"I was frightened every day of shooting"

Transamerica star Felicity Huffman on being a desperate housewife – and wearing a prosthetic penis called Andy

So, Felicity Huffman, Golden Globe winner, Oscar nominee…
I know, I’ve never won anything before which is okay but winning is great and once you get a taste of it, I just want to win some more! It was a complete shock, I was a dark horse and no-one thought I was going to win. Journalists were coming up to me and were like, “We know you’re not going to win but who do you think will?” Which was kind of great because I was thinking about going in my pyjamas – I’m glad I didn’t.

You got involved with Transamerica before Desperate Housewives, didn’t you?
I did. I was reading the pilot for Housewives when the call came in. The director Duncan Tucker saw me in a play in New York a gazillion years ago and for some reason it resonated with him. He has a friend who’s transgendered and so he wrote a screenplay and shopped it around. They sent the script to me and I never get movie auditions so I was like “yes, that’s a fantastic movie” and I got it. We were still at the table read stage for Housewives and I tried to get Duncan to re-cast me!

Why was that?
Essentially it was fear. I thought I would fail. I had many doubts but Duncan said to me ‘this isn’t the Crying Game 2, no one cares what’s under your skirt”  - which happens to be Versace lace thongs… that made you look up, huh? He told me to care about what was in my heart and that gave me the confidence. I was still frightened every day up until shooting and I was frightened every day of shooting – mainly, I walked through fear.

Your husband William H Macy is a producer on the movie…
Well Duncan flew out to LA a couple of times and we went over the script with him and worked some things out, at which point Bill got involved because he’s a craftsman in terms of script and they invited him on as a producer.

How do you begin to prepare for portraying a character like this?
Well, first I had to understand the internal journey, I had to figure out who she was because if I got myself lost on ‘I’m a woman, becoming a man, becoming a woman’ it would just be layers folding in on themselves – so I had to figure out where she was going. She wants to become who she really is and I think that’s in all of us. I’m not really living up to my potential, my family doesn’t see me as I really am, nor do my friends - so once I figured that out I could start. She begins in a place of self-consciousness and self-loathing but to be honest that is on the page and if the script is good, it makes me look good as an actor.

How about the external changes you had to undergo?
The externals were tough. I met a lot of transgendered women, went to conventions, read every book and autobiography. I was coached by a woman who coaches men who become women and that helped me put everything together. Also Duncan became a watchdog for the externals – he would say “no, you used your hands wrong there” or “that walk wasn’t quite right.” It was a wonderful dance we all did.

Was it a challenge striking the balance between masculine and feminine traits?
Well, she was kind of like an uptight aunt, with lines like “chew your food, don’t put your feet up.” Duncan wrote a very specific character and I could have played her more feminine or more butch but everything is so planned with her, she doesn’t want to cough without planning how it’s going to sound. So I couldn’t be too feminine because it was all tight and constrained. I actually tried to make it a little more feminine and it ended up like Tony Curtis from Some Like It Hot and then I tried to do it more masculine and it was a little John Lithgow in Garp – so I didn’t think it was a very good idea. I finally worked with this coach in New York and I hit that right sort of balance and we wove everything together but it took time to put the elements together – the voice, the walk, the intention.

Did you have a routine to help you get into character?
I would say in the first week of filming I figured out a process that I needed to take from the morning, to when I showed up in front of camera. It took about an hour and a half to two hours to warm up and once I’d arrived there, I stayed in that place emotionally and physically because I found, if I broke it, it was hard for me to get back there. It was helpful to have the clothes and the nails, the underwear and the make-up.

And the prosthetic penis?
When we started shooting in New York I had all the undergarments on but I realised something was missing. So I sent my assistant to a sex shop and they actually have these prosthetics for guys to slip into their bathing suits – don’t look like that, it’s true! Anyway, he called me and asked what size I wanted, so we went with medium. He brought it back and we immediately started calling it Andy. Andy was part of my costume because it actually informed my performance.

Would you say Bree is a selfish person?
Well, as an actor my job is to endorse her and so from that point of view I can say she is faced with the biggest choice in her life. She has sacrificed everything, her family, all her friendships because she has decided to transform and nothing will get in the way – not her son or anything, so she is monomaniacal and that need reads as selfishness. I find that transgendered women have to sacrifice so much and they are survivors, she’s tenacious and I didn’t set out to play a selfish person; you can’t as an actor.

Will the success of Transamerica change your attitude to your day job?
I love my work, I love going to work at Housewives and it’s fantastic it’s a hit. I have a job for maybe a couple of years, with the same group of people who I enjoy working with and it feels like coming home.

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