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Transparent’s Amy Landecker On American Anxiety, Narcissism, And Feeling Happy With Yourself

“The one things she wants is to feel connected”

"I've got everything I need. So why am I so unhappy?" These words are spoken by Maura Pfefferman, played by Jeffrey Tambor, at the beginning of the third season of Transparent, Jill Soloway's brilliant television series, which not only explores the journey of Maura, a transgender woman figuring out her place and purpose in her very new world, but also takes the audience along on the tumultuous trips that are the lives of Maura's friends and family.

Among those family members is Sarah, Maura's eldest daughter. At the beginning of the series, Sarah was married to a man, had two adorable children, and lived in a gigantic Los Angeles home; this life quickly began to unravel as she split up with her husband and rekindled an old romance with her college girlfriend, almost got married again but broke it off at literally the last possible moment, and then embarked on a mildly depression-driven personal trip into the world of BDSM. Many of Sarah's complicated choices could perhaps come off as unsympathetic if she weren't played by the wildly talented Amy Landecker, who imbues Sarah with a dark charm, curiosity, and intelligence that is rarely seen in our culture's portrayals of women, let alone mothers. Here, we talk to Landecker about the appeal of playing Sarah (it's all about that id), what's in store for the Pfeffermans in Season Three (hint: there's a boat involved), and what it actually takes to make a person happy.

Sarah has gone through a ton of personal exploration over the first few seasons, what with her divorce, new relationship, the subsequent dissolution of that, and then a journey toward religious exploration. What do you think she is looking for? 

I think she is looking for a true and honest connection with another human being, and I think that she finds herself disconnected in ways to her parents. She finds herself disconnected in ways to her siblings, she finds herself disconnected in ways to her children, to her husband, to her lovers, and it's like, the one thing she wants is to feel connected. But I think the answer for that is going to come when she actually connects to herself. And I think she just keeps thinking it's going to come from outside, and so she's constantly disappointed, and, it's like, until she can kind of settle into her own, not needing external stimulation to make her feel things, she's probably gonna come up short. I think she also feels that combination that maybe we all experience this in our lives. Just, I'm really close to my family but they can't complete me. I'm really in love with my child, but she's also separate from me. I'm really in love with my boyfriend, but I also have to be happy by myself. So it's like she has genuinely good feelings and connections to all those people, but she also doesn't feel totally satisfied and so she's frustrated. I think she's kind of really frustrated because she doesn't understand that it's actually her own connection to herself that needs to be laid down. 

I think that that's present in all the characters. At the beginning of Season Three, from what I've seen, with Maura specifically, she's gotten to a place where she's gotten everything she wants but she's still not happy. With all the characters, no matter how hard-won or how desirable the external parts of their lives seem, it's still not enough. Which, one of the things that I think is so fascinating about the show is how it explores that in so many different aspects. Whether with Maura, seeing the journey she has to go through, so she can get to the place where she can figure out how to connect to herself. And then with Sarah, who from the very beginning has this sort of stereotypically perfect life—the house, the husband, the kids—she also still has so much to figure out.

It's true. I think Josh too, he has the perfect job, you know all the hot young girls, he's kind of a rock and roll executive, but he finds that he's wanting. And Ali, Gaby [Hoffman]'s character, I think is the classic lost millennial, who doesn't really know what her purpose is. So yeah, I think across the board, everybody is kind of struggling with, how does one feel a real sense of contentment in their life? Of course, Maura thinks, once I live authentically, as a woman, that will be the thing. And then she realizes even that's [not enough]. I think Western culture in general, we have a certain chronic dissatisfaction because we have so much. Sometimes we just don't deal with the simple things you need to feel okay, because we're so wrapped up in all this other stuff we have. Our 18 TVs and mobile phones and all the stimulation, the big houses, the big cars, the nice clothes. And then you realize you still feel kind of lost. We're searching for sure. 

I think that's absolutely it. And also, in Western culture, the context of growth is a really interesting problem. We think with big changes we will necessarily feel wildly transformed. And it's true that our lives do change if we're getting a divorce or exploring our sexuality or transitioning into another gender... those are the things that will actually change our lives, especially in an external way. But on the inside we are still kind of dealing...

The same person.

Yeah, exactly.

It's kind of why we're the most successful culture in the world, and the most depressed. When I think about what the United States has accomplished in such a short period of time, it's nothing short of amazing that we are this massive superpower in the world and we are so new. But at the root of it all, we are so, "Go go go go go! Get get get get get!" You know? And sometimes I think there's this disconnect from the most basic, fundamental things that can please you, which can be sitting in the backyard in the sun with your kids, or I don't know, these simple moments that we can kind of just gloss over. I think we have a lot of anxiety. I mean, I get the commentary that says, "Oh, [the Pfeffermans] are so narcissistic," but I think they're very representative of the upper middle class culture of anxiety. Like, we have so much, we know so much, but what do we do now? 

I think that's really true... I also think there's something that's a little bit distasteful about thinking that narcissistic qualities are only ascribed to the very privileged. It's almost more of an American trait, no matter what your socioeconomic class is. We are taught to be concerned with ourselves, and put ourselves first. I think it's like that on so many levels of society.

