Sitting next to Felicity Huffman, one immediately notices that she is even softer and prettier than she appears on ABC's Desperate Housewives, where she plays frazzled working mom Lynette. So it's all the more impressive that the Emmy winner convincingly and compellingly plays Bree, née Stanley, a pre-op transsexual who travels cross-country, with the son (Kevin Zegers) she never knew she fathered, in the acclaimed indie Transamerica (now playing in select cities).
While it may seem ironic or perhaps calculated that Huffman chose to play such an antithesis to the glam Housewives persona, the fact of the matter is that Transamerica came calling long before Wisteria Lane landed on the television landscape. "I hadn't even shot the pilot yet," the actress tells TVGuide.com. "We didn't even know if [Housewives] would have legs. It was just yet another pilot that I was running up the flagpole, probably to get shot down."
Not that different timing would have changed her strong reaction to the indie offer. "The script was out there and getting a lot of attention," she recalls. "My agent said, 'You've got to read it. You've got to read it.' And it was great." Huffman, however, was skeptical about her prospects. "I never got movie auditions, much less movie parts. [But] when [director] Duncan [Tucker] heard I was interested, he just said yes. Isn't that amazing?"
Yet not nearly as amazing as Huffman's transformation into the always-formidable role of a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. (Somewhere, Julie Andrews feels for her.) "I didn't know anything about the transgender community, so I did a lot of research," Huffman says. "I read every biography I could get my hands on, watched every documentary I could, looked through articles at the library and went to a couple of transgender conventions. I also worked with two women named Andrea James and Calpurnia Adams, who helped me with everything from going through the script to telling me their life stories."
Knowing how to feel like a transwoman and accurately carrying oneself as a transwoman are two very different things, however. "The last thing that fell into place was the voice — not because I wanted to do it last, but because I couldn't figure out how to do it," Huffman confesses. "I don't have the chest capacity that you guys have, and I don't have the testosterone, so I can't get the right resonance."
But with the help of the right voice coach, "I lowered it about four octaves, while also making it sound like I was stretching for a feminine voice," she says. "What came out was a sort of lonely, affected voice." One that real-life husband (and Transamerica executive producer) William H. Macy, well, eventually had his fill of! "I'd call him every day [for advice] on how to act the scene and he actually got tired of [the voice]. He was like, 'You have to call me at the beginning or the end of the day, because I can't talk to Bree anymore!'"
Oh, yes, there was also the matter of Huffman's prosthetic penis, fittingly nicknamed "Andy" after a costume supervisor's real, um, "Richard" of an ex-boyfriend. "I pretty much wore it the whole time," she says, "except for a couple of times in Arizona when we were in the station wagon with no air-conditioning and it was too hot," as well as, of course, a post-op nude scene. "There was supposed to be a lot more bubbles in the bath, but because we were a little indie running a day late and a dollar short, we didn't have time to go out and get more. I was a little more exposed than I anticipated, but, you know... Oh, well!"
Huffman's fellow housewives called on baby-sitters and fended off early-am call times and illness to attend Transamerica's Los Angeles screening. "They've known about it since we started shooting Season 1 and have been really supportive," she notes. But as affecting, fearless and powerful as her performance, and Transamerica as a whole are, is America's moviegoing public prepared to embrace the story of a transsexual bonding with her oblivious son? "Are they ready for it? Yes, I think they are — if they could come to the theater."
And as for the Golden Globes and Oscar buzz swirling around her, Huffman admits, "I'm sort of gun-shy about [awards] because there is no way to control them. If people can just come see the movie, I think that's a win."