Amy Landecker on her hot new Amazon Prime series, her Chicago history and how she’s evolving as an artist.
If you don’t immediately recognize Amy Landecker, you might remember her dad: John Records Landecker has been on the radio more than four decades, a beloved disc jockey for 94.7 WLS-FM. And if you listened to her father’s show — especially in the early days of his Chicago career — you’ve probably heard Amy too. “I used to read the traffic [on the radio] and I’d read ads,” she says.
That’s not all she would do. “I created a lot of mischief there,” she laughs. “I used to break into the general manager’s office and smoke cigars. My favorite song was ‘September’ by Earth, Wind & Fire, because I was born in September, so I would fill in the request forms thinking that the girl who answered the phones wouldn’t notice that that one song had, like, 20 requests. And I used to torment some of the other jocks. I made [radio personality] Larry Lujack think there was a snake under his desk and scared the bejesus out of him.”
Landecker, 45, has come a long way since her days of creating chaos in her famous father’s office — after years of doing voiceovers, theater, and small TV and film projects, she’s now on the verge of becoming a breakout star in her own right with a lead role in the groundbreaking, unapologetically honest new Amazon Prime series “Transparent.” Though the series released its debut season of 10 episodes last week, it’s already garnering plenty of praise: Time called it “the best show of the year,” and Vulture dubbed it “damn near perfect.” In it, Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development”) plays a retired LA professor going through a late-in-life gender transition and struggling to share it with his three grown children (Landecker, Gaby Hoffmann and Jay Duplass). “I knew that the social aspect of the show was going to be incredibly fulfilling and transformative and important and cool,” says Landecker, who’s no stranger to championing social change, having worked with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago early in her career. “The show really has the power to change people’s minds and how they treat each other.”
Landecker’s character, Sarah Pfefferman, is not sparing for conflicts of her own: In the very first episode, Sarah cheats on her husband when she runs into an old college fling — another woman. “Sexuality has been something that I’ve struggled with, that I’m curious about, that I think is really important to being a human being and being in a relationship,” the actress says. “But we don’t talk about it very much, so I like the challenge of bringing it out into the open. But I will say, putting [acting and sexuality] together for the first time was not pleasant for me. I found it very scary and my initial response to this show was that I didn’t want to do it because I knew what was going to be required.”
Fortunately, “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway (“Six Feet Under,” “United States of Tara”) ultimately persuaded Landecker to take on the role — and for the actress, it came at the right time. “[‘Transparent’] coincided with the falling apart of my own marriage,” Landecker says, referring to her ex-husband Jackson Lynch, with whom she still co-parents their 10-year-old daughter and says she “gets along with really well.” “It’s a place for me to exorcise my demons, does that make sense? To share my experience as a sexual, feminist, female mother — possibly dealing with an identity crisis — and Jill is one of the greatest people to provide material that’s smart and funny and real and relatable for that. So you get to two things: You get the creative ya-yas out, and you also get to feel like you’re part of a civil rights movement that could really change the world.”
Though she’s now based in LA, Landecker is a true Chicagoan at heart (“I’ll always identify as a Chicagoan; if it wasn’t so cold, I’d be there forever”) — and admits that she’s able to participate in projects like “Transparent” because of a great many other Chicagoans. “I really have my dad to thank for my job,” she laughs. Her career fell into place like a series of dominoes: The elder Landecker pushed the first piece over for his daughter, followed by a handful of radio, theater, film and casting notables from the Windy City — each of whom bumped her into the next. It started in grade school; Landecker attended Francis W. Parker in Lincoln Park along with a slew of celebrities, including Billy Zane, Daryl Hannah and Anne Heche — she calls the group of them out in LA now “a kind of cool Parker mafia.” Though she did some plays in the school’s theater department, she didn’t think seriously about going into acting. “I didn’t feel particularly attractive or marketable in any way, so I didn’t think I was going to be able to make a living at it. I thought maybe I’d be a female sportscaster. I went to the University of Wisconsin and got into communications but got into” — she cuts herself off, laughs in her can’t-help-but-tell-the-truth way — “actually to be honest, I fell in love with a TA in the theater department, and went back to acting.”
