My worst moment: 'Transparent' star Amy Landecker on being fully exposed and the embarrassment of sex scenes

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Amy Landecker attends the 25th Annual Critics' Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on Jan. 12, 2020 in Santa Monica, California. - Frazer Harrison/Getty Images North America/TNS

In the Showtime drama “Your Honor,” which premieres next month, Bryan Cranston plays a New Orleans judge whose wife was murdered a year before the events of the show begin. Amy Landecker plays the detective who investigated that unsolved murder, and she is pulled back into the family’s orbit when the judge’s son is involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident.

“I’m a huge fan of twisty-turny, juicy stories,” Landecker said. “It’s murder and mystery and intrigue. There’s trials and cover-ups. I was reading the scripts ravenously trying to find out what happens, so I think people will enjoy it.”

The show also features Michael Stuhlbarg, with whom Landecker co-starred in her first film, 2009’s “A Serious Man.” That job prompted Landecker — a Chicago theater actor and the daughter of radio personality John Records Landecker — to relocate to Los Angeles full time, and she would eventually become a household name thanks to her role as Sarah Pfefferman on the Amazon series “Transparent.”

When asked about a worst moment in her career, she recalled a guest role on the Showtime series “House of Lies.”

“I did actually tell this story in a funny, comedic way on Conan O’Brien once,” she said, “but in real life it really was horrifying.”

My worst moment …

“‘A Serious Man’ was my first big, splashy on-camera job, which was a Coen Brothers movie where I did some nudity. I was lying down on a chaise lounge outside sunbathing and Michael Stuhlbarg looks at me from a rooftop, so it’s very far away. My point is, I’m not the queen of nudity, but I didn’t mind doing it lying down, panned from far away in a Coen Brothers movie.

“I had not done nudity on camera previous, but it’s interesting because I was doing ‘Bug’ out in L.A. at the time and I was naked on stage in that. But being naked on camera is totally different and I was so scared, but I’m so glad I did it, it was an amazing experience.

“But then Hollywood starts assuming that you are the ‘nude person.’ The ‘sexual person.’ So I started to get calls for naked characters.

“So I get an offer for a guest role on a show called ‘House of Lies’ with Don Cheadle. I didn’t realize there was a sex scene in it because the way it was written on the page, it cut away before the sex scene. Suffice it to say, it’s a pretty progressive, racy show and my character is this drunk housewife who takes Don upstairs. I was wearing a Little Bo Peep outfit and we had this comedic sex scene where I drop my underwear and bend over. This is so horrifying, I can’t believe I’m even telling it in this detail.

“Well, I had never done anything like that before. And after they yelled cut, I burst into tears. I was freaking out. And Don was the dearest human being on the planet, could not have been lovelier. He was like, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and I was like, ‘No, no — it’s not anyone’s fault.’ I had agreed to this. I just didn’t know what my limits were.

“So we kind of moved quickly through the rest of the day because I was not in the best place. And I went home and told my manager, ‘I’m never doing anything like this again,’ and he’s like, ‘No problem.’ Then we get a call that they want me to come back and shoot it some more. The camera angle was going to be less vulnerable to me, and I’ve calmed down by this point, but I’m still sort of horrified that I have to do it again.

“And then they say they’re rewriting the scene and instead of Little Bo Peep, now I’m going to be a dominatrix. So we go back and do it again, and this time it’s even easier because I’m getting used to it, but also not being in a Little Bo Peep outfit, I feel a little more powerful. Whatever. It’s fine. The whole thing is fine. And I don’t have to bend over in front of the camera. But I’ve now done this scene three times.

“Flash forward to the Golden Globes. It’s about two years later and I’m now in this incredible show called ‘Transparent’ and we are nominated for best comedy. I had never been to anything like the Golden Globes in my life and I’m already feeling a little overstimulated. I’m on the red carpet to get my picture taken but no one’s taking my picture because no one knows who I am. And then I hear ‘Amy! Amy!’ and I’m like ‘They know me!’ but they were actually calling for Amy Adams. So I was already in a really cringe-y, horrible place. Thrilled to be there, but horrified at the same time. It was a lot. It’s the kind of thing you fantasize about but you don’t consider what it could be like to feel anonymous in that space.

