't like to go into a time machine. But what did you learn from that?

SOLOWAY: Yeah. I - it was so interesting because, you know, I was with the people of Time's Up and agitating for this notion of - you know, one of the things, you know, that I wrote on a Post-it is - I was, like, saying, what do we want right now in this moment? I wrote, you know, unlock all NDAs. NDA stands for nondisclosure agreements. I felt that what Hollywood really needed was to make an accounting of how much money had been spent to put tape over women's mouths. And then I was faced with this instance on our show where some trans women wanted to tell their story. And I was confronted, I think, with my own trans misogyny, where I didn't immediately say to Van and Trace, let's stand up and tell your story.

Instead, I went a little bit into protection mode and, as you said, thought about the show and thought about everybody's financial earnings. I thought about what the world would think of a show like "Transparent" if it was connected with this reckoning. What I needed to recognize - but it took me a minute - was the heroism of both Trace and Van for taking their stories and being willing to say them out loud and, in many ways, sacrifice themselves. In retrospect, yeah, I would like a time machine in that one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's your relationship with Tambor now?

SOLOWAY: We haven't spoken in a little while.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is going to keep happening, right? Friends, artists, people we admire are going to come under scrutiny. And it will be painful for their friends and their colleagues. And I wonder if you have advice now for people who are in the situation you were in.

SOLOWAY: For me, this is a time for emotional tenderness towards everyone, especially towards the victims who are willing to sacrifice. Again, it's a very sacrificial act. And in terms of the men and the people who are being accused, I think it's really about men deeply, deeply, deeply spending a lot of time and energy trying to understand how patriarchy protects their privilege and thinking of actual ways and tactics that they can take to begin to make up for the harm they've caused before they ask to come back. That doesn't mean we don't treat them with tenderness and love.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Does that mean the same for Jeffrey Tambor for you?

SOLOWAY: Of course. I mean, Jeffrey Tambor is a member of my family. I never want to put the protection of Jeffrey Tambor's career over the protection of Trace Lysette's career and Van Barnes' career. And I think that's what happens is, as a culture, we're naturally patriarchal. So we naturally go, well, what about him? And I think there are a lot of straight, white, cis men who have had positions of power. And their expectation to continue in that power for the rest of their lives is part of what I think has them unconsciously demanding that they place their pain first before everybody else's.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jill Soloway, thank you so much for your honesty. Their memoir is called "She Wants It."

SOLOWAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.