Trans Across America:
Column Inches #22 with Felicity Huffman

by Tony Phillips

In her own quiet way, Felicity Huffman has turned in the performance of the year as Bree Osbourne, a pre-op transsexual traveling cross-country with a teenage gay hustler who may or may not be her son in the film Transamerica. Of course, I’m not content with the best acting I’ve seen this year. I also want a strident, sweeping political statement.

“I don’t know if this movie can find an audience,” Huffman thoughtfully answers when asked if America is ready, “but I wonder if that question is already answered because there are so many movies out about it now.” That’s when I push for the grandstanding pronouncement. Isn’t taking on this role saying fuck America if we’re not ready? We should be ready. And if we’re not, isn’t Bree Osbourne a wakeup call?

Huffman, a New York native who trained in the theater — famously replacing Madonna on Broadway in Speed the Plow — before going onto success as an Emmy-winning television actress, has up until now evinced a healthy respect for the writer. “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage” she says at one point, and at another cautions, “if the script is nowhere, you’re done.” Still, she’s not about to let me put words in her mouth. “What we make is what we might need to see,” is as close as she comes to what I want her to say, but she does point out that “fuck America” is how I might have answered my own question.

The blonde, NYU grad is slightly lower key than that. So is Bree Osbourne, for that matter. Bree’s not gunning for an executive office at GenderPAC. She’s stealth. Huffman describes her as a “fussy aunt” who just wants to complete her surgery and live as a woman. She frames Bree’s dilemma as, “Do I come out so I can support other women going through this process or do I lead my life so that I’m known as a woman?” She answers it by pointing out, ”Bree has a hard time actually leaving her house, much less deciding whether she wants to make a political statement with sexual reassignment surgery. It’s a really tough political decision for transgendered women.”

As an actress, the challenges for Huffman were more straightforward, but no less daunting. In addition to Bree’s prominent ears and boxy lipstick, Huffman had to find Bree’s loping gait and deeply resonant voice. “I went through a couple voice coachs,” she laughs, “I had to find my male voice and then make it sound like I was trying to find my female voice.” She describes that sound as “haunted and lonely and a little false.” I get a taste of it again when I’m transcribing our interview and my recorder runs low on batteries. Huffman jokes that the voice is something people who are transitioning spend a lot of time working on, “So they don’t sound like Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot.”

Once she got down into that register, after a daily vocal warm-up, she stayed. Much to the dismay of her husband, the actor William H. Macy, who had to endure her calls home in character. But all the technical challenges — what Huffman calls “the conundrum of being a woman playing a man becoming a woman” — fell away when she found her character on the first day of shooting. Then it became writer/director Duncan Tucker’s to track. “Your walk dropped or you voice went up,” she remembers he’d tell her, “after I put it together he became the watchdog. The risk was screwing it up, but not taking a shot would be just cowardly.”

The payoff for Huffman isn’t the inevitable Oscar nomination, though she does allow she’ll run around the house in her underwear if and when that call comes. Rather, it’s the journey taken. When we discuss gender reassignment surgery being more successful with a younger candidate, she supplies, “It’s called testosterone poisoning when they’re going MTF.” When the medical classification gender dysphoria comes up, she asks, “What if it’s gender euphoria?” And asked what would happen if one of her own two daughters came out as trans, she’s learned too much to toss out the easy answer. “I would hope that I would react with love and acceptance and hope,” she says.

But for all she’s learned, Huffman still doesn’t think Transamerica is a film about a MTF trannsexual. “It’s an internal journey about becoming who you really are,” she explains, “Which is something we all want to do. We want to manifest who we are.”