By John Esther
February 27, 2006 - 12:12 AM PST
After nearly three decades of working in television, film and stage, Felicity Huffman is enjoying the fruits of her labor the way most actors would love to. On the one hand, Huffman receives a reported $250,000 per episode playing "extreme mom" Lynette Scavo on the ABC series, Desperate Housewives. On the other hand, she gets to showcase her acting chops in Duncan Tucker's impressive independent film, Transamerica. No wonder Huffman, 43, the wife of actor William H. Macy and mother of two, seems happy.
Already an Emmy Award-winner for her performance as the demanding mother of Housewives, Huffman has just been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actress category for her performance as Bree Osbourne, a mother coming to grips with the fact that, years ago, she fathered a child, Toby (Kevin Zegers). The news could not have come at a worst time. Following years of pain, planning and saving, Bree's long-awaited sexual transformation from man to woman is approaching - when Toby calls from a jail in New York. Forced to fly out there and help, the two soon embark on a road trip across America and their hearts. During the journey, they find plenty of pathos, humor and no small amount of gender and sexual complexities along the way.
What originally drew you to this film?
The script. If it lives on the page, it lives on the stage. I thought it was a great story and I was glad it wasn't an "issue" movie. You know, "Transgender individuals are people, too." And the part, if I could do it justice, was just a fantastic opportunity and I hadn't done anything close to that on film.
How did you prepare for the role?
When I got this pastry role of a woman playing a man becoming a woman, I was lost. So I started reading every article I could get my hands on. I saw every documentary I could. I read every biography and autobiography I could find. I started going to transgender conventions. Like any segment of society, there's a wide spectrum, and Bree was in a particular place, so I wanted to see a lot of different transgender women.
Did you have any prejudices of your own that you overcame while filming the movie?
I knew nothing about the transgender community and so, at best, I thought they were some odd little group. And, at worst, they were weirdos. I mean, come on; change your gender? Maybe they're just gay and they didn't want to accept that they're gay, and I can understand that. The first time I met transgender women, I was nervous: "I don't know where to look." When you meet someone who is severely handicapped you don't know where to look. You want to sort of pretend they're not handicapped but they are handicapped. And I realized all that shit just lives over here with me; that they are these fantastic, normal women.
After meeting with a couple of transgenders, did that change your sense of obligation in what you brought to the role and the truth you wanted to convey?
After meeting with the community, I was desperate not to screw it up.
You were playing a woman who is a man going to become a woman. Did you have to think about what makes you feel sexy? Did you have to think about the different sexualities of that?
It's a huge question and it's a sexuality question and this part of Bree is very shut down, very closed in, very frightened. Her sexuality is dormant. I know it's a gender issue, but sexuality-wise, it's dormant. She has that sweet flirtation with Graham Greene, who plays Calvin - sort of like a high school girl. How I approached it was where she's coming from emotionally. People don't see her for who she really is. "Nobody can really see me. No one really appreciates me. My family doesn't know me for who I am. I can't manifest who I am in the world. I feel a great deal of shame for who I am manifesting."
And self-loathing. We've all been there. You wake up and you go, "I just can't believe I'm waking up in myself again." But she lives there. That's where I took the sexuality.
How did playing Bree affect your own sense of gender?
It actually did in an odd way because I'm not one of those actors who lost myself in a part and I didn't know who I was. I wish I could. A couple of things: One, towards the end of filming, I walked into the ladies room in full regalia and I went, "Uh, geez, I'm not supposed to be here," and I walked out. Then I went, "Oh, no, I am." Then I walked back in, and then I went, "Oh, no, I'm not." It took me twice before I had to go, "All right, I actually am a woman." It was frightening. I don't have a hold of myself the way I thought.
And the other time that I realized the part was actually living in me and getting me a little off balance was when Duncan came to me and said he wanted to shoot me peeing by the side of the road [standing up with penis in hand]. And that wasn't in the script, the full on shot. It's almost like a Brechtian moment in a play; it pulls you out of the movie because it's so shocking. It pulls you out of the story yet in at the same time. It's a wonderful tool there that switches it around. Oh God, no pun intended. So when he said he wanted to shoot that, I burst into tears and I was sobbing and I couldn't breathe. And he went, "What, we're shooting Andy. It's a prosthetic. It doesn't matter."
When you talk to transgender men or women, they say that the fact there are two genders, and you have to choose between them, is ridiculous. They say it's like saying there's only chocolate and vanilla. They say there are many permutations of gender; sexuality, who you want to sleep with, who you don't want to sleep with, and it opened it up to me. It's so just hormones.
What do you think you have in common with Bree?
I have in common with Bree: self-loathing, depression, excruciating self-consciousness, not wanting to wake up in my own skin, the pain of existence, loving being a woman - I love being a woman and I think Bree loves being a woman.
Bree, like many women in your profession, thinks about her body first and foremost. How do you negotiate who you are and what others expect you to be since your physique is constantly under inspection by the public?
It's a real struggle. A lot of times it feels there are gale force winds and I'm kind of hanging on the back of my chair going, "It's all right. I really do like my body. I don't care." Often I come out of wardrobe fittings and costume fittings, I can't breath and I have to regain my balance. I'm a size 6. I feel it constantly. I think it's a struggle. I know that's not what you're asking. Of course, you would think it's a struggle. I have not figured it out or mastered it. After I had my children, I have to say, I liked my body a whole lot better. Now I can actually eat.
Transgender is treated as a biological state in the film and the way to make this biological state present to others is through reconstructive surgery. In your profession, there is reconstructive surgery, like breast augmentation, which is seen more as a psychological state, as something's that required to stay in business. At what point does reconstructive surgery move from the biological into the psychological?
Goddamn, you ask complicated questions. Andrea James says that transgender begins in your brain. She's a transgender woman and she said it doesn't matter if you have the hormones, if you have the looks and the sexual reassignment surgery; it has to start psychologically. And if it doesn't start there, you got nothing. When I spoke to transgender women and I read a lot of books, the consensus was it did all start [in the mind]. They went, "I am a woman regardless of what's down here." That was a hurdle you really had to cross if you're going to become a woman. It's a great question. Biologically, yes, you can have a sexual reassignment surgery but to really be a woman you have to be a woman in your head.
Did you make this movie before the pilot of Desperate Housewives?
No. Pilot. Movie. Series.
Was that awkward?
Yes. If you watch the first four or five episodes of Desperate Housewives, I am not good. Desperate Housewives has a certain voice and a certain sarcastic, loving, wicked, twisty voice. And you need to play with that. And I came in a little heavy-handed. It was a really hard transition to make.
How are you handling all this fame?
I think I'm handling it pretty well. I'm not hounded like the other women are. I have to say, it's such a relief to know I'm going to have a job for a couple of years. I've gone through years without working. I'm grateful for the fame because I have a job.
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"I love being a woman and I think Bree loves being a woman."
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... is a freelance culture critic based in Los Angeles.
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