Our favorite housewife

Felicity Huffman talks about those rumored "Desperate Housewives" hissy fits, what it's like to have a penis, and why gays may just be the secret to the show's success.

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Our favorite housewife

“Oh great, a transgendered woman driving across the country with her son! I wanna go see that,” jokes Felicity Huffman, describing “Transamerica,” the new movie in which she stars as … well, a transgendered woman driving across the country with her son.

It’s true, it doesn’t immediately sound like a sure bet at the multiplex. In the movie, Huffman portrays conservative Bree (formerly Stanley), who is surprised to learn that during college she fathered a son — who needs to get bailed out of prison for drug possession and driven from New York to California. The road trip occurs just days before the long-awaited operation that will complete Bree’s sex change.

But the film, written and directed by Duncan Tucker, makes its North American premiere Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival, and buzz is strong (it won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February). Given the groaning weight of its material, “Transamerica” is surprisingly light and smooth, buoyed by Huffman’s compelling performance as Bree, an uptight, prissy woman who happened to have been born male.

Had “Desperate Housewives” (where she plays Lynette Scavo) not made Huffman so visible, “Transamerica” audiences might have been hard-pressed to recognize the “Sports Night” and “Christmas With the Kranks” actress in Bree. Huffman speaks in a voice that is unfamiliarly low, aiming awkwardly higher. She looks uncomfortable in her waxy skin and Bree’s Pepto-Bismol pink ensembles. And her hands appear particularly mannish when she’s shown stuffing her package deeper between pantyhose-encased thighs. For those who prefer their prime-time TV divas penis-free, the scene that shows Bree whipping it out by the side of the road to relieve herself will come as something of a shock.

With her increased (and increasing) profile, Huffman joins a new category of actresses that includes Edie Falco, Frances McDormand and Patricia Clarkson: women who have found bona fide stardom, glamour and meaty parts after 40, when most actresses have traditionally been checked into the Hollywood Home for the Aged and No Longer Nubile. Instead, here’s 42-year-old Huffman, mother to two young daughters with actor William H. Macy, alternately tackling the most challenging of acting roles in “Transamerica” and lolling poolside in a plunging candy-colored bathing suit, head tilted insouciantly, on the inside cover flap of the May Vanity Fair along with the rest of the “Desperate Housewives” ensemble. The accompanying article dishes a tearful, hissing account of what took place during the cover shoot (Marcia Cross, it’s suggested, becomes upset when Teri Hatcher is placed center stage), but Huffman comes off like the pro, the show’s grown-up, who’s recused herself from ego-tripping foot races.

Salon talked to Huffman by phone on an early Los Angeles morning before her call to the “Desperate Housewives” set. Surprise! She was a grown-up: a game, articulate pro who held forth with humor and original thinking on Hollywood gender-bending, her fake penis, how gays may be making Hollywood friendlier to women, being a bad mother, and — yes — all those rumors of female hysteria emanating from Wisteria Lane.

How did you get involved in “Transamerica”?

My wonderful agent from ICM called and said, “There’s this really interesting movie, you should read it.” I thought it was fascinating, and thinking about acting it was terrifying.

When was this?

I was at a table read for the pilot of “Desperate Housewives.” We took a break, I walked outside, my phone rang, and he said, “You got the part!”

Whenever I get a part I immediately get sick and nauseous and don’t want to do it and want to hide under a rock. So I spent the entire “Desperate Housewives” pilot reading thinking only about “Transamerica,” going, “Oh my god, I can’t do it. I can’t do it”

What kind of research did you do?

Well, the first thing I did when I talked to Duncan was I told him how excited I was and then proceeded to [try to] talk him out of casting me and casting a man instead. I was saying, “You’ve got to cast a man in this role, otherwise the inherent drama is robbed, it’s hollow! Everybody knows what I’ve got under my skirt!” I’m really glad he didn’t listen to me. He very wisely said, “Look, the drama is not about what’s under your skirt. There have been a lot of movies about men playing women; I believe there are two Academy Awards for them. And this is not a movie about what’s under your skirt.”

