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My Tranny Valentine

Actress Felicity Huffman of 'Desperate Housewives' opens up about playing a woman in the middle of a gender reassignment in the new road flick 'Transamerica.'
Before Felicity Huffman won her Emmy -- and prime-time stardom -- with "Desperate Housewives," she filmed Duncan Tucker's smart debut filmTransamerica.

She plays Bree, a pre-op transsexual who discovers that her estranged son suddenly needs her. Against all formulas, they embark on an often-comic road trip. Huffman shakes off the weight of playing one of relatively mainstream cinema's first transsexuals by delivering a performance that is deeply idiosyncratic, even strange at times; ultimately you're so taken by Bree's born-again piety that you forget all about her gender reassignment.

In fact, her performance -- as a male in the middle of a transformation to womanhood -- is so complicated, that I forgot to ask her the hot-button question everyone else pops: "Wasn't it weird to land this part, as a woman?"

Honestly, it hardly seems to matter.

I loved this film, but I've got to admit, going in, I had all kinds of fears about what it might be.

You did?

I was convinced it was going to be another one of those Isn't-This-Person-Just-Like-You movies. You know, like those kids' books: My Two Daddies.

Oh, so you were surprised it wasn't just like, "Transgendered people are people too! They go to the grocery store just like you!"

Exactly.

Well, a lot of that was Duncan (Tucker, the director). In the script, Bree was prissy, uptight, well-educated. Like that stuffy old aunt that drops French phrases.

And you certainly don't play her like the girl next door either.

He gave me a lot of freedom. When he gave me the part, I asked, "What am I going to look like?" He said, "Don't change your voice, Don't change your look." He was concerned with the internal part, the truth of the heart, so I just did a lot of research, and met with a broad spectrum of transgendered women.

But you did change your look and your voice. [She dropped five octaves.]

The first time Duncan saw it all was on the first day of the shoot. He said, "Oh!" Then he jumped into it with me, and said, "Great." He became my champion from that moment on. And he was my watchdog too. If anything fell a certain way, or if I didn't walk correctly for her, if my voice went up, or I dropped my hands, he'd stop the shot. And we'd start over. In indieland, that's hari-kari.

I'd imagine any director might give you that kind of freedom now that you've got your Emmy. But back then, before "Desperate Housewives," you didn't have that kind of star power. Why'd he trust you?

I didn't have anything back then. That's what's so amazing. Duncan is just really brave. He'd only seen me in a couple of off-Broadway plays with maybe a hundred people in the audience, and he just kept saying, "I want her."

Of course, David Mamet [a longtime collaborator of Huffman's husband, William H. Macy] gave you your stage-acting break, so I've been wondering ever since I saw the film about how Mamet must be teasing you.

Well, he hasn't seen it yet. But I hope that when he does, we talk about it. That will be fascinating. Of course, no one teases you as much as Mamet -- or is as loving. I'm sure his zingers will be fantastic.

Did you read Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex?

Oh, of course. I read anything transgender-interested. And while I was shooting, I read a book about MTS, male-to-female transgender surgery. I had to just surround myself with it all the time. I needed to go to sleep with it, to read it before I went to sleep, and then again and again.

How'd you decide what to read?

I just read everything. Biographies, autobiographies, articles. And I met two women from the production company Deep Stealth, Andrea James and Calpernia Adams. They didn't know me from Adam. I just said, "Hi, I'm Felicity and I'm doing this movie." They said, "Sure, come on over."

We started by working on the script and they went through it, page by page, to make sure everything was authentic, and then they shared their own life stories. I spoke to a lot of transgendered women about all kinds of questions: what was it like when you first met a woman? When you told your parents? And Andrea helps men to find their female voice, so I tried working with her. But she couldn't help me do it in reverse! It was completely different.

What books made the greatest impression, specifically?

Well, in Jan Morris's book Conundrum, she had a sexual reassignment done and she had complications, she had to go back in several times, and she was married when she did it. It caused great consternation in her family, and she said in the end, something like, "But I don't care. If I had to cut it off, to hack it off, to claw it off, I would've, because it was not who I was."

That always stayed with me. The transgendered community is quite strong, and very clear that the transformation takes place in your head long before you wonder about what's under your skirt. And I learned a lot from those moments when people realized, "That is not who I was."

Jan Morris talks about her mother, ironing her father's shirt when she is about two or three and sitting under the ironing board. Her mother picks up a shirt and says, "One day you'll wear one of these." And she says, "I'm not going to wear that shirt. I'm a girl."

Any other books?

She's Not Here, by Jennifer Boyle, is really eloquent about the transformation, about what happens when you go from male to female. Emotionally, she talks about what it's like when you're a guy -- this big aircraft carrier going through the ocean, and the waves affect you. You're just moving toward your destination. But when she takes the hormones, she felt like a rowboat, going up and down the wave. She talks about just being buffeted by life much more just through the hormones, and she's really eloquent . . .

How much of those in-person interviews actually made their way into the performance? Sometimes actors do research and interviews, and throw it all out. Other times they pick one or two people to mimic.

Actually, it was amazingly productive. I needed to meet the women who were not yet at home in themselves, to see their experiences, to meet women who were newly comfortable with themselves. I needed to see people's walks, their makeup, their hair. I needed to cast a wide net, as they say, and it was incredibly informative and inspiring.

Was there anyone in particular?

Well, some women were so uncomfortable that taking a cab to the hotel where convention is, just walking the 200 feet to the front desk and finding what banquet room. For them, that walk is excruciating, they feel like they're a target and they're very uncomfortable.

Bree seems terribly uncomfortable.

She carries around so much pain, so much self-loathing, just this deep reservoir of agony . . . I found the whole thing difficult. It felt like walking across the country with full glass of water, riding a unicycle, juggling with the other hand, and if you spill a drop it's life or death, because that's what it's like for Bree: life or death.

But it's such a fun movie. I mean, I heard Harvey Weinstein describe it yesterday as a "transsexual road movie." Which it is.

Well, great comedy comes out of great pain. And her comedy, her sense of humor, and her irony definitely come from her pain. I mean, it's not a transsexual road movie, really: it's just a wacky funny road movie, transgender or not.

I have to finish with a question about Andy [the name she gave her prosthetic rubber penis] and your full-frontal scene. One of the strangest things about it to me is that it didn't really derail the story at all.

I'm so glad. Because it is so shocking. What I loved about that moment in the movie, was that on one hand, it's this Brechtian moment, just like how he would pop the audience out of a story. You see the penis and pop out of the story.

But I think when you do that here, you pop into Bree's experience: You're just as shocked and horrified by that picture as Bree is . . . It's a brilliant piece of psychological filmmaking. I got so upset when Duncan told me that he wanted to show Andy. I burst into tears. I thought, "I can't do it." I felt exposed and it felt like betrayal and somewhat of a travesty. I was so embarrassed, and I kept telling myself, "It's just a piece of rubber -- it's pathetic." But I'd lived inside of Bree for so long, I think that's how she would react.