A really good point, as exemplified by the fact that Trump is the Republican nominee, and is mostly supported by working class people. It just doesn't make any sense... anyway, I won't get too political, but I think it's that American dream... this ideal that that is what I want; I need to make a lot of money and have a gold throne in my house. Our culture's great desire. You're right, I don't think it just comes with privilege, I think it comes from Western ideology. And there are some great things too, I don't want to knock everything about materialism or whatever, but I do think it can become a real source of isolation and anxiety when it's not countered with healthy relationships. I know that myself. The most successful I ever was career-wise, before Transparent, was the lowest point that I had in my adult life, and I went, "Oh! I have everything I want, but I've never been more unhappy." I realized that all that stuff wasn't actually what I needed. I needed good relationships with people, and I needed to be a service in the world. I needed to do something to try to help people, in order to get out of myself. Trying to tell people that before they get everything they want, they just don't believe you. They're like, "No, I'm sure if I got everything I wanted I'd be happy." And you're like, I swear to you I have been around some of the most rich and famous people on the planet, and they are just as lost and sad if they don't have a true human connection and aren't being useful in the world. Everybody needs a purpose and everybody needs to connect. That's where happiness comes from in my opinion. 

Yeah, but it can definitely take a long time and journey to get there. So that's how you were feeling right before you found out about Transparent and got the job? 

The year before I got this job was one of the hardest years I've ever had. I booked a big sitcom for NBC. It was my first big job, I was Paul Reiser's wife, and we got cancelled after two weeks on the air. My ex-husband moved out the same month. I agreed to joint custody with my daughter, because I knew that was what was best for her, but it meant not seeing my six-year-old half the time, which I was completely emotionally unprepared for, and I had my worst financial year. My accountant, of all people—as we talk about materialism, ironically—said, "This is when all of my clients have their greatest times coming, when everything falls apart." I actually was reading Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart and I decided to start writing about what was going on. I went up at the Hollywood Improv, did my first stand up about my divorce, and it just killed. I realized how universal some of these things were in my life, and then I turned that into a pilot script for FX, but it didn't get made, because I booked Transparent the same day. I sold the script and booked Transparent, and I know that my divorce was why, what was going on in my life was why I got Sarah. I knew everything that was going on with Sarah, and I didn't really even have to act Sarah. I was going to work and exercising all my personal demons at the time and Jill was the perfect person to hold that space for me. I almost get emotional talking about it, the show has just given me... I sort of feel like I'm on this journey with Sarah, although I'm way more codependent than Sarah. I would never be as ruthless as she is. I don't know if she's ruthless, but I do think she's not as aware of the consequences of her behavior as I am. I'm constantly feeling tremendous amounts of guilt and wanting to do better and be better, so she sort of actually plays out my id, more than I allow myself in my own life. But it's certainly fun to play. The show changed my whole life for sure. 

That id personification, that might be what frustrates some people about the show, they see it as narcissism, but I see it as release. I love it. It's refreshing to see people behave the way that we're not actually allowed to in real life. 

Here's the truth: Everybody can relate to not wanting to have to show up. I think that's the thing, they express this part of us that we're so afraid to admit, and that's why people are so drawn to them. It's like, yeah, we all feel that way! We might not say it, we might not act it out the way they do, but we all can identify wanting to do our own thing and not show up for people.

Without a doubt. The second someone else can take over some responsibilities, it's like ok I can go back and be myself, and figure out who that is, because I'm not done yet. 

I have to say I'm really feeling it this year, there's something about... this is a very different feeling this year. I think the first year we were just like, "Oh, wow we did it. Okay." The second year was like, "Oh yes! They liked it!" Because you don't know if they're going to hate you the second year. And now it feels like we're just building and building; it's just getting bigger, I think it's blowing all of our minds a little bit, in a good way. I do know why people love it so much, I do feel what it's doing, and what it's doing is just, it's so heartfelt, and then heart-aching and heartfelt at the same time. It's a really weird combination, but I can't even think of another show which explores that quite the same way. It's kind of like when I see Jeffrey and Jill win awards, there's this incredible sincerity which from anyone else might bug you, but because it's tempered with ridiculous sense of humor and self-awareness, you crave it. 

How do you feel about Sarah's journey in Season Three?

I'm excited! Mostly what was fun for me is I got to have a story line with Kathryn Hahn. She's one of my favorite actresses. I saw her in Afternoon Delight, which is part of why I was really dying for this role. She gave one of those performances that showed a fully complex female that's both sexual and maternal and intelligent and lost and all the things that I have felt in my life. She's one of the funniest, smartest coolest treasures that we have, and I was just hoping that I would get to play with her. For me, we do a little bit of religious exploration together and open up an alternative Jewish roving temple and it was some of the funnest times I've had. We also go on a cruise for the season finale. The Pfeffermans go on a cruise to Puerto Vallarta on Norwegian Cruise Line. It was an absolute blast, it gave us the desire to go on one big trip a year. We had so much fun together. It really is like a family. I had a great year. I had a lot of fun. I am so looking forward to four. Judith Light will slay you, she will slay you in the season finale.

All of the third season of Transparent is now available to stream on Amazon Prime