An independent film about a transsexual who discovers he/she fathered a teenage son might sound to some viewers like “vegetables or medicine,” admits Felicity Huffman—especially those TV viewers who know the actress only from her role as the harried working mom on Desperate Housewives.
Luckily, Transamerica is a hoot: Young writer-director Duncan Tucker has made an energetic throwback to seventies road movies, with Huffman’s prissy, witty, self-conscious Bree embarking on a car trip with her long-lost son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), a teenage hustler. To get the part right, Huffman met with lots of transgendered women, as well as a voice coach to lower her range a few octaves. “I wanted to get the externals right. Bree is like your spinster aunt: very proper and uptight and quite possibly a Republican.”
Huffman uses her face like a mask, nearly paralyzed with self-consciousness and doubt. “Bree feels she’s a target with a bull’s-eye,” says Huffman. “She doesn’t like waking up in her own skin. She’s learning the foreign language of femininity, so she’s very studied and tight, and I blended that external with the fact that she feels things deeply, excruciatingly.”
The result seems to have convinced—and fooled—a number of people, including producer Harvey Weinstein, who didn’t recognize the actress during the first fifteen minutes of an early screening. But … well, how to put this? Is it awkward being approached by a director who says something like, “Hey, y’know, you could play a man really well?”
“You’re talking about from a vanity standpoint, or a safeguarding-my-image standpoint, right? Honest to God, not for a second. Listen, I look fine, and I like my face, but I’ve never been a beauty.” She laughs. “So it’s not like I had anything to lose or safeguard. I know I have a long, angular face, and so I just exaggerated that.”
“It’s a relief, to tell you the truth—I find the other thing to be an effort and trying and upsetting.”
You mean getting made up for your Desperate Housewives role?
Another pause; another sigh. “It feels like a losing battle.”