Desperate no more
By David Germain
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. Now, she's an Academy Award favorite for her performance in "Transamerica" -- in which she plays a man prepping for sex-change surgery.
Not bad for an actress 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.
Huffman managed to fleetingly catch the eye of audiences with bit parts "The Spanish Prisoner" and "Magnolia," and she endeared herself to a cult of fans who caught her as the slightly flighty producer on the acclaimed but short-lived TV 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, told The Associated Press 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 homemaker Lynette in "Desperate Housewives."
As she was doing an early cast reading of the show's pilot script, 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 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 'not a star'?
"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.
The actress 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, Huffman and co-stars Teri Hatcher, Marcia Cross and Eva Longoria grabbed four of the five Golden Globe nominations for best actress in a TV comedy or musical, and the show was nominated for best series. (Huffman also earned a Globe nomination for best actress in a dramatic film for "Transamerica.")
Huffman diplomatically defends the show against accusations of a creative funk.
"We were riding so high that there's no place else to go but sort of down for a while, and God willing, up again. And I'd say everyone's entitled, of course, to their opinion," Huffman said. "My experience has been the scripts have been great. I think it's been a wonderful year."
The year could get even better if "Transamerica" brings Huffman an Oscar to go with her Emmy. 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.
Huffman still is waiting to see if the film will translate to more meaty screen roles. But she has been cautioned by Macy, who signed on as executive producer of "Transamerica," 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."