Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Felicity Huffman

Becoming Bree

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Many actors have been singled out this awards season, but few have achieved anything quite like Felicity Huffman's complete transformation in Transamerica.

Huffman, best known as Lynette Scavo on TV's "Desperate Housewives," recently received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as Bree, a transsexual man one operation away from becoming a woman. She must move through society learning anew how to walk, talk, dress and apply makeup. To its credit, however, Transamerica isn't really about this process. Rather, it's a road trip and a lighthearted story of a parent and a child discovering one another.

"Before I even knew I was going to make the main character a transsexual woman, I was thinking of themes of being different and alone, which everyone has felt at some point," says writer/director Duncan Tucker while visiting San Francisco last October.

In casting Huffman for the role instead of a man, Tucker says he wanted to concentrate on where the character was going instead of where she had been. Huffman says she wasn't at all sure she could handle the role. "I was frightened the whole shoot, which I know is not a great place for artistry to come from. It felt like a high-wire act every day."

Ultimately, Huffman made a discovery: she must realize the character from within, and only then work on the difficult exterior elements. "I had to go: 'my heart can play this part, now let's see if my body can play this part.'"

The makeup, she says, was not difficult. "At first I thought she'd look like a bad Tammy Faye Baker," she laughs. "Then I thought, 'she's going to pick the wrong base color.' She wants to be fair and she wants to be feminine. And she's covering any possible stubble that might come along, so it's very thick. Then all we needed to do was to exaggerate my naturally long face, plus a little blue eye shadow." Huffman jokes that her "Desperate Housewives" makeup takes far longer.

Bree's voice was the hardest part, and the final piece of the puzzle. Huffman went through several voice coaches before settling on New Yorker Katie Bull. Bull realized that Huffman did not have the physical capacity to make deep sounds, so alternatively they worked on an emotional solution, such as speaking from a sense of shame and alienation, from a person who hasn't realized who they are.

Of the experience, Huffman says she took away an important lesson. "I thought I was going in to portray an odd segment of society, at best. And I realized, that no, of course, who I'm going to portray is everyone."

(See also: Transamerica.)

October 9, 2005

Movies Unlimtied