When you’ve been an actress as long as 43-year-old Felicity Huffman, it must get frustrating when your past work on television and in theatre is ignored in favor of your current hot project, and for Huffman, that’s gotta be the ABC drama Desperate Housewives, which has earned her an Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild award.
In the independent comedy TransAmerica, from first time writer/director Duncan Tucker, Huffman is set to make her mark on the film world with her role as Bree Osbourne, a pre-op transsexual who ends up taking a cross country road trip with “her” illegitimate teen son Toby, played by Kevin Zegers.
It’s the type of role that allows Huffman to play with gender stereotypes, and though it might not seem glamorous, it’s the type of performance that allowed actresses like Hilary Swank and Julie Andrews to flourish. Huffman has already won an award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and has been nominated for an Independent Spirit award, but those who have seen the film think that the Golden Globes and a guy named Oscar isn’t far behind.
ComingSoon.net spoke to Huffman about this role, which might soon replace Desperate Housewives as her crowning career achievement.
CS: How did this part first come to your attention? Felicity Huffman: The script was out there and was getting a lot of attention. It was a great script and my agent, Chris Andrews said ‘you’ve got to read it, you’ve got to read it,’ but I never get movie auditions, much less movie parts. It just was serendipitous that Duncan saw a few Broadway plays I was in, where the audience is 100 people. When he heard I was interested, he just said yes. Isn’t that amazing?
CS: I assume that this was just when “Housewives” was taking off, so was there some irony that this character is almost the antithesis of the women on the show? Huffman: No, there’s not, because “Desperate Housewives” wasn’t taking off. I hadn’t even shot the pilot yet, so we didn’t even know if it had any legs or where it was going. It was just yet another pilot that I was running up the flagpole, probably to get shot down.
CS: What kind of research did you do to prepare for the role of Bree? Huffman: I did a lot. I didn’t know anything about the transgender community, as Andrea James says, a wonderful woman in the transgender community. I read every biography I could get my hands on, watched every documentary I could. I went to the library and looked through articles. I went to a couple of transgender conventions, so I could meet a wide spectrum of the community. I worked with a woman named Danea Doyle, who coaches men becoming women, I worked with two women named Andrea James and Calpurnia Adams, who helped me with everything from going through the script to telling me their life story. I did a lot, and the sort of lynch point was the voice. Not because I wanted to do it last, but because I couldn’t figure out how to do it, it was the last thing that fell into place.
CS: What was involved with perfecting that deep voice? Huffman: Finding the right voice teacher who could figure it out. I don’t have the chest capacity that you guys have and I can’t get the resonance, and I don’t have the testosterone. It was finding a voice teacher and lowering it about four octaves and making it sound like I was stretching for a feminine voice. What came out was sort of a lonely, affected voice.
CS: Can you talk a bit about the make-up used to make you look like a male transsexual? Huffman: That’s my face! Those are my ears, too. The makeup was dictated in the same way the costumes was, which is that Bree doesn’t go out shopping, because where she is in her transformation, she’s excruciatingly self-conscious. She could never leave her house. She does the same thing with makeup. She needs something thick to cover any stubble. Because she’s becoming a woman, she thinks fair skin (equals) femininity, and picked a base that was too light for herself. I got a really light base and at first we did a camera test, and I looked like Tammy Faye Baker. Then, I just went in and exacerbated my angular face. We had makeup, but I designed it and then I put my lips on like “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
CS: You mention adapting your voice, but were there any other mannerisms you took on to really bring this role home like that awkward walk? Huffman: That wasn’t last minute. I worked about two months to bring it all together. Duncan didn’t see it until the first day I walked on set. We had done little camera tests for the makeup and whatnot, but he had never seen the total package until the day we were shooting in the Village. There were no last minute things. The voice clicked into place about a week before we started shooting.
CS: Did you wear the genital prosthetic the whole time? Huffman: Pretty much. There were a couple times in Arizona where we were in the station wagon with no air conditioning, and it got a little too hot to wear Andy, but I pretty much wore it the whole time.