It’s actually very smart. The backdrop is that she’s a transgendered woman. But it’s a movie about your heart breaking open. It’s about someone who feels so alienated from herself and from society and feels that people don’t really know her, who feels that her family hasn’t accepted who she really is. I think many people can relate to some of those feelings. Certainly I could. So once I started to understand the emotional through-line, and where this woman was coming from, then I had to tackle the outside.

What did that entail?

I met with Andrea James and Calpernia Addams who run a production company called Deep Stealth Productions. They really helped me with the internal truth of the project and they also helped me with the external. Then I went to a convention in San Jose [Calif.] for transgendered individuals; I worked with a woman named Denae Doyle who trains transgendered women how to act like women.

It’s such an enormous undertaking and so frightening, [that many men] actually do it a little later in life, because they probably spend the first half of their lives hoping it’s not true. But you can imagine: You’re 45 years old, you’re 6-foot-4, and you finally decide, “I’ve got to do it. I have to be who I really am. Now how do I act like a woman?” Then you’ve got everything from the voice — which is a huge hurdle to overcome so you don’t sound like Harvey Fierstein or Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot” — to how do women stand? Men take up more room physically in how they occupy a room. Women are more vocal; when they talk to each other there’s a lot of head nodding, a lot of “Uh-huh, uh-huh.” Men tend to give couple-word sentence replies. There’s so much to learn.

When we started shooting in New York my voice hadn’t landed. I felt as if physically it was coming along and I was starting to understand Bree’s journey, but I needed to sound like a man who hadn’t quite found his voice yet. And physically as a woman I don’t have the chest cavities or the head cavities to make that kind of resonance, so I worked with a wonderful coach and we finally found it. I would place my voice in this hollow part and it was perfect because at least to me it came out sounding sad. And Bree is sad.

It sounds like your experience was learning how to be more masculine as your character is learning to be more feminine?

I would like it to be that because it’s so perfect — that yin-yang. But oddly enough, the [deepening] voice was just a technical challenge that opened the door into the inner workings of Bree. What I found physically is I had to become more feminine. We take our femininity for granted because you’ve been a girl since the day you were born, so we can stand with our legs apart, we don’t have to do mincing steps. Transgendered women find the outside world hostile or at least unwelcoming if they’re not lucky enough to pass easily. If you don’t look very feminine and people notice, then at best you’re an oddity and at worst you’re freak. So they become as feminine as they can. So my journey, oddly enough, was to become more feminine.

But in several scenes, you have a penis.

I do have a penis! We called him “Andy”!

I put Bree together at the beginning of the day with help from everybody. I wanted to be true to what Bree becoming a woman would be. So it’s very tight underwear and then support pantyhose.

Wait, why very tight underwear?

Because you want everything sucked in. You want it to hold your “tuck.” Then support pantyhose and then a girdle over that. I’m not saying all transgendered people do that; they don’t. But Bree would because she’s so frightened of the outside world and she’s uptight. For a lot of the shooting I did wear Andy in my pants as well. You know how they say all guys think about is their penis? Well, I understand because this weird appendage in my underwear is all I thought about. Even though it was a rubber one, it took all my concentration.

Was it big?

It was big enough.

And you wore it even in scenes where it wasn’t going to be shot?

When we got to Arizona and it was 100 degrees in the shade, and it’s this great little independent movie they’re doing for $2 so there really aren’t chairs, and I had the underwear, pantyhose, girdle and the wig, there were times when I left Andy out because it would have been too crowded in my clothes for two of us.

Well, the scene where you pull Andy out by the side of the road is pretty mind-blowing. Did that feel like a major primal shift for you?

It is mind-bending. You have to get to a transgendered point of view. It’s as if you woke up or I woke up this morning with a penis. And you’d just kind of be like, “What is this?! Yuck! Get this out of here; this isn’t me!”

