Desperate no more
For years, actor Felicity Huffman's screen time could be measured in minutes. Now, it seems, she is everywhere.
Published January 22, 2006
LOS ANGELES - Felicity Huffman wasn't supposed to win the Emmy over her more glamorous and talked-about Desperate Housewives co-stars. But she did. And that seems so long ago now that she has won a Golden Globe for her breakthrough role in the dramatic film Transamerica, in which she plays a man prepping for sex-change surgery.
Not bad for an actor who was thinking a few years ago that maybe she wasn't supposed to have a Hollywood career, after all.
Through the few ups and many downs in her career, Huffman often thought about quitting, pulling into her driveway and crying with her head on the steering wheel after bad days and failed auditions.
She managed to fleetingly catch the eye of audiences with bit parts in The Spanish Prisoner and Magnolia, and she endeared herself to a cult of fans as the slightly flighty producer on the acclaimed but short-lived ABC series Sports Night.
To those who wondered why Huffman did not steadily rise to bigger and better parts, the answer is easy.
"No one offered them to me," Huffman, 43, said recently over a salad at a cafe near the home she and her husband, actor William H. Macy, share with their two daughters in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.
"I'd get three lines here, four days in a movie there. When you'd drive on to the set, you don't know where you're going, there's no chair for you. They're going, "Who are you again?' This was the first time that I'd been considered for a major part, much less a lead."
Huffman's two breakthroughs came almost simultaneously. After reluctantly meeting with ABC about yet another TV project she figured would go nowhere, she was cast as the overwhelmed Lynette in Desperate Housewives.
As she was doing an early cast reading of the show's pilot, Huffman got a call from her agent that she had gotten the part of Bree in Transamerica, playing a transsexual whose final surgery to become a woman hits a snag after she learns of a teenage son, a cynical street hustler (Kevin Zegers), she never knew she fathered. (The film has not yet opened in the Tampa Bay area.)
The character, who began life as a male named Stanley, is a definite "she" to Huffman, though Bree still has the manly plumbing.
"It's an interesting question, where does gender start?" Huffman mused. "Always before, we've gone, "If you have a penis, you're a man. If you have a vagina, you're a woman.' It's what they tell you in nursery school and kindergarten. Now there's a whole other level brought into it."
Transamerica writer-director Duncan Tucker had first seen Huffman on stage in David Mamet's off-Broadway production Cryptogram. Later catching Huffman in bit movie roles or guest spots on Frasier, Tucker found himself wondering:
"Why is this woman not a star, like Frances McDormand, or the girl-next-door Meryl Streep?
"She reminds me of actresses like Rosalind Russell or Carole Lombard, those kind of good sports you could imagine hanging out with and having a beer. Really smart and fast-talking. I just had this gut instinct that she was the kind of transformative actress who would totally disappear inside the skin of somebody created from scratch. She wouldn't become Felicity Huffman playing Felicity Huffman as a transsexual but a completely new human being."
Huffman came up with Bree's look and deportment mostly on her own - hair and makeup stiffly applied by a hand not yet skilled in such feminine trappings, body language ungainly as she grows accustomed to changes in her body.
She worked with a vocal coach to develop Bree's deep, throaty voice, which took Huffman an hour to slip into each morning and which she maintained throughout the day, finding that she would lose the thread if she slipped into her own voice between takes.
Bree's voice so unnerved Macy, who stayed at home with their children, that he finally told her only to call before work in the morning or after shooting at night, when she was back in her own persona.
The youngest of eight children, with six sisters and one brother, Huffman settled on acting by age 10, after her mother sent her off to a summer theater camp. After initial stage success in New York, Huffman got by in Hollywood on parts in such movies as "Hackers" and the odd TV role until "Desperate Housewives" made her a star.
Though critics say Desperate Housewives is in a sophomore slump, the ABC show last week won the Golden Globe for best TV comedy even as it overlooked the quirky TV show's multiple acting nominations.
Those same critics expect Transamerica to bring Huffman an Oscar nod now that she has the Golden Globe. The film is one of the first acquisitions for the Weinstein Co., the new outfit of Miramax Films co-founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who are among the savviest of Hollywood's awards campaigners.
And Huffman still is waiting to see if Transamerica will translate to more meaty screen roles. But she has been cautioned by Macy, who signed on as executive producer, that she better not take another job over the Desperate Housewives summer break.
"As my husband tells me, he's going to kill me and divorce me and then eat me if I work over the hiatus," Huffman said. "He's ready for us to have some time together, and he's ready not to be Mr. Mom anymore."A visit to the Desperate Housewives set by a director friend from New York City brought home to Huffman that she finally had landed a long-term gig. She asked her friend if he was going to direct an episode that season.
"He said, "No, I think I'm going to come in next year to direct,' " Huffman said. "I went, "Oh, I'm going to have a job next year, too? This continues?'
"This job is fantastic. I've had fantastic jobs before that have died, and the fact that this job has legs - and what legs, this job has gams, not legs - is just fantastic. I can't tell you how grateful I am everyday."