Post-college and back in Chicago, she followed in her father’s footsteps by doing voiceover work — she was the voice of Hallmark, McDonald’s and Sears — and then theater, first directing, then acting at spots like Steppenwolf, Next Theatre in Evanston and the Goodman, the last of which took her to New York. While there, she worked on a play called “Bug” by Tracy Letts (another Chicagoan), which took her to LA, where she met up with casting director Rachel Tenner (yet another Chicagoan), who landed her a role in the Coen brothers’ cult hit, “A Serious Man.” “[That film] really changed my on-camera life and propelled me into a different area of work that I don’t think I ever foresaw happening,” says Landecker. “It led to [guest roles on] ‘Louie’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ and those jobs led to Jill [Soloway]. And Jill also leads back to Chicago — she grew up listening to my dad.”
In other words, Chicago has been good to Landecker, so — as her notoriety grows — she’s being good to it. As she tackles the next big adventure in her life — trying her hand at writing a show alongside “Enough Said” director Nicole Holofcener — she’s paying homage to her hometown by setting the still-in-development series here. “The working title is ‘Angry MILF,’ but we’ll probably change that when we realize we can’t even send an email with that in the subject line because it gets blocked,” Landecker jokes. “It’s about a single woman dating, inspired by my life and a compilation of divorced moms I know and the experiences that they’ve had, which are quite hysterical. I decided to do stand-up for the first time during a slow period creatively for me, and that kind of turned into this piece.”
It’s safe to say that any sort of slow period is over for Landecker, who, on the brink of TV stardom, says she’s never felt more creatively satisfied. “ ‘Transparent’ is the first time I’ve come near the fulfillment [I felt doing theater]. It’s hard to get those roles that allow you to show everything and feel like you’re really being used and exhausted and spent, which I think is what actors really love: We want to be tired,” she says. “[I love working with] directors who really work the actor to the point where they feel like they might break. That makes me feel alive.”
On shooting her first nude scene: “I walk off set and see Ethan [Coen, who was directing ‘A Serious Man’], and I’m like, ‘How was I?’ and I just want him to be like, ‘You looked beautiful,’ you know what I mean? And he was just like, ‘Oh, it was great, it was hysterical.’ But the real truth is, I would much rather make Ethan laugh than make them think I was hot.”
On theater: “You always hear actors say, ‘Theater is my first love,’ and it is. It’s a time when you really get to do what you do and there’s not a lot of waiting around and interruption and not a lot of money involved — sometimes money really clouds the waters of creativity.”
On dream directors: “David O. Russell — everything I see of his is incredible. And I’ve had an unbelievable percentage of female directors in my life, starting way back in theater with Shira Piven and Anna Shapiro. My first job out [in LA] was a guest role on ‘Mad Men’ and Lesli Linka Glatter was my director; Helen Hunt directed me on ‘The Paul Reiser Show’; and I had Nicole [Holofcener] and now Jill [Soloway].”
On yoga: “My major obsession — which is possibly the horror of my mother, who’s a Hatha Iyengar yoga instructor — is I go to yoga at a place called Maha in Brentwood and it’s singularly LA: It’s packed with people, a lot of silicone, a lot of Botox, there’s thumping hip-hop music until your ears are about to bleed. I think one of my instructors used to be an [adult film] actor, I haven’t confirmed that. But it’s one of the most cathartic, fun [activities].”
On her upcoming Michael Bay project: “It’s a really fun, tween, time-travel movie — sort of like ‘The Blair Witch Project’ meets ‘Back to the Future.’ … I realize that most of [the projects] I do are inappropriate for children — this movie is probably one of the few things I’ve done that my daughter can see. I’m hoping it turns out like ‘Twilight,’ where I just get to rake in the residuals while I do the red carpet and sit back and count my checks,” she jokes.
Photographer: Ari Michelson
Stylist: Adena Rohatiner
Hair: Creighton Bowman
Makeup: Elaine Offers
Shoot Coordinator: Katerina Bizios