“So I see Don Cheadle on the red carpet. And because I’m overstimulated and I’m trying to be funny, I yell really loudly: ‘Don! Oh my God! Do you remember me? We had sex three times!’ No reference to it being on camera for the show. Just, ‘Remember when we had sex three times?’

“And he goes, ‘Amy, my wife and my children are standing right here.’ And his wife’s got her arms folded, the kids’ mouths were open. When I tell you the looks I was getting. And I just burst into tears (laughs). I was absolutely mortified. His wife didn’t know who I was or what I was talking about.

“And he again, the dearest human being on the planet, he comes up to me, just like he did on set, and he puts his hands on my shoulders and goes, ‘Amy, it’s OK. It’s OK. Here’s what you’re going to do: You’re going to tell this story for the rest of your life.’ And I have told it often. But I’ve never told it in an interview in this kind of detail.

“A great way to change your mood after something like that? We won that night (laughs)! The difference in feeling like ‘I’m the lowest low, I don’t belong here,’ to ‘Oh my God, we just won the Golden Globe for best comedy’ was amazing.

“The irony is that because of ‘Transparent,’ people think of me as this really physical, sexual actress, which is hysterical because anyone who knows me, knows I am not that person! I am not confident and I am not free — and I was never naked in sex scenes on that show. My rule is, I will either do nudity if I feel like it’s appropriate to the character, or I will do a sex scene. But I won’t do both at the same time.”

Landecker was nude on stage in “Bug.” What was less daunting about that experience?

“At the end of ‘Bug,’ we’re covered in stage blood and it was dark and I didn’t feel as exposed. Whereas film is permanent. In fact, you can Google me and see a naked picture of me in that scene from ‘A Serious Man’ and you can’t see me naked from ‘Bug.’ That’s the difference; one’s a fleeting moment and one’s permanent. It’s just scarier on camera and I don’t know what the lighting will be like. I was also in another one of Tracy Letts’ plays, ‘Killer Joe,’ where I walk in naked from the waist down. But again, in low lighting, it’s not that bad.”

Actors often push themselves to take on roles that scare them. But everyone has limits. That’s human. Maybe Landecker didn’t know her boundaries just yet on “House of Lies.”

“That’s an amazing point, actually. Beating myself up for something I didn’t know yet it is not the most compassionate way to respond. Obviously I put myself out there for a living. It started for me with Chicago theater; I was so drawn to it and we don’t do wimpy stuff. The material that Chicago theater is rooted in is really hard core, emotionally and physically.

“And there has been a reckoning culturally in general for women; I get to choose what I’m comfortable with. In fact, I just turned down a project that was very psychologically and sexually complicated and it was the lead in a film. But I just knew I was the wrong actor for it.

“I remember Don and I talking about that; he was like, ‘Some people come in here and they have no problem at all.’ And I don’t have judgment of those people who are free. I’m just not that person. And it’s so ironic that I’m known for Sarah Pfefferman on ‘Transparent.’ I’m married to Bradley Whitford, who is known for ‘The West Wing’ and everybody just pretty much assumes — and they’re right — that he’s like Josh Lyman. But in my case, I share the emotional vulnerability of Sarah, but her sexual appetites and makeup have nothing to do with me.”

The takeaway …

“I have to be able to laugh at my worst moments. The best way to deal with my embarrassment and shame is to have some levity.

“I mean, at the Golden Globes I was really freaked out that I had been so inappropriate in front of Don’s kids. And the coolest thing about him is that he had compassion in that moment. He took my shoulders and he was like, ‘My kids are teenagers, they’re fine.’ And he was like, ‘Tell this story, it’s a funny story.’ And even now Bradley asks me tell the story because people think it’s really funny. And it is! But it’s horrifying too.

“I’m still embarrassed when I see Don around, but he really helped me. He’s a dear.”

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