TV & Radio
'Transamerica' transforms Felicity Hufffman
BY JOHN ANDERSON - New York Newsday
LOS ANGELES -- This writer has long had a crazy movie fantasy: To be hypnotized, have certain memory banks erased, and be able to watch "Psycho" without knowing Janet Leigh is going to take that shower in the first 30 minutes of the film.
No one's gotten to do that since 1960.
Recently, however, there was an experience that might not be precisely comparable, but was as singular. Knowing I was scheduled to see something called "Transamerica" -- and knowing nothing else about it -- I found myself watching a poignant, funny, revealing comedy about a pre-operative transsexual who discovers, on the eve of her re-orientation surgery, that she has a son. The lead actor, if not an actual transsexual, had certainly presented an authentic, honest portrait of a man on the gender fence, full of pathos, pain and well-chosen French sarcasms ("Quel damage ... ").
Only later did I realize the "actor" was Felicity Huffman.
"Will you write about that?" a gleeful Huffman asks, inside an upper-story Hollywood hotel room, which seems part flight deck and part of a lost set for "Black Narcissus." Huffman is looking quite gorgeous -- gauzy skirt swirling around great legs, blue heels, a delicate top and sweater ensemble and her hair blown to blond perfection. We get it: She's counter-programming her own characters -- those of both "Transamerica," (it opens Friday) and "Desperate Housewives," the dizzyingly successful nighttime soap on which she plays hardened corporate creature Lynette. The effect is delicious, regardless of the motive.
A matter of timing
Huffman got the role of "Transamerica's" Bree Osborne -- uptight telemarketer and all-around conservative ("I think she might be a Republican," Huffman says.) -- before "DH" premiered on ABC, and largely because writer-director Duncan Tucker had seen her work on the Off-Broadway stage. "I don't get movie auditions," says Huffman, who is married to actor William H. Macy, with whom she has two young daughters.
When asked, she says she would have taken on "Transamerica," regardless of whether or not she'd been doing "Desperate Housewives" ("which I love," she says in a whisper, as if someone were going to take it away). "It's a brilliant script, a fantastic part for an actor," she says. "But I know what you mean -- 'Would you have been protective of your image?' I can only address it by saying, and I don't want to be self-deprecating, but I'm not a beauty -- it's not my stock in trade, so I really didn't have anything to protect."
She recalls a photo shoot she and her "DH" co-stars did during their first season. "We did a lot of photo shoots. And this photographer" -- she adopts an Italian accent -- "he said, 'Hey, you know, on TV you are so old ... but here you are .... Hey look! She's not so old....'
"It's good I'm not a crazy actress. I would have been outta there."
Huffman took the "Transamerica" role of Bree Osborne -- unplanned parent (it seems there was this drunken night at college) -- dead seriously.
"When I got the part, which was shocking and surprising, I didn't know how to bust into it," she says. "Just the scale of it felt enormous -- the physicality, the turmoil, everything else. So I first had to break it down emotionally to figure out what the internal journey was. And I think it's a story about figuring out who you really are. I know that sounds trite, but I think that's what it is we're all trying to figure out."
She had the good fortune to meet Calpernia Addams and Andrea James, transgendered film producers with the company Deep Stealth. After reading "everything I could find," she said, she called them up.
"I said, 'Hi ... my name is Felicity ... and I'm doing this little independent movie ... and I have about six weeks to prepare ... and could you help me?' And they opened their house to me, and I went over and heard all their stories -- 'What was it like when you dressed like a woman?' 'What was it like when you told your parents?' 'What was it like growing up?' 'What was the surgery like?'"
Said James: "I've worked with many actors over the years, so it was a real treat to watch her process. Felicity asked really incisive questions about the essential truths of this character, and then expressed them with all sorts of subtle, nonverbal cues. I also work with a lot of people on finding a female voice, so it was interesting to watch her find something much lower and fuller than her current voice."
Praise for the performance
James, who appears at the beginning of "Transamerica" as a vocal coach, compared what Huffman did to an actual gender transition. "Her hard work has already earned her a best actress award at Tribeca for this role, and I have high hopes for additional recognition once the film is released theatrically," she said. "I loved the feel of the film.... It's great to see a film cover trans themes with humanity and humor, rather than pity and ridicule, and only an actor of Felicity's caliber can pull that off."
Huffman said that the mechanics of Bree are complex, as is the role: She is not, the actress said, playing a character who is playing a character. She's playing a character whose identity is in flux.
"I know it gets a little convoluted," Huffman said. "It's kind of a pastry wrapped up in itself, because I'm a woman playing a man playing a woman. But Bree's not pretending to be anyone. She's a transgendered woman, which means she was born with the wrong genitalia. She's becoming a woman physically, and feels like she's a woman inside and has been her whole life. Like she tells her mother. 'You know, you never had a son.'"
Huffman developed enormous sympathy for the plight of the transgendered. ("one of the last minority groups that it's perfectly all right to ridicule") in the course of researching the role.
"I went to some transgender conventions," Huffman said. "One of the conventions was at a hotel, where people would drive up in cabs or their car, and then they walk from their car to the hotel. And I was standing with this woman who sort of escorted me around and we watched as this woman walked in and my escort said, 'You see that walk? That 40-foot walk she just did? It's excruciating.' Because she's out in the world and she's not comfortable until she gets in the room where people accept her. I thought, 'That's how Bree walks through her day.'"
And even though Bree Osborne at one point tells her psychiatrist, "Isn't it funny how plastic surgery can cure mental illness," an operation isn't a cure-all either. "You have to change your mind-set," Huffman said. "And if you can't change that, it doesn't matter what happens underneath your skirt."
John Anderson is a regular contributor to Newsday.