| Felicity Huffman talks about Transamerica
"I felt so ugly that whole movie, and there I am acting with beautiful [costar] Kevin Zegers."
April 23, 2005
It's true, it doesn't immediately sound like a sure bet at the multiplex. In the movie, Huffman portrays conservative Bree (formerly Stanley), who is surprised to learn that during college she fathered a son - who needs to get bailed out of prison for drug posession and driven from New York to California. The road trip occurs just days before the long-awaited operation that will complete Bree's sex change.
But the film, written and directed by Duncan Tucker, makes its North American premiere Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival, and buzz is strong (it won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February). Given the groaning weight of its material, "Transamerica" is surprisingly light and smooth, buoyed by Huffman's compelling performance as Bree, an uptight, prissy woman who happened to have been born male.
Had "Desperate Housewives" (where she plays Lynette Scavo) not made Huffman so visible, "Transamerica" audiences might have been hard-pressed to recognize the "Sports Night" and "Christmas With the Kranks" actress in Bree. Huffman speaks in a voice that is unfamiliarly low, aiming awkwardly higher. She looks uncomfortable in her waxy skin and Bree's Pepto-Bismol pink ensembles. And her hands appear particularly mannish when she's shown stuffing her package deeper between pantyhose-encased thighs. For those who prefer their prime-time TV divas penis-free, the scene that shows Bree whipping it out by the side of the road to relieve herself will come as something of a shock.
With her increased (and increasing) profile, Huffman joins a new category of actresses that includes Edie Falco, Frances McDormand and Patricia Clarkson: women who have found bona fide stardom, glamour and meaty parts after 40, when most actresses have traditionally been checked into the Hollywood Home for the Aged and No Longer Nubile. Instead, here's 42-year-old Huffman, mother to two young daughters with actor William H. Macy, alternately tackling the most challenging of acting roles in "Transamerica" and lolling poolside in a plunging candy-colored bathing suit, head tilted insouciantly, on the inside cover flap of the May Vanity Fair along with the rest of the "Desperate Housewives" ensemble. The accompanying article dishes a tearful, hissing account of what took place during the cover shoot (Marcia Cross, it's suggested, becomes upset when Teri Hatcher is placed center stage), but Huffman comes off like the pro, the show's grown-up, who's recused herself from ego-tripping foot races.
Salon talked to Huffman by phone on an early Los Angeles morning before her call to the "Desperate Housewives" set. Surprise! She was a grown-up: a game, articulate pro who held forth with humor and original thinking on Hollywood gender-bending, her fake penis, how gays may be making Hollywood friendlier to women, being a bad mother, and - yes - all those rumors of female hysteria emanating from Wisteria Lane.
How did you get involved in "Transamerica"?
When was this?
Whenever I get a part I immediately get sick and nauseous and don't want to do it and want to hide under a rock. So I spent the entire "Desperate Housewives" pilot reading thinking only about "Transamerica," going, "Oh my god, I can't do it. I can't do it"
What kind of research did you do?
It's actually very smart. The backdrop is that she's a transgendered woman. But it's a movie about your heart breaking open. It's about someone who feels so alienated from herself and from society and feels that people don't really know her, who feels that her family hasn't accepted who she really is. I think many people can relate to some of those feelings. Certainly I could. So once I started to understand the emotional through-line, and where this woman was coming from, then I had to tackle the outside.
What did that entail?
It's such an enormous undertaking and so frightening, [that many men] actually do it a little later in life, because they probably spend the first half of their lives hoping it's not true. But you can imagine: You're 45 years old, you're 6-foot-4, and you finally decide, "I've got to do it. I have to be who I really am. Now how do I act like a woman?" Then you've got everything from the voice - which is a huge hurdle to overcome so you don't sound like Harvey Fierstein or Tony Curtis in "Some Like It Hot" - to how do women stand? Men take up more room physically in how they occupy a room. Women are more vocal; when they talk to each other there's a lot of head nodding, a lot of "Uh-huh, uh-huh." Men tend to give couple-word sentence replies. There's so much to learn.