Duncan came to me in the desert in Arizona and said, “We want to get a shot of Bree pulling over and peeing,” and explained, “You’re squatting to pee and then you hear a coyote so you stand up.” I had kept it together for pretty much the whole film, [but at that point] I just burst into tears. It felt so vulnerable. I didn’t know whether it was just the character living in me — the one thing she doesn’t want anyone to see, this thing she’s getting rid of in a week. Or if it was just me going, Oh my god I don’t want men — I don’t want anyone — to see me as a man. But that’s sort of Bree living in me anyway.

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Did you feel professionally vulnerable playing this part? Because this is not a glamorous role for you.

I’m so amazed you say that! [Laughs] I felt so ugly that whole movie, and there I am acting with beautiful [costar] Kevin Zegers.

Yeah, he’s hot.

Yeah, he’s so beautiful you’re like, that’s stupid pretty.

Obviously you didn’t realize how visible “Desperate Housewives” would make you, but did you consider it a threat to the way people see you as a star to look so unglamorous?

Obviously, duh, for me, and I don’t say this self-deprecatingly, but I’m not the glamour-puss. My talent doesn’t lie in my face. So I’ve found the demands of Hollywood to be pretty and thin to be burdensome, because I never quite get there. I wasn’t born with that kind of face; I was born with a different kind of face. So to be able to put it aside and concentrate on something else — trying to create an authentic character — is a relief.

And the same thing goes on “Desperate Housewives.” Thank god I’m not the pretty one, because I get to wear pajamas and it’s just a relief. We have the beautiful Marcia Cross and the beautiful Eva Longoria and the beautiful Teri and Nicollette [Sheridan]. We’ve got that corner covered, thank god.

You’re 42 and experiencing success like never before. Do you think prospects are brightening for women over 35 in Hollywood?

Oh, I definitely do! I don’t ever think that it’s going to turn into: Hey, 20-year-olds aren’t valued, 40-year-olds are valued! But it used to be that the glass ceiling was 40 and now it’s more like 50 and I think maybe in the future it will be 60.

“Desperate Housewives” — god bless [series creator] Marc Cherry — has changed the landscape of pilot season. Friends have called me to say, “Thank you, thank you. I’m going out on so many more auditions now,” because there are so many parts for women over 35.

Is that actually true?

Oh yeah! Or friends of mine who have been trying to get a pilot made that features women 35 or older and suddenly there are bidding wars for these shows! So yes, I think it’s fantastic.

The “Desperate Housewives” effect sounds remarkable. But why does the show exist to begin with? Why is the business moving in this direction when it used to be impossible for middle-aged women to get hired?

That’s a fantastic question and I don’t know the answer, but here’s an angle, though I’m not sure this is it. I think gay men appreciate women differently than straight guys do. It’s funny; we’re not the objects of their sexual desires, but they always consider us sexual objects. They appreciate women. And I think that because it’s OK now to be gay in Hollywood — and that’s taken a while — that finally maybe there are opportunities now for Marc Cherrys to be the source for a series. I think gay men write women differently and appreciate them and maybe it took them getting in a creative position of power for us to be seen that way. I think “Sex and the City” is the same thing. Those women were younger, but not a lot. And there’s ["Sex and the City" creator] Darren Starr. So I wonder if it has something to do with it.

So what can you tell me about this Vanity Fair article?

I haven’t read it yet, can you believe it? All I was interested in was if my legs looked fat on the cover.

Well I’m sure you’ve heard about it.

Uh, yeah! Oh my god, are you kidding? How could I not?

Well what was reported in that story — and elsewhere — is that the women that you work with on “Desperate Housewives” cannot get along. Is that true?

No, it’s not true. I have to take my hat off to that writer because he made this great thing out of a tempest in a teapot. Actually, we all do get along. People have been waiting for us not to get along from the minute this went on the air. I remember doing press conferences [before the pilot aired] with people saying, “That’s a lot of women on the set, there must be a lot of fighting.” They’ve been waiting for the fur to fly and now suddenly they find they’ve made something up to sink their teeth into.

