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‘Housewife’ bends genders in ‘Transamerica’

Felicity Huffman plays a woman who used to be a man in the road comedy
/ Source: Reuters

It is not easy being a woman portraying a man who is really a woman.

Ask Felicity Huffman, star of hit television show “Desperate Housewives,” who breaks out of her acting mould to play a transgender character in low-budget comedy movie “Transamerica” debuting this month.

Huffman had to train, toil and suffer for her craft just to portray — a woman. Sounds simple, but it was not.

Huffman plays Bree, a woman who until recently was a man named Stanley. One week before surgery to become Bree, Stanley discovered that he had fathered a son who desperately needs him now.

The transformation of Huffman from Stanley into Bree has critics raving, Oscar tongues wagging and filmmakers hoping “Transamerica” can reach beyond limited gay and arthouse audiences into family-minded America, on which the movie seeks to comment.

“We made this movie for $2, and on a low budget you’re always behind schedule. But when it wasn’t right, physically, emotionally, externally, Duncan [the director] would say, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve got to do that again,’” Huffman told Reuters.

Huffman, who turns 43 on Dec. 10, shakes her blonde hair and lets out a scream.

Duncan Tucker, sitting next to Huffman in a Beverly Hills hotel, sheepishly adds, “I do remember we played with your walk in a few scenes.”

Gay AmericaMen dressed as women, and women as men is nothing new. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis did it with aplomb in 1959’s “Some Like it Hot.” Actors playing gays and transgenders has been done as well. Hilary Swank won an Oscar for “Boys Don’t Cry.”

But Huffman’s mindset, voice, walk and manner had to make audiences believe she is both Stanley and Bree. That is something new. And while some — including Huffman — told Tucker he was crazy hiring a woman to play a man playing a woman, he never saw it that way and wanted no other actress.

“When I met transwomen, they are women, they considered themselves women all over the country and the world,” he said.

Tucker bills “Transamerica” as a road trip across America, and while the word “transgender” conjures thoughts of heavy drama, the movie is calculated to make audiences laugh.

“You forget about gender and what it ends up being is a wacky movie that happens to be heartwarming,” said Huffman.

For years, Stanley has lived a highly organized life as a woman in Los Angeles saving money for a sex change.

But his life hits a major bump in the road when his son — the product of a long-ago love affair — calls him from a New York City jail. Toby, played by Kevin Zegers, has been arrested for hustling and needs someone to bail him out.

Toby’s mother is dead. He has never met his father and doesn’t know Stanley is Bree. When she arrives, Bree explains she was sent by the church to help get him back on his feet.

What ensues on the road to Los Angeles is an exploration of the ties that bind people together. “It’s about family. It’s about connections. It’s about the ways we are all alike. It’s about somebody growing up,” said Tucker.

Big star, big riskHuffman is a big star now who this past September won U.S. television’s highest honor, the Emmy, for best actress in a comedy as the upwardly mobile Lynette Scavo in “Desperate Housewives.”

It wasn’t always that way, and while her decision to play Bree came before “Desperate Housewives” became a No. 1 series, Huffman nevertheless risks alienating her mainstream fans.

She doesn’t see it that way. “I had the opportunity to play a great, juicy, fantastic role, and I jumped at it,” she said.

Huffman said ABC has supported her efforts to promote the film and added her fellow cast members all turned up at a pre-release screening to cheer her.

Huffman is a member of New York’s Atlantic Theater Company, which was co-founded by playwright David Mamet and her husband, actor William H. Macy. She was well-known as a stage actress, co-starred on TV shows and had roles in movies such as director Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically acclaimed “Magnolia.”

In other words, she was a working actor known for mastering her craft. That was how Tucker knew her.

“Desperate Housewives” brought Huffman celebrity, and “Transamerica” could vault her onto Oscar’s stage.

Entertainment Weekly film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum calls her portrayal of Bree “a captivating flight of technique, built from equal parts empathy and skilled control.”

But for now, Huffman said awards and the Oscar race are so far out of her control that she is not thinking of them.

“It’s really dangerous to set it up to think, ‘Oh, I’m a failure if I don’t get an award,’” she said. “I feel like this movie has succeeded because people are interested, and people are going to go see it.”