Jeffrey Tambor—the balding, beatific, preternaturally affable thespian who’s practically made a career out of playing lovable oddballs over the years, on the big and small screens—is one of those actors. The kind that hit late middle age… and keep kicking things up a notch.
Tambor is 72, and recent years have found him doing some of the most talked-about work of his career. In his new memoir, Are You Anybody?, Tambor recalls James Barton Hill, a fellow student at Wayne State University in 1969, telling him, “It’s going to happen for you… But it’s going to happen very, very late.”
Indeed, it did. Tambor has won awards and industry acclaim for his portrayal of Maura Pfefferman, a transgender woman in Amazon’s original series Transparent. In 2013, he reprised his role as the beloved, bumbling patriarch George Bluth, Sr. on Arrested Development, which Netflix resurrected for a fourth season after it got three seasons on Fox in the early 2000s. (That talk about a fifth season on Netflix? “I can’t say!” Tambor coyly protests. “There’s always talk. I would just say stay tuned. And that actually is true!”)
In conversation, he is an engaging storyteller. To get a sense of his personality, picture your favorite uncle, maybe mixed with an older San Francisco hippie as well as one of those ship captains on tour boats—the kind who can tell stories for hours over the loudspeaker about every passing landmark.
And now, add “author” to his resume.
Tambor—who’s a part owner of Skylight Books, an indie bookstore in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles—is publishing his memoir May 16. After saying goodbye on a recent afternoon to some guests who’d come over to visit (“Let me go in the other room,” he told Paste by phone, before bidding farewell to his visitors—“Bye, bye, bye. Love you, love you, love you”) he talked about everything from his abiding joy in the craft of acting to his favorite advice he’s been given to why he wanted to write a book now about his long and idiosyncratic career.
Paste: There’s a part in your memoir where you write, “The truth is, male or female, we all grow up with this preconception that we are Cinderella, and all we want is to be invited to the ball.” When did that moment arrive for you?
Jeffrey Tambor: I don’t know if I actually had that Cinderella moment. I’m now in my 70s, and I get to talk about Transparent, and I get to talk about The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development. I guess that’s about as Cinderella as you get. I mean, that’s quite a trifecta I got, and I would take one of those and say that was the ball. When I was a young kid, I used to watch Letterman in the afternoon—that dates me, because he had an afternoon show—and Steve Allen and Jack Parr with my parents before I went to bed. And they always seemed to be just coming from this party. And everybody’s laughing. And I thought—whatever that is, I want to be part of that.
Paste: What about James Barton Hill’s encouragement you mention in the book, that it’s going to happen for you, just “very, very late.” What’s kept you going, to get to this point in your career?
Tambor: I don’t have an easy quip or answer for that… I’ve always been very, very attached to that idea of “Ladies and gentlemen, places please.” And whatever happens in that scope between that and the curtain call—or “action” and “cut”—I am wonderfully taken to. And I find very freeing. If there is a Cinderella moment, it’s come as a surprise. Because I think it’s this little cast I have at home. My wife, Kasia, [children] Hugo, Eli, Gabriel, Eve and Molly. I think that’s the ball. And it just took me 70 years to learn and get things in their proper order.
Paste What does excellence in your craft—to be a good actor—what does that mean to you?
Tambor: I’m so glad you asked that. I was just recently at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, and there was this play called Citizen. And there were these six actors. I just happened to go, because a friend of mine was in the cast. And I was sitting there and I went, “Oh yeah, I keep forgetting. There are so many talented actors—really killer, genius actors—on the land.” In repertory theaters, in Milwaukee and Louisville and Seattle and in the Kirk Douglas Theatre, who have not walked the red carpet. Nor do they want to. I always remember my friend who was at the Milwaukee Rep, and he had a Milwaukee library card, and he shopped in Milwaukee. There is that kind of actor, and I’m always impressed by them. There are some really, really, really fine actors on the land. Who are, quote, unrecognized. Who don’t want that. They just want to act. And I like that. I like that idea. It keeps me very grounded.
Paste: What attracts you to roles? Any particular thing you look for?
Tambor: I think you know, as a writer. Or a reader. You’ll read something and say, “What is it about that sentence that makes that writer so great?” And sometimes it’s undefinable. I’m thinking of And Justice For All, where I first met [my character] Jay. And I went, “Oh, I know who that is.” Or Hank Kingsley [Tambor’s character on The Larry Sanders Show] saying, “Hey now.” I went, “I know who this is.” And there’s that recognition. I think it’s as raw and undefined as that. Maybe there’s a dozen times in a career where it happens like that, where it’s so powerful. And you learn not to ignore it. And you go after it. And you make hard decisions according to it. And you go after that. I’ve somehow been trained and indoctrinated to not ignore those signs and signals. It’s like love. You fall in love. And you just go after it. You just go after it.
Paste: What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?
Tambor: It’s a piece of advice I don’t understand, still. It was taught to me by my teacher: “Adore everything.” I’m still not quite sure what it means, but it’s very powerful. We have a tendency to think—down the line, when I’m paid, and I’m walking the red carpet, and I get to be a series regular. And it’s not that. It’s everything. It’s about the ups and downs. See, the great thing about being an actor—and the lucky thing about being an actor—is for the civilian, when the dog dies, you mourn and you bury the dog. With the actor, the grace note is—the dog dies, you mourn, you bury the dog… and your acting gets better. Because the “paint” gets more vibrant. There’s more history to it.
Paste: You own a bookshop, you’ve written a memoir, but is it true you’re adamant about blocking out time to read every day?
Tambor: Yes! Have you read Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, Anything is Possible? Or [Strout’s novel] My Name is Lucy Barton?—I was reading her this morning. I tell you, another good book—[George Saunders’] Lincoln in the Bardo. Oh. My. God… It’s all about stories isn’t it? That’s how we live. That’s how we define our lives. Isn’t that what they did around campfires at the end of the day, and they were telling stories so they would come to themselves and learn how to get through the next day? Stories and survival. It’s the same thing. You need stories. I think I am addicted to stories. There’s also something about the act of reading. The act of reading itself, no matter what it is, is very satisfying for me, and very deep. But I’m not one of those people who say, if it’s not on paper, I won’t read it. I’ve had 12 Kindles. I read on anything. I’ll read on a wall. I’m all about reading.
Paste: Why did you want to write this memoir now?
Tambor: I wrote this, it is for my kids. I was driving my daughter to her flute lesson about a year ago—because I play a lot of different roles, and they see me in a lot of different iterations—and she said, “What is it you do again?”
I know who I am. And I’m not Adela St. Johns… I don’t even know who that is! I know that I’m not Joseph Heller and things like that. I know what’s up. I walk around a bookshop and see these names, so I just wanted to make it clear this author knows who he is and what he’s doing. And it’s changed me a bit. The terror of that empty page. Lordy mercy. And the terror of the page that’s not empty! You read it when your blood sugar’s low and you go, “This is garbage!” I read slower now. I’m pretty fast. But I read slower now and savor more. Isn’t that interesting!
Paste: Perhaps it’s a manifestation of that “adore everything” advice you follow.
Tambor: Look at you. Look at you! And now you’ve brought it all back home.
Tambor’s memoir, Are You Anybody?, will be published Tuesday, May 16. Pre-order here.