Judith Light came into the room wearing a searing pink pantsuit with her arms outstretched. It didn’t matter that it was a hotel conference room at a press junket for Transparent. She was there — just as she had been this season, when the Pfeffermans go to Israel and her character Shelly breaks down in the desert, finally voicing the trauma that she lives with to the rest of her family. It was the thing she tried to tell them in the show’s third-season finale when she sang Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket.” Light spoke with Vulture about both of those scenes, the origins of her improv character Mario, and the first time she met Jeffrey Tambor.
How was Mario birthed?
Mario was birthed into being by Jill Soloway. I think it was the Golden Globes, she said to me, “I have a story line I want to talk to you about.” She started telling me about Mario, and she said, “Just think about it.” And I said, “I don’t really understand it.” And I don’t think that understanding it was necessary. There was a story that lived in Shelly, and this person came out of her, out of her past and her issues, that was a kind of safety, a kind of protection, a kind of warmth. An Italian person who’s all about home and family and eating and pleasure. And so, we just started improv-ing, you know? Shelly’s a woman who has always felt that she had to be with a man, and now she’s realizing that maybe she doesn’t have to be that. There’s something in her that has the strength. If you try to psychoanalyze it, it loses its magic and spontaneity, or the humor of it. The tastiness of it.
Shelly feels very fragile.
Oh, does she? How sweet.
It’s very emotional watching her.
For you, really?
Tell me. Say more about that.
I guess it’s this idea of how trauma has affected her life for so long, and her limitations in recognizing Josh’s trauma as a child, and how that repeats itself. She’s still just trying to find a way out, and there’s something really moving about that process.
Absolutely. I think so too, and you articulated it beautifully. Nobody in this show — and I think that’s one of the assets of it — is a victim. You see each person striving to not be pulled down by their “story,” their issue, what’s been done to them, what they have allowed to be done to them, how they take responsibility. Shelly, particularly, with her revealing herself the way that she does this season like the scene in the desert.
What was it like shooting that scene?
I didn’t plan anything. I was just there with my family, and Amy, and Jay, and the story, and how it comes out, and the layers of it, and the expectation that they should have asked me and nobody asked me, and now you make me do this. And then coming to the truth of it and saying the truth of it. Jeffrey and I have this moment where Maura just holds Shelly and it was so many things at one time — it was comforting and electric and intimate. The sorrow of it, and the sorrow of what is revealed, and what a person does with that. You go through life making these choices that lead you farther into pushing down that story, that voice. You think it will heal you in some way, and the only thing that heals you is saying the truth.
I loved how you and Jay held each other in the Dead Sea. It felt like forgiveness.
I mean, the symbolism of all of that. This family bobbing around in the Dead Sea together, and everyone’s fears being revealed at one level or another. Particularly Shelly, it’s like, “I don’t wanna get in. I don’t wanna get in.” And then her son buoys her up. His holding of me is the forgiveness that everyone longs for. The love that everyone longs for. To come through the fragility, the pain, the storm, the complexity, the challenge, the anger, the vitriol, and to be held by him is remarkable. I mean, there are things that people will see about mothers and sons, but this particular relating is very fragile, tender, and vulnerable for both of them. And Jay is just my heart. They all are. It was funny, Jay said, “We’re not just friends. We’re not just family.” He said, “We are obsessed with each other.” Jill put us together. At some level, she could feel the energy among us as she was placing us, as she was creating this family. You know, not a lot of people would think to cast me in that role, but she saw something. And I think she knew that Jeffrey and I had been friends for over 40 years, and I think that mattered to her in some way.
We were at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 1971 when the brilliant Nagle Jackson put together a repertory company of actors — he’d worked at a lot of different places around the country — and we did a play. The first play we did was Cat Among the Pigeons by Feydeau. Jeffrey came in and played this character of a general who has a lisp and it was so real and so hysterical. I would look through the slats in the set and I would see people in the balcony falling over themselves watching him. He’s a comedic genius. But he’s also this extraordinarily heartfelt dramatic actor. He’s got it all and he deserves everything that he’s getting for this. He’s remarkable.
I wanted to revisit the final scene from last season, because it’s a performance that I think about a lot. Was there ever another song choice in mind other than “Hand in My Pocket”?
The song choice was always “Hand in My Pocket,” Alanis Morissette. It came from Jill’s sister Faith Soloway and Jill.
Did you listen to the album when it came out?
Oh, I knew Jagged Little Pill. I was a huge Alanis Morissette fan! Faith is a brilliant musician, she’s incredible, and she and Jill wrote that last episode, and I called them up and I said, “What?” That’s what you can do with them: “What are you thinking? What is this? I don’t understand.” And something happened in the first season that I recalled when the kids are all around and they’re talking about music and Shelly says, “I don’t care for music.” That’s the brilliance of Transparent. Two seasons later, we understand her response. That line, “I don’t care for music,” carries with it a story that is now being revealed. I said to them, “Why this song? Why wouldn’t it be, you know, ‘Dancing in the Dark’ or something that Shelly would know? This is the kids’ music.” Faith and Jill said, “Look at the words; we’re not going to sing it like Alanis did. We’re going to sing it for something else in a whole other way in a whole other rhythm, and it’s going to tell a whole other story.”
Then we got on the ship and [the cast and crew] was right there present for me. I say this all the time: You don’t watch Transparent, you feel Transparent. That’s the experience. But that’s because we’re all relating to each other really intimately on an emotional, heart level. And I don’t want it to sound New Agey or something. What I mean is that we’re relating on a whole other level, and something different comes across, and there’s a kind of intimacy and love that you feel at some deep, very primal level.
Also, you’re watching a person who has suppressed herself, pushed her voice down for years, and at this stage in her life is saying, “I will do this. I am afraid, and I will go for it.” I think people respond to that lesson. I mean, everybody responds to having shoved down what they wanted to say in one point in time, didn’t let themselves live the life they wanted to live. You see that and you watch that and you say, “I want to do that. That inspires me. I see what can happen from that, and how scary it is, but how elevating and illuminating that can be.” That’s what people are responding to. You respond to the sorrow, the fragility, the sadness of all those years not having gone there, and the thrill and the exhilaration of going there now. I think that’s what’s so potent about that moment for people.
What was it like shooting the scene?
I was nervous. The guests on the ship came to see the performance. They said, “Do you want come and see this performance?” And people think, “Oh yeah, we’ll come. Won’t this be great? We’ll get to see a show and then we’ll go home.” Not so fast, there’s a million takes.
We did a lot from different angles and we had to sing it live. That’s what they needed for it to really sync up well. I was relying on the track, that it would be there, but we couldn’t do that and so we did it live. Those people never left. All those people on that ship were so incredible, so present, and so supportive. They just didn’t leave. They were right there the entire time. I felt incredibly held in the arms and the energy of so many people. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I wanted it to be so good, because I knew what it meant to Jill and Faith to have that be the story. You watch the completion of Josh emptying Rita’s ashes, and that story of what had happened to him, and his mother in another part of the ship coming out into herself, and him releasing something of his past. There’s the water image, and then the water image in the Dead Sea where he holds his mother. That’s the brilliance of this show, and Jill and her vision. She ties those pieces together — you don’t think about them until you actually are articulating them, now like we are in this moment.
This interview has been condensed and edited.