In ‘Transparent’ the Characters and Houses Have Complex Identities

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Sarah Pfefferman (Amy Landecker) and Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) in a Buff and Hensman house in Pasadena (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Warning, Spoilers below!

The new dramatic comedy series Transparent from Amazon Studios written and directed by Jill Soloway has received widespread acclaim for its portrayal of Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a transgender woman, as she comes out to her family and grapples with the aftermath of her revelation. The show is largely about coming to terms with one’s identity, one that is both new and familiar at the same time.

The same could be said for the architecture that plays a strong supporting part in the show. Caroline Chamberlain spoke to production designer Catherine Smith about the thinking behind the role of the homes in the series.

Pacific Palisades 

Set in Los Angeles, a city that is struggling to maintain its own identity as home to on-screen productions, the series features several dwellings that play distinct, supporting characters. Viewers are first introduced to Maura (formerly Mort)’s house, a spacious Buff and Hensman (famous for their post and beam style) modernist house located in Pacific Palisades on the show, but in real life it can be found in Pasadena.

Catherine Smith, production designer Transparent
Catherine Smith, production designer Transparent (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“She kind of saw it as the additional character,” said Catherine Smith. And who is that character exactly? From the start, the house is the setting of tumult, transformation and tender moments. It’s where Maura tries and fails to come out to her family, it’s where her daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) effectively ends her marriage by rekindling her college romance with an interior designer Tammy (Melora Hardin) and Maura’s kids fight over who gets it. Then as Maura is finally starting to embrace herself as a female publicly, she moves out to an apartment complex “Shangri-La” in West Hollywood.

We wondered if this was an extension of Thom Andersen’s thesis in Los Angeles Plays Itself that Hollywood views modernist architecture with contempt.  Smith says, “it’s not supposed to be the modernist idea of cold…It’s definitely home…it has all of these memories and nostalgia can exist to it.”

And as for the drama that takes place within its walls, she said, “if you listed those things out for a lot of people they would be like, ‘yeah we’ve had that conflict in my house,’ and that’s not unusual for a house that’s been around for 30, 40 years, because everything happens in life. So if the house can reflect that too, that’s great.” Ultimately the main function of this house as a character Smith contends was for viewers to see that Maura/Mort “has a lot of depth and a lot of taste.”

Shangri-La, West Hollywood

When Maura moves to West Hollywood, her new apartment complex reflects the emotional comfort she needs during her transition. Smith said she intentionally made it “bright like her bright future with lots of light coming in, lots of warmth.. So it’s sort of like a fresh start for her, but also it’s another kind of form of Los Angeles architecture where you come in and it’s sort of a false paradise. The place is called Shangri-La; lots of tropical stuff surrounds the pool, sort of larger than life.”

Josh Pfefferman (Jay Duplass) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Silver Lake 

Another house featured in the series that is said be in one neighborhood and is actually located in another is Maura’s son Josh’s (Jay Duplass) house in Silver Lake, which is in Venice in real life. Josh was written in the show to be a young, meticulous womanizing hipster in the music industry, and his house reflects this. His house is white, high-ceilinged, features little clutter and because he aspires to be a music mogul, “he’s got the latest everything,” said Smith.

Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffman) in Marina del Rey Condo (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Marina Del Rey 

Maura’s ex-wife Shelly lives in a condo in a gated retirement community in Marina del Rey. Smith explained that it was intended to be “safe but at the same time, a little fake. The idea was that Shelly when she had the divorce, during the late 80’s-90’s, that’s when that place would’ve been decorated. So we’ve used some elements from that architectural style. And also that idea that these condos don’t have a lot of detail, the stuff that’s there can be a little bit like glass block and sliding glass doors.”

Smith said that she took inspiration for Shelly’s condo from her mother’s house: “You take ideas that you get from your own family and that particular character really resonated with me, with my mother, and so I put elements in there that I felt were like that, cause that was the reference that I had. My mom, for example, at her house she collects a lot of cruise magazines, she’s got eye glasses everywhere. I know that Jill wanted the case of Ensure (a nutritional drink) there because there’s always health needs, and Jill even had a scene where we had exposed things like Preparation H and stuff like that in the bathroom where you know you might want to put that away but the mom doesn’t care, so she’s got it everywhere.”


Los Angeles as Character

Throughout the series, viewers are taken on a tour of Los Angeles as the members of the Pfefferman family experience it. While it portrays an incredibly narrow and specific version of the city, it’s completely believable for these characters. It feels natural that they eat at Canter’s, an iconic L.A. deli, and Mozza, Nancy Silverton’s upscale pizza restaurant on the corner of Melrose and Highland, on the show. The Pfeffermans live in Los Angeles as many affluent families here do, but the stereotypical glitzy depiction of Los Angeles was carefully avoided.

Smith, who was born and raised in Sherman Oaks, said that even though Soloway isn’t from L.A., “she thinks like a local, she just got it right away, she understands where to go and writes it into the script.”

Smith said that portraying both “authentic” characters and the Los Angeles they live in was very important to Soloway. She wanted people to believe that these characters exist in this place.

“Lots of people that I’ve worked with who don’t know LA, they tend to kind of put on LA ideas of their town. New Yorkers come in and they think it’s just like New York except it doesn’t have as many buildings. But it’s so specific to itself and she’ll pick up on all the things that were special about the city.”

Smith said that portraying this authenticity was a dream job for her as a production designer who grew up here, she felt it was important “to actually do a show based on LA that looks actually like LA and not other people’s ideas of what LA is.”

Images courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Check out our interview with Michael Connelly, on LA playing itself in his new Bosch series, on this DnA. Listen to Transparent director Jill Soloway talk to Madeleine Brand about the series on this PressPlay.