Felicity Huffman: Housewife superstar

One of Wisteria Lane's desperate ladies is now playing a pre-op transsexual.
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The Independent Culture

Felicity Huffman is sprawled on a sofa in a London hotel room. Wearing a sleeveless dress, she seems remarkably content and at ease. As she rests her weight on her left arm her toned arms bulge. It's a striking posture not least because, on-screen, the actress never seems relaxed.

In Desperate Housewives the 43-year-old's frown-lines always seem to be extended beyond the frame of the television screen. Playing Lynette, the mother of badly-behaved kids, she is the most realistic character on Wisteria Lane. When we are first introduced to the character, she has sacrificed her career involving overseeing 75 people to raise her difficult children. Her husband is constantly away on business and this is a source of much turmoil. Eventually she swaps places with her husband, becoming the breadwinner. What doesn't change is that, in her endeavours to keep her house in order, she is always on edge and extremely critical of the parenting prowess of her spouse. Her problems are the most everyday of the four principles characters, which is why she's everyone's favourite housewife.

Last year Huffman was awarded a Best Actress Emmy for her turn on the show. Yet this accolade has been largely overshadowed by the critical acclaim for her turn as a pre-op transsexual in the film Transamerica. Remarkably, the indie hit that is garnering her rave notices is also her first appearance as a leading lady.

On the surface, it couldn't be further from Housewives. In Transamerica she plays Stanley, who is soon to become Bree. In order to get the requisite snip, a letter is needed from a psychiatrist saying that Stanley is of sound mind. This is a letter that will not be forthcoming unless Stanley meets his 16-year-old son, whose existence he has only just learned of. This means that the character, like Lynette in Housewives, is in a constant state of tension. Huffman brings a remarkable vulnerability to the role.

Given award ceremonies' traditional love of roles requiring physical transformations, it was almost inevitable that Huffman would be fêted for her fabulous performance. Her awards have included a Golden Globe for Best Actress, and a best actress nomination at the Oscars. Being pipped by Reese Witherspoon in the race for an Academy Award didn't seem to bother Huffman, who exclaimed, "Actually going to the Academy Awards and not being a seat-filler, it's overwhelming!"

This satirical tone is typical of Huffman, who is constantly self-deprecating. Everybody she works with is invariably better than she is, and her world is a very harmonious place. The rumoured bitchiness on the set of the television show is, she says, "all so bogus. Rags have got to write something. I think you can't say, 'it's all swell and they get on great'. How often can you write that? People wouldn't buy magazines. Everyone has been waiting for us to fight since before we went on air. But it's so much fun, I love going to work."

The actress has questioned the whole business of giving actors awards. "I thought about this a lot," says Huffman. "Only five per cent of the Screen Actors Guild make a living wage. And its incredibly hard to make a great movie, it can fall apart anywhere; the script, the director, the actors, the editing, the distribution. So, if you're an actor making a living wage and you're good at it you deserve the credit."

Huffman grew up in Colorado, the youngest of eight children. Her father left home when she was one. Raised by her mother, who occasionally acted, in New York, Huffman was sent to acting summer-schools. At 15 she got her first job on television, which was followed by years in the wilderness. She had a role on Frasier for a series and appeared briefly in The West Wing and The X-Files.

For years her most likely route to a seat at the Academy Awards was as a real desperate housewife. In 1997 she married her long-term partner, the acclaimed actor, William H Macy. They met 15 years earlier in New York when Macy was her teacher at the David Mamet and Macy's Atlantic Theatre Company. Macy told me, "The success that my wife is having is great. It's nice to be able to kick back and concentrate on writing and let her be the breadwinner."

When I tell his wife about his comment she replies quietly: "I don't know if I'm the breadwinner. Bill's been out front for so long that he's not really taking a back seat. People recognise him long before me. I still wouldn't put myself in Bill's league. But to be considered a serious actress, that's lovely"

When talking about her husband, Huffman takes on a different demeanour; less witty and seemingly awestruck. "In addition to being an artist, he is a real craftsman. He's so smart and he knows me so well, it's like having an ace in my pocket. I ask him for tips a lot and yes, he asks me for tips. But I rely on him a lot. We shot scenes [where the character takes his son to meet his grandparents] which were wonderful and baffling and for me they were actually some of the most difficult to shoot. I was lost in them, until finally I called my husband and he said: 'Well, that's the scene. Bree is lost. She does not know how she fits into her family anymore. That is the scene. And then I could do it.'"

Given that her husband is famous for playing oddball characters, as in Magnolia and The Cooler, I wonder aloud whether this has influenced her to play characters that have a screw loose. She laughs, "I've never thought of that - we're the quirky couple," before adding, "as a matter of fact Bill suggested that I didn't take this movie at first. He said, 'I don't know if you ought to take it, because I don't know if the script is where it ought to be'. But I thought it was and so we disagreed and I was right. Funny because I don't know what gave me the confidence to actually think I was right, but I went ahead and did it."

Confidence is a big issue for Huffman. As soon as Desperate Housewives became a hit, stories circulated that she was anorexic in her late teens and early twenties. But at the time Transamerica was offered, the actress was finally on a roll. Having taken a break to have two daughters, Sofia, six and Georgia three, she had recently returned to work. She jokes: "Having kids, that was the end of my career - and now I'm nominated for Oscars."

There was, she says, one massive impact that her two daughters had on her career. "I don't think that I would have got Desperate Housewives if I didn't have children. I went to the audition and it was six o'clock at night and it was raining. I'd left my two kids in the bath screaming and I was exhausted and cranky. I had to pull myself together and find clothes that weren't covered in jam. I walked into the audition and they said: 'Hi, tell us about motherhood'. And I just let everything out."

At the time she was appearing in an off-Broadway production of David Mamet's Cryptogram. It was while watching this two-hander that the director Duncan Tucker decided that she would be the perfect person to star as a transsexual in Transamerica. The initial attraction for Huffman was the maze of being a woman playing a man becoming a woman. She understood that this character was unique not simply because they were a pre-op transsexual but because they were uptight, highly educated, and had her own sense of humour. The key was that "everyday she wakes up in agony in her own skin".

Huffman worked with transgender women and went to several transgender conventions. Books on transsexuals became essential bedtime reading - Huffman was most fascinated by the biographies. For someone who had experienced anorexia the appeal of doing something about someone not being happy with their body was obvious - though she would not compare the two. The Transamerica star argues: "I think it is completely different. Everyone has body issues, everyone wishes that they were taller, thinner, more muscular, blah-blah-blah. But to feel that you are born into the wrong gender is not a vanity issue, it is an identity issue."

Gender confusion is not something that she's ever really experienced, although she does concede: "The only thing I've envied about guys is their strength. I'll train and run for a long time and get my speed down and then my husband who is not training or running or anything like that, he'll come on a run with me and just kick my ass. The fact guys are stronger than me, no matter what, really pisses me off."

The hardest part about the character was trying to learn femininity like it was a foreign language. The step-by-step approach made her think about those things that women do naturally, everything from walking to talking.

The lessons of her career have taught Huffman to appreciate success while it lasts. The award ceremonies have been nice but now all she plans to do is get back to Desperate Housewives. After years of struggle, she's happy to be one of those lucky actors earning a decent and regular wage.

'Transamerica' is out today