CS: Um it actually had a name? Huffman: Yes, Andy. The costume supervisor had just broken up with a boy, and she was like “My ex-boyfriend’s name was Andy and he was a real d*ck!” So the name stuck.
CS: Was having a penis the hardest part of the movie for you? Huffman: It was really weird, yeah. When Duncan came and said that we’re going to show Andy, I burst into tears, probably because I’ve lived with it so long, it felt like a travesty, which is weird, because it’s a prosthetic piece of rubber and who cares. But what I love about that moment is that it does that Brechtian thing of popping you out of the movie, like he used to want to shock you out of the play, and at the same time, it takes you back and puts you directly into Bree’s experience, because the way you feel about her penis in that moment, is the way she feels about it. So it’s kind of a wonderful piece of theatre.
CS: Did you have any problem with doing the movie’s other nude scene in the bathtub? Huffman: There was supposed to be a lot more bubbles, but because we were a little indie–kind of a day late and a dollar short–we didn’t have time to go out to get bubbles, so we tried dish detergent and that didn’t work. I was a little more exposed than I anticipated, but oh well.
CS: What did your husband, William Macy, think about all of this? Huffman: I’d call him every day, basically so he could tell me how to act the scene. He actually got tired of it, and was like “You have to call me at the beginning of the day or the end of the day, because I can’t talk to Bree anymore.”
CS: Although this is a comedy, there are also a number of dark points like in the montage at the end. How did you arrive at that sort of depression? Huffman: That kind of pain, Bree carried around from the beginning. I think you could see it in how she carried herself, and let it out at that particular moment. That scene where Toby moves over to kiss me was kind of horrifying, and I didn’t actually look at Kevin the entire time. Someone asked me the other day what Kevin looked like naked, and I have no idea! Kevin drove that scene.
CS: Was there anything fun to do while you were sitting around in the car with Kevin between scenes? Huffman: We made fun of Duncan. Duncan had a terrible directing hat. He had one of those Patagonia hats and he always kept it tied up. Finally, after we ridiculed him enough, we got him to change it, and he got a really kick-ass cowboy hat.
What was it like working with Graham Greene? (The Native American actor plays a Samaritan who becomes smitten with Bree.) Huffman: He’s the most giving actor. There we are in the middle of nowhere staying at the Best Western and Kevin’s holding lights, that kind of thing. He’s really easy.
CS: Do you think audiences are ready to see a film that tackles the issues of the trans-gendered? Huffman: I wouldn’t say that they have to be prepared for it to get the story, but they have to be prepared for it to get their ass in the seat. After 5 or 10 minutes, the issue part of it, the gender dysphoria part of it falls to the background and you’re just watching a wacky road movie. Are they ready for it? Yes, I think they are if they could come to the theatre. Maybe that’s your job or that’s what word of mouth is for. Maybe “Desperate Housewives” can help or maybe Dolly Parton will help. I don’t know.
CS: There’s already a lot of buzz about awards for this film. Since you’ve already found success for “Housewives”, are you blasé about them? Huffman: Who can be blasé about them? I’m sort of gun-shy about them, because there’s no way to control them. It’s completely out of your control. If people can just come see the movie, I think that’s a win.
CS: Did you expect such a positive response to this film? Huffman: I didn’t know it would be big vehicle. We didn’t know if anyone would go see it. I knew it was a challenge and a great part. What gave me the confidence was that Duncan gave me this part, and if you have a job, you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to learn how to trust your director and that takes a little time.
CS: Has the cast of “Desperate Housewives” seen the movie yet? Huffman: They were great! They all came to the opening in LA, which was was great because people were sick, had 5 am calls, ran out of babysitters, blah blah blah. They’ve known about it since we started shooting Season One. I sort of went “I just came off of this wacky movie,” and they were like “Why are you talking like that?” I couldn’t shake it for a while. They’ve been really supportive.
TransAmerica is now playing in limited release in New York and Los Angeles and will come to more cities in the next few weeks.