I previously admitted way back in this ancient post that I don’t get into watching awards shows very much. So I must admit I didn’t tune in to Sunday’s (September 18) Emmy Awards telecast. And I say this as someone whom you’d normally find every night vegging in front of the TV watching… well, mostly sports, although I try my darndest to catch up on my DVR viewing.
But judging from my Twitter feed Sunday night and the news coverage the next morning, I missed a whale of an Emmy ceremony… er, Primetime Emmy ceremony (there’s a difference between daytime and nighttime Emmys). It’s led me to having a sore backside from kicking myself (not literally, of course) for watching the Packers/Vikings game instead of the Emmys (although in my defense… whoa, what an incredible looking new stadium the Vikings have).
While most everyone has been crowing since Sunday night about the likes of Veep and Game of Thrones being among the big Emmy winners, let me try to rectify my error of not watching the ceremony by highlighting a couple of winners I truly enjoyed hearing about. Let’s begin with the winner pictured to your right. Tatiana Maslany had several film and small TV roles (including a recurring role on Being Erica [““Best! Show! Ever!“]) before entering a truly star-making turn in 2013 in the BBC America series Orphan Black. How star-making has it been? Put it this way: While many actors have been known for playing several roles throughout their careers, Maslany has made her mark by playing several roles each episode: A street kid. A soccer mom. A college student. A trained assassin. And several other clones that this post has not enough room for. (For the uninitiated, the show’s premise is that each of her characters are clones; they’re all strong female characters, and strongly written to boot.) Best of all, she melts into each role with such relative ease, giving each of them their own distinctive tone, that it’s easy to forget you’re watching the same actor fill each one.
It’s most certainly an understatement to say Tatiana Maslany does an incredible job on Orphan Black‘s first four seasons (the fifth and final season is set for 2017). The work she has brought to the roles have justifiably earned her rave reviews from critics and fans alike; honors in her native Canada (where Orphan Black is filmed); and, here in the States, two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. She lost out for the Emmy last year, but took home the statuette Sunday night, her first Emmy.
So why am I singing Maslany’s praises here? I think it’s the crossdresser in me that has led me to become fascinated with how an actor can inhabit a role, in the general sense. I tend to feel as if I’m using my own acting chops (such as they are) when dressing up, as I become a totally different person, or actually a totally different gender (more on that part later). I find it even more fascinating when an actor pulls double duty in any singular film or TV appearance, as Maslany does each week on Orphan Black. I think that’s why the words “one actor in multiple roles” got me hooked on the show when it debuted 3 years ago. If you haven’t had the chance to savor Maslany’s performance… er, sorry, performances on Orphan Black, I recommend catching up on the show on-demand or on DVD. Though the show’s plot structure may be intricate and labyrinthine to some, seeing Maslany in action is well worth the time.
Before I make mention of the other Emmy winner I wanted to discuss, let’s celebrate some from the LGBT world who took home gold on Sunday: Sarah Paulson and Kate McKinnon, both out actors, were honored (McKinnon, in part, for doing Hillary Clinton better than Hillary Clinton does Hillary Clinton). Jill Soloway, also openly LGBT, earned a directing Emmy for an episode of Transparent, the Amazon Prime series she also created and produces. (Side note: Soloway is a UW-Madison alum.)
And then there is the lead star of Transparent, a cis-male by the name of Jeffrey Tambor. He has proven to be an outstanding and acclaimed actor in many roles over the years (I still remember him from The Ropers, which goes to show you how old I am). That acclaim includes his current role in Transparent as Maura Pfefferman, who had been born and lived as Morton Pfefferman before coming out as a transgender woman during her twilight years. It’s the struggles Maura must face, along with the adjustments her family also must go through, that has driven Transparent during its first two seasons (Season 3 is being released by Amazon this Friday).
Maura has proven to be one of Jeffrey Tambor’s signature roles, with his performance earning him two consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, including Sunday night. His filling the role didn’t come without controversy, however. I vividly remember reading my Twitter timeline during last year’s Emmys and seeing a few criticisms (including one from a cis person, no less) that Tambor shouldn’t have been honored let alone cast, and that the role of Maura should’ve gone to an actual transgender woman instead. But it wasn’t as if Transparent just pulled some cis guy off the street and put him in a dress. Maura, in particular, is a carefully crafted character that’s part of a show that treats trans characters and issues in general with dignity and respect. That extends to its reliance on trans people in key on- and off-screen roles: Alexandra Billings and Hari Nef have put in appearances during the show’s first two seasons, while Jennifer Finney Boylan, an author and trans activist, has consulted on the series. The show has also gained inspiration from the life of one of Jill Soloway’s parents, who came out as trans in her own twilight years.
Speaking as a TV fan, seeing the dismissing of Jeffrey Tambor playing Maura made me cringe a little bit. But when you boil it down, the talent level an actor brings to a role is always important, whether they are cis or trans. Tambor has acting talent in spades, and Jill Soloway saw enough in his talent to cast him as Maura Pfefferman, a decision that has brought great critical reward.
