Carrie Brownstein gives us the scoop on her character Syd in “Transparent”

Carrie Brownstein is used to being in demand. Nineteen years ago it was for her band Sleater-Kinney to release new music and come through town on tour. Now she’s a hot commodity as an actress and writer, balancing her IFC show Portlandia with roles in the upcoming Todd Haynes film Carol and now a recurring role on Amazon’s Transparent.

Premiere Of Amazon's "Transparent"

Although not in the original pilot, Carrie’s character, Syd, is in the newly available first episode as a friend of Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffmann). The part was written expressly for Carrie, as the show’s creator, Jill Soloway, was a fan. The feelings were mutual.

“Jill reached out to me and I have been a fan of Jill’s for a longtime and had seen the pilot, and thought it was exceptional. I really wanted to make it work and that feeling was mutual so we talked about developing a character and figuring out a way for me to be part of the show and that’s where Syd came from,” Carrie said. “There were some permutations of who she was going to be and I just really trusted Jill and the other writers’ instincts.”

The pilot was already being reshot to replace the actress playing Tammy (Melora Hardin replaced Gillian Vigman who became  pregnant after Amazon picked up the first season), so there was an opportunity to slide Syd in.

“They wanted to establish Syd as somebody who had been in Ali’s life for a long time, kind of on the periphery of the Pfefferman family for a while, and so they wanted to just put Syd into the pilot since they were reshooting anyway, just to have this little shorthand of, ‘This is somebody is involved,'” Carrie said. But there was no other version of her before.”

Carrie said working closely with Gaby is great and that one of her favorite scenes was when the two are in a heated exchange.”

“There’s a scene where Syd and Ali have a pretty intense confrontation and coming to terms with some of the hidden truths in their dynamic. It was just a really wonderful and dynamic episode and scene to shoot,” Carrie said. “But it was just a mix of choreography because we had to sort of move from this one part of the room to another and there were just a lot of intense choices to be made and we played the scene a lot of different ways and its as some of the most exciting work I’ve done because it’s just so different from the other things I do.”

Besides shooting eight episodes of Transparent this summer, Carrie was also writing the new season of Portlandia, which is currently in production in Oregon. And right before that, Carrie was in Cincinnati, Ohio shooting what she says is a “small part” in Carol, the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith‘s lesbian novel, The Price of Salt.

“It’s very specific—stick to the script, really trust Todd’s instinct, it’s particular and a period piece. Each of them just have a different approach,” Carrie said. “Portlandia was writing and Transparent was acting with someone else’s writing so it was very different. I think if I was doing a couple of the same things simultaneously it would have been a strain, but I was able to access, I guess, different parts of myself instinctually. And the focus was different, it differentiated. I just feel lucky to be working. It’s exciting.”

2014 2014 Outfest Los Angeles Panel Discussion Of "Transparent"

In Transparent, Carrie plays Syd as someone who seems to have her shit together, compared to Ali and Josh (Jay Duplass). By episode four, it becomes clear that Syd and Josh are sleeping together but are keeping it from Ali. Josh, though, is sleeping with several women, including his childhood baby sitter, Rita.

“A lot of it is unsaid right now, as to what our friendship is,” Jay said of the Syd/Josh relationship. “That’s one of the things I love about the show is there’s a lot of mystery going in even with how people know each other and how they interact. Syd has always been a friend of the family and probably was more Josh’s friend at first, we talked about the possibility of us being like dating in college and being buds for a while, and that she was always around and then there is some sexual relationship that is still going on during the show itself, which becomes a point of contention for Syd and Ali and me and Ali as well.”


Episode descriptions and interviews indicate that Ali is not explicitly straight (a later episode has her exploring genderqueerness), and could mean her feelings for Syd could be romantic or possibly sexual complicating things for her best friend, her brother and herself. On a show like Transparent, which challenges the idea of labels and boxes by simply having created characters who eschew them, that would be a welcome plot twist.

Carrie said that the vulnerability of Syd “kept creeping in,” and the encouragement to sometimes improvise in a scene was both scary but inspiring.

“It was sort of undeniable with my character,” Carrie said of Syd’s ultimately being so vulnerable. “That was intense and also you have to kind of have an openness like when you’re going off script that you might find something that surprises you—and to kind of go with that and work with that and know it might become what the scene’s about and might shift dynamics in a certain way. So yeah starting to access and play with my character’s vulnerability a little more was scary but also important for her journey.”

As for those who still demand Carrie for her musical chops, Sleater-Kinney is releasing a box set, Start Together, on October 21. That will just have to do for now.

Season 1 of Transparent is available on Amazon today.