So the screaming, tearful episode that Vanity Fair reported happening at the photo shoot was an anomaly, not the norm?

You know, I could go into what led up to it, and different points of the story, but I don’t even want to give it that much credence because it’s not that big a deal, and if I did you’d be like, “Oh, that’s nothing!” But to go into it is silly and, to tell you the truth, it’s boring.

Why is there an investment in the story that you all don’t get along? Do we fetishize the idea of women catfighting?

People like to gossip and it’s not fun to gossip about “Isn’t she great? She does such nice things for the elderly!” They like to gossip about “She’s a bitch. She looked at me this way.” That’s what’s juicy and fun. Why that is, I have no idea. But I experience it too.

The prurient interest is gender-specific. “Oh, five women. How are you going to get along?” But women get along great. Women are really great at creating community.

Is the attention you’re getting now different from when you were on “Sports Night,” which I remember being a hit show?

Me too, goddamn it! Oddly enough it’s at a lower level than “Sports Night” because on “Sports Night” there were two leads and then the first female lead was me. So it was a spotlight on me. Not very many people watched “Sports Night” compared to “Desperate Housewives,” but I don’t get recognized that much. The other girls are getting chased around and having their garbage gone through and stuff like that. Though, it’s just starting in the last week and a half.

What is?

People are starting to recognize me … I don’t know what it is. Maybe I’m showering more.

I do feel the difference a little bit in job security. Now watch — I’m going to get fired next week. But it’s nice to know I have a job next year. At “Sports Night” it was always like, “What are the numbers? Oh, Jesus, is anyone watching? Are we going to get canceled?” And we loved it so much. So that hung over us quite a bit.

You’re in “Christmas With the Kranks” and then “Transamerica,” two very different films. Do you have a larger career philosophy?

But “Christmas With the Kranks” inspired “Transamerica.” No. I’m kidding.

I don’t do very many movies, so if they offer it to me I’m like, “OK! Sure!” I have never been at a place in my career where I’ve been like, “These are the kinds of films or television shows I’d like to do.” I’m always more like, “Can I work?” I’ve been lucky in what I’ve done. I’ve done a lot of shit that never made it on TV and I’ve gotten fired from stuff.

What have you been fired from?

I got fired from a series called “Thunder Alley,” and I got fired from a Neil Simon play. So I’ve been lucky that the things that have actually been seen by people are good. I choose based on the script and if I feel I can do it, and if it interests me. “The wife” has never really interested me. “The Mother” has never really interested me. And here I am playing both the wife and the mother, in a part that does interest me on “Desperate Housewives.”

What interests you about her?

That it’s not the fucking candy-coated version of motherhood: “Oh honey, I’m so tired and you forgot your lunch!” Which is the only way we’re allowed to express the extraordinary difficulties of motherhood. We’re not allowed to go, “This is driving me insane and I’d like to kill my children. And I’m a normal mother.”

Are you similar to Lynette as a mother?

Lynette is close to me. That’s probably why I was cast. I walked in for the audition, it was 6 at night, my kids were in the bath when I left; they were crying; it’s raining; I’m exhausted. And I came in and I went: “What?”

I’m not saying that all mothers feel this way. I know there are some that sail through it and god bless them. But yes, I find motherhood incredibly challenging and difficult — and those words are anemic compared to the experience.

Do you find yourself torn about leaving your kids the way working mothers often are?

I started out a guilty mother because I was sure I was a terrible one. So any instinct I had I was like, “That’s a terrible instinct! A good mother would have taken the toy, or made the boundary.” So that’s kind of where I live, based on the fact that I’m a bad mom.

And I only work two or three days a week. The exceptional week is four days. So you know, no. Work is a piece of cake compared to raising children. Are you kidding? You get to go to the set and people go: “Would you like a breakfast burrito?”

Rebecca Traister
Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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