When we started shooting in New York my voice hadn't landed. I felt as if physically it was coming along and I was starting to understand Bree's journey, but I needed to sound like a man who hadn't quite found his voice yet. And physically as a woman I don't have the chest cavities or the head cavities to make that kind of resonance, so I worked with a wonderful coach and we finally found it. I would place my voice in this hollow part and it was perfect because at least to me it came out sounding sad. And Bree is sad.
It sounds like your experience was learning how to be more masculine as your character is learning to be more feminine?
But in several scenes, you have a penis.
I put Bree together at the beginning of the day with help from everybody. I wanted to be true to what Bree becoming a woman would be. So it's very tight underwear and then support pantyhose.
Wait, why very tight underwear?
Was it big?
And you wore it even in scenes where it wasn't going to be shot?
Well, the scene where you pull Andy out by the side of the road is pretty mind-blowing. Did that feel like a major primal shift for you?
Duncan came to me in the desert in Arizona and said, "We want to get a shot of Bree pulling over and peeing," and explained, "You're squatting to pee and then you hear a coyote so you stand up." I had kept it together for pretty much the whole film, [but at that point] I just burst into tears. It felt so vulnerable. I didn't know whether it was just the character living in me - the one thing she doesn't want anyone to see, this thing she's getting rid of in a week. Or if it was just me going, Oh my god I don't want men - I don't want anyone - to see me as a man. But that's sort of Bree living in me anyway.
Did you feel professionally vulnerable playing this part? Because this is not a glamorous role for you.
Yeah, he's hot.
Obviously you didn't realize how visible "Desperate Housewives" would make you, but did you consider it a threat to the way people see you as a star to look so unglamorous?
And the same thing goes on "Desperate Housewives." Thank god I'm not the pretty one, because I get to wear pajamas and it's just a relief. We have the beautiful Marcia Cross and the beautiful Eva Longoria and the beautiful Teri and Nicollette [Sheridan]. We've got that corner covered, thank god.
You're 42 and experiencing success like never before. Do you think prospects are brightening for women over 35 in Hollywood?
"Desperate Housewives" - god bless [series creator] Marc Cherry - has changed the landscape of pilot season. Friends have called me to say, "Thank you, thank you. I'm going out on so many more auditions now," because there are so many parts for women over 35.
Is that actually true?
The "Desperate Housewives" effect sounds remarkable. But why does the show exist to begin with? Why is the business moving in this direction when it used to be impossible for middle-aged women to get hired?
So what can you tell me about this Vanity Fair article?
Well I'm sure you've heard about it.
Well what was reported in that story - and elsewhere - is that the women that you work with on "Desperate Housewives" cannot get along. Is that true?
So the screaming, tearful episode that Vanity Fair reported happening at the photo shoot was an anomaly, not the norm?
Why is there an investment in the story that you all don't get along? Do we fetishize the idea of women catfighting?
The prurient interest is gender-specific. "Oh, five women. How are you going to get along?" But women get along great. Women are really great at creating community.
Is the attention you're getting now different from when you were on "Sports Night," which I remember being a hit show?
I do feel the difference a little bit in job security. Now watch - I'm going to get fired next week. But it's nice to know I have a job next year. At "Sports Night" it was always like, "What are the numbers? Oh, Jesus, is anyone watching? Are we going to get canceled?" And we loved it so much. So that hung over us quite a bit.
You're in "Christmas With the Kranks" and then "Transamerica," two very different films. Do you have a larger career philosophy?
I don't do very many movies, so if they offer it to me I'm like, "OK! Sure!" I have never been at a place in my career where I've been like, "These are the kinds of films or television shows I'd like to do." I'm always more like, "Can I work?" I've been lucky in what I've done. I've done a lot of shit that never made it on TV and I've gotten fired from stuff.
What have you been fired from?
What interests you about her?
Are you similar to Lynette as a mother?
I'm not saying that all mothers feel this way. I know there are some that sail through it and god bless them. But yes, I find motherhood incredibly challenging and difficult - and those words are anemic compared to the experience.
Do you find yourself torn about leaving your kids the way working mothers often are?
And I only work two or three days a week. The exceptional week is four days. So you know, no. Work is a piece of cake compared to raising children. Are you kidding? You get to go to the set and people go: "Would you like a breakfast burrito?"