Still speaking as a TV fan, there’s something else about Tambor’s situation I enjoy seeing: Just as much as I admire an actor filling multiple roles at once (as Tatiana Maslany has pulled off in Orphan Black), I also admire when actors play the gender they are not in real life, especially when they do so in admirable fashion. A male actor playing a female role or vice versa helps the actor to break their comfort boundaries a bit, allowing them to become well rounded as both an actor and a human being — which, in turn, allows the audience to become more understanding about gender roles and identities. It’s part of why I always loved Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Tootsie, and it’s why I also applaud Tambor’s performance on Transparent. Walking a mile in another gender’s shoes is an awesome thing, isn’t it?
Before you read me wrong, I’m not blind to the issue of acting roles (trans characters or otherwise) not going to trans actors. Hollywood has deservedly received criticism for its casting of cisgender actors in transgender roles. One recent controversy is the casting of Matt Bomer, openly gay yet cis male, as a transgender woman in an upcoming film project. But if a producer or talent agent would step out of their own comfort level and call on a trans person to fulfill an acting role, that would be an inspiring thing.
And people in Hollywood do recognize the need to let trans actors step into the spotlight, including two noteworthy people on Sunday night’s Emmy telecast: Laverne Cox, a trans icon and talented actor in her own right (she was the first trans actor to gain an Emmy nomination a few years back), encouraged Hollywood to “give trans talent a shot” in an appearance as an Emmy presenter. And then there’s Jeffery Tambor himself. When he accepted his Emmy on Sunday, he flat out asked Hollywood, “Please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their stories. I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a transgender female on TV.” That’s coming from a cis male actor honored for playing a transgender woman. Bravo to Jeffery Tambor, for using both his talent and his voice in putting the trans community in a positive light.
** 9/22/2016 UPDATE ** If you’ve fast forwarded to the comments section below, you’ve seen that one of my WordPress peeps, The Finicky Cynic, made note that this years Emmys as a whole recognized a lot of diversity. Her point is quite valid, and in more ways than one: While the TV Academy voters did reward old favorites such as Veep and Game of Thrones and, yes, Jeffery Tambor, they did spread the love to newer faces from various backgrounds. I’ve already paid tribute to some of the LGBT contingent, but let’s honor some of the first-timers. Tatiana Maslany, Kate McKinnon, and Sarah Paulson, all of whom I mentioned above, were among the first-time Emmy winners. Another of the noteworthy first-timers was Rami Malek, who won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his work on Mr. Robot. Malek’s win is also noteworthy for diversity in that he is Egyptian American (his family emigrated to the US), and his win, as F.C. noted below, is the first for a minority actor in that category in a long time. How long? Try 1998, when Andre Braugher won. (Wow, that is a long time.)
So, yes, the Emmy voters got it right when recognizing diversity. Jimmy Kimmel’s joke in his opening monologue is so apropos: “The only thing we [in the TV industry] value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity… The Emmys are so diverse this year, the Oscars are now telling people we’re one of their closest friends.” Yeah! Take that, Academy Awards!
But don’t take a blogger’s word for it. At least one reviewer, Michael O’Connell of The Hollywood Reporter, recognized the Emmy diversity in this review of Sunday night’s ceremony, which is well worth reading. Way to go, Emmys!
** 9/23/2016 UPDATE ** I did the above update early in the morning, not knowing that later that afternoon, Jeffrey Tambor did an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in promotion for Transparent‘s 3rd season
premiere release today. I listened to it this morning and was really impressed by his thoughts on portraying Maura and its importance. First off, noting the controversy over his casting (interviewer Kelly McEvers brings up the term “transface”), he agrees with Jill Soloway’s recent thought that she wouldn’t have cast him or another cis male actor as Maura were she starting the series over today, using terms that echo his Emmy acceptance speech Sunday night. But he also offers a bit of a justification, stating that both he and Maura are learning to be a woman every day (“the fail-safe in this role”). Some will counter that a trans actor could draw on their own inner resources and personal history to help fill the role of Maura (because, yeah, they’ve gone through it already), but there’s something about the constant learning Tambor goes through that can surface to the screen; it’s a learning experience that everyone — trans or otherwise — can have empathy with.
Tambor feels that the criticism over his playing Maura has subsided (“Everything [on Transparent] is done with love”). But don’t think for one second that he doesn’t grasp his portrayal’s importance, as he adds this:
“But there is not a day that goes by that I don’t go to the set where I have that tap-tap-tap on my shoulder of: You are fortunate and you have a responsibility and do this right, not for 87 Rotten Tomatoes, not for the review in the Cleveland Plain Dealer… but to do it right for the community because — some people eye roll when I say this — but because lives are at stake. And that’s the truth.”
For more of Jeffery Tambor’s interview, including his description of one chilling moment when he dressed as Maura in public to prepare for the role, click on this link. It’s a great chat, and definitely worth the listen.