Most actors spend a career dreaming of just one meaningful part. Jeffrey Tambor was lucky enough to land three such roles. The two-time Emmy-winning star of The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development and now Transparent knows from luck — and talent, and hard work. He’s funneled the resulting lessons, and many of the laughs that came with them, into his new memoir, Are You Anybody?
The book invites readers into Tambor’s bountiful life, from his lonely childhood to his lifelong passion for teaching to his glittering Hollywood career. It’s a walk through his vulnerabilities and his successes, landing exactly where one should with a life such as his: at gratitude. Jeffrey Tambor, he wants you to know, is grateful.
It’s one thing being on some of the best ensemble series in history, as you have been, but writing a book is a solo venture. How scary was that?
Scary, yeah. It is scary/excited/bucket list/oh wow. It’s fun. I really had a good time.
How difficult was it to plunge back into your childhood memories?
[Long exhale] It’s hard to talk about. It’s nice to, uh, it’s nice to express yourself. I have a huge regard for writers. I know when you guys see the empty page it’s a terror. It’s an absolute terror.
You’re extraordinarily candid in the book. Had you intended to be that honest?
Was I too candid?
Well, you’re very frank about your late acting teacher and Scientology, both of which tried to divide you from your family at various points.
Yeah, I think I gave a pretty fair rendition. It was actually interesting to write about. I wrote it because it was part of my life. And I tried to make the Scientology chapter as fair as possible. I actually had a good time while I was there.
One of the prevailing themes of the book is gratitude. You’re constantly thanking people in it. What gives you such a sense of thankfulness?
I’m here! Look at the life I’m leading! I have five of the most wonderful kids, four little ones at home and a daughter of whom I’m proud, [and] a great wife. People don’t get stuff like this. It’s great. You want to hear a story? I’ve just been told that I’m getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Isn’t that cool? While I was writing this book! You have to understand my father took me there. We put our little hands in the cement, and stuff like that. It’s kind of cool.
Let’s walk through your career a little. You have a beautiful chapter on Garry Shandling, your late Larry Sanders costar. What did he mean to you?
He meant everything to me. [My life] was pre-Garry Shandling and post-Garry Shandling. What did he mean to me? Authenticity. Huge respect for the audience. A real love of performing but also a way of teaching. Maybe the funniest and driest wit I’ve ever encountered. We got each other. We just got each other. He was a mentor and a friend of the highest order.
I’m still kind of shocked that he’s gone.
We all are.
You make working on Arrested Development as George and Oscar Bluth sound like the most fun you’ve had in your life.
It was incredible fun! Mitch Hurwitz is a great creator. I had no idea I was even going to be in the show [permanently].
Moving to Transparent, has writing about Maura changed your perspective on her?
I’m learning day by day, with Maura. I like writing about her. She’s easy to write about. She’s easier to write about than me, by the way. It’s like a friend. I mean, I know that sounds eye-rollingly vapid, but she is like a friend.
How are your conversations with the trans community now?
In the beginning, there was some concern that a straight male had the role. I used to hear things. I don’t hear anything now. The once-in-a-while shame tweet has disappeared. I think people are moving on. People are changing. I think what has happened is that people watch it and they trust it. Plus we have a cadre of professionals from the trans community that are leading us beautifully, and great writers — people who really have politically and just artistically thrown down.
One thing fans may not know about you is that you’re a voracious reader, on your 12th Kindle and reading before you even get out of bed in the morning.
And that’s an underestimation. I just like the word 12 — I think it’s more.
Why has reading taken up such a significant space in your life?
Always has. There’s something when I read. I’ve been in places where they talk about the higher power and blah, blah, blah, and I think this is the higher power, I really do, for me. There’s nothing that supplants it. For me, that first half-hour of clarity in the morning, 45 minutes, reading, love it. It’s been part of my life. I just feel like I’m talking to people. I think I’m a comedian. Again, I have a huge regard for writing. I think [writers] are the last magicians on earth.
Fans also may not know that you co-own Skylight Books in Los Angeles. Why invest in a bookstore?
Always had a regard for books. A bookstore in Detroit, I think, literally saved my life. I loved the idea. What you have (in me) is a person who gets to say he’s the co-owner and do absolutely nothing except say I’m the co-owner.
But it does give you a professional opinion on books. So tell me what I should be reading.
OK. You put the phone down and you go on Amazon and you order Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. It is a masterpiece.
I’ve heard that the audio version is amazing.
Because I’m in it?
Because you’re in it — along with Julianne Moore, Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, and some 160 other people.
I’m not great on having things read to me. I just recorded the audio version of my own book...what a form of hell that is.
Why was it such a problem? You wrote it!
But you see it and you hear it, and it’s two different parts of your brain. Your judgment kicks in.
That’s fair. You do realize that owning a bookstore makes you an Amazon competitor, right?
Yeah, I’ve made my [peace] with that. How you guys doing? I think it’s actually very noble to support both, and I think you can. And there is no doubt — there is no doubt — that the future will be on Kindle. And I got no problem with it.
What do you hope people take away from the book?
I hope they have a laugh, foremost. I hope they get a couple of lessons. I hope a young actor can kind of go, Oh, I can do that. I hope people have a nice connection and just say we will make it. We will make it. It does take time, and boy can we be funny while we’re trying to make it.
Alynda Wheat is a senior writer for Amazon. She has previously written for People, Entertainment Weekly and Fortune. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.