“Transgender Funnyman” Ian Harvie on Amazon’s Golden Globe winner “Transparent”


Note [January 12, 2015]: Since publishing this interview last week, Transparent won a Golden Globe for Best TV Comedy. Star Jeffrey Tambor also won a Golden Globe for his performance in the show. For those unfamiliar with the award, it’s like a mashup of the Oscars and the Emmys, only the awards show portion is actually entertaining. (That said, I am sure show creator Jill Soloway, Tambor, Harvie, and everyone from Transparent would happily welcome an Emmy or two.)

I talked with Ian Harvie, a self-described “transgender funnyman” with Maine roots, about the hit Amazon-produced show Transparent.

On Transparent, which is about a family following their discovery that father Mort is a transgender woman (Mort is eventually known as Maura), Harvie portrays Dale, a college TA. The cast is fantastic and includes Jeffrey Tambor, Judith Light, Jay Duplass, and the crush of every sort of awkward and nerdy boy who came of age in the 90s (myself included), the endlessly talented Gaby Hoffmann. The show, which was created by comedian, feminist and veteran television writer and producer Jill Soloway, has been received incredibly positively by critics as well as some trans activists.

This interview originally ran for an hour and Harvie chatted about his role on the show as well as the Maine Comedy Festival, a retreat-of-sorts for comedians he holds in Maine. I hope to revisit the latter topic in a future post, and am sad to report that this is only a tiny fraction of our initial conversation. We chatted back in July and—due to a very rare device malfunction—I thought it was lost until I very recently realized that this fragment had been saved by the cloud. Thanks, the cloud, whatever you are.

In our longer conversation, Harvie spoke at great length about the wondrous force that is Jill Soloway and we pick up at the end of that part of our exchange. I am heartbroken that the whole of the conversation is not represented here, as I am a huge fan of Soloway’s work. Harvie also discussed meeting Jeffrey Tambor for the first time—Tambor is one of my very favorite comic actors and so I nerded out so hard—and about how generous and gracious he was.

Below, Harvie celebrates Soloway and Amazon for making the show, echoes Patton Oswalt’s sentiments about how the artists are reclaiming the helm in creative production, and explains that in the end, Transparent is ultimately a show about family.

ALEX STEED: I am curious to know about how art and business are elegantly synthesized in show business. In other words, how does an artist like [show creator] Jill Soloway maintain the integrity of her vision when a parent company like Amazon is ultimately concerned with turning a profit?

HARVIE: The thing about Jill and working with her and what I have learned so far is that it’s all about love and creating art. She is really about the art of the show, but she gets to work with a company like Amazon and they believe in and are backing this entire project. She doesn’t have to worry about the money part—they really believe in her art. They are an organization that is kind of throwing the traditional network process out the window.

STEED: How did you end up with the role of Dale?

HARVIE: My getting this job was itself nontraditional. Typically there is show that is written and then there is a Casting Director and you get on their radar. If you get on that list, lucky you for starters, but then you go into the Casting Director’s office and you audition in front of a room full of people you don’t know. Then if you are liked, you might get called back. If you get called back, you might get cast and go to the table read. Then all the network executives are watching and listening to the table read and a shit-ton of people usually get fired after that and they hire someone else in your place. There is all of this stuff that goes with traditional network production. It is why so many shows and so many things and so many pilots never come to fruition. So many network executives make these arbitrary fucking decisions about whether somebody is ten pounds too overweight for them [laughs] or they’re not Asian enough or they’re too Asian or whatever. It’s these stupid fucking people making arbitrary fucking decisions about people who are so fucking talented. They end up fucking up the show because they have that power—because they are a network executive—and for some reason they have been deemed the person to say what goes and what doesn’t.

In a speech that went viral a while back, Patton Oswalt said that the tides are turning. It’s going to be the comics, artists and creators that are going to start making the decisions about this stuff and we’re going to start doing it ourselves. Amazon has given Jill the position she wants, where she gets to hire who she wants to hire, write about what she wants and decide what is funny. No one is looking over her shoulder as she writes. They’re at the table read, but no one is saying, “Hey, you know what? That person has got to go.” No one is creating that tension or vibe in the room.

STEED: I have heard Chris Hardwick talk about this on the Nerdist podcast a number of times, where he notes how so many great shows and ideas have been slaughtered because of this iterative process in which creative visions are burdened by too many non-creative people getting involved. His take is basically, “Hire the creatives and leave them alone.”

HARVIE: Amazon is really allowing Jill to have creative control. That is one of the advantages of having a Netflix, which produces Orange is the New Black, and one of the advantages of having Amazon, which is now its own network and has several shows that they are producing including this one. That is the beauty of getting to work with a new nontraditional network. The script doesn’t have to be super vanilla. A huge name doesn’t have to be attached, or somebody “up and coming” that is ready to pop. It’s none of that. Jill got to cast someone like me and I am kind of a nobody, you know? [Laughs] Everybody is somebody, but in the show business world, I’m nobody.

STEED: Earlier, of Soloway’s oeuvre, you noted that she has the ability to deal with the complexly of family, as we have seen with her involvement as a writer and producer on Six Feet Under. It seems that regardless of what the initial revelation is at the start of Transparent show, every family is built upon complex things said and unsaid, and so it seems to have potential of being resonant with literally anyone who has a family.

HARVIE: Absolutely. Perfect. That’s exactly it.

I actually have a really wonderful family. The family on the show is so different from my family, but they are equally as wonderful. I get to be witness to this family’s evolution and really no matter what, they seem to love each other.

That is how my family is. I have two brothers and I have a sister that joined my family when we were in high school—she’s the same age as me—and we all have these little secrets that we piecemeal out over time to see if we’ll still be loved, you know?

I remember my mom saying a long time ago, “No matter what, I am going to keep this family together.” It was long before I ever came out. It was actually the sentence that allowed me to come out to my family twice. I love that [the family on the show], whether they say it like my mom or not, really has that vibe. Come what may, it doesn’t matter. They’re still going to be okay. Maybe you don’t get that sense episode to episode, and maybe you’re in suspense about whether everything is going to be okay, so there is that. In real life, though, we operate from such fear that if we reveal our true selves, we’ll be unlovable.

STEED: When you were younger did you ever imagine that not only would there someday be a show that thoughtfully handles trans issues and perspectives with respect and care, but also that you would be able to be part of such a thing?

HARVIE: No, I did not think there would be. It is something that crossed my mind where I thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if…” but I didn’t think there would be this. When I started doing comedy, I started envisioning myself doing other things. I am one of those people who believes that if you visualize it and make steps and put your feet in the direction of something, that these things will happen. But I didn’t know that something like this would ever come up or happen. I didn’t know that this particular show would be possible, but I am so fucking grateful to be part of this.

I know that when it airs, it is going to be world-changing. I really believe that. I usually don’t say shit like that [laughs]. And the show is being sold to many, many countries through Amazon so it is not just available in the US. It is everywhere and the distribution part is amazing in itself. I do think it is going to be world changing. This is a storyline where no matter what their secrets are, this family stays together. The transition is just the tip of the iceberg and while it is the one that gets the story going, this show is not entirely about Maura—although she is a central character and is very important and all of that. So it is really about a family, and not just a family whose dad is transitioning—it is about family.

IMAGE CREDIT: Darren Setlow

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.