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Emmy winner Felicity Huffman is not exactly desperate

Emmy winner Felicity Huffman is not exactly desperate


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SAN RAFAEL, Calif. - Felicity Huffman is about to take center stage.

The dynamic "Desperate Housewives" actress may not have cookie-cutter Hollywood looks - she jokes that she "looks like a bird" - but she holds her own so well among her glamour-girl co-stars that she snagged this year's Emmy right out from under their perfectly sculpted noses.

Now Huffman, 42, is taking on her first meaty big-screen role. In "Transamerica," she plays a closeted transsexual one week away from the operation to become a woman. It's the kind of role that catapulted Hilary Swank to Oscar stardom and proved Charlize Theron was more than a leggy beauty.

On her journey, she meets the son she never knew she had and embarks on a cross-country road trip where emotional transformations truly prepare her for the physical one. The film is less about transsexuality than it is about family dynamics, and acceptance.

"Transamerica" screened Oct. 9 to a sold-out crowd at the Mill Valley Film Festival, where Huffman was honored at the festival's prestigious Spotlight event. Last year's honoree was Laura Linney.

"Transamerica" doesn't sound like a comedic romp, but Huffman, who earned the best actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival for her portrayal, infuses the film with the same manic, deadpan humor she brings to "Desperate Housewives."

As frazzled career mom Lynette Scavo, Huffman makes relatable both the ordinary and the absurd, whether it's coercing her husband into cleaning or acing an interview while changing her baby's diaper.

"Felicity is brilliant," says Duncan Tucker, writer-director of "Transamerica," which opens Dec. 2. "She did her prep work and script analysis so well that she could just close her eyes and become (the character) and things happened without her knowing it."

For instance, when she visits her emasculating mother, Huffman's character reverts back to some of her masculine behaviors, something Huffman says wasn't intentional.

"It just happened," says Huffman, speaking to a sold-out crowd at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. "You can't plan for it but just build the runway and hope to God the muse rises."

In addition to interviewing dozens of transgendered women and attending transgender conventions, Huffman also worked with a vocal coach to lower her voice four octaves.

"The hormones don't change your voice, so you can look like Kate Moss but sound like James Earl Jones," says Huffman, looking quite the thespian in a messy updo, glasses and a black turtleneck.

Huffman gets her inspiration, and some handy coaching, from her husband, actor William H. Macy, who was one of the film's producers. Macy was on call whenever his wife had an acting crisis.

"I'd call him and say, `I don't know how to act this scene,' and he would tell me to fax it to him," Huffman recalls. "Then he would walk me through it."

Huffman and Macy strive to make as many projects together as possible, from 1999's "Magnolia" and the TV movie "Door to Door" to ABC's short-lived "Sports Night" and their upcoming family adventure video "Choose Your Own Adventure: Abominable Snowman."

The couple met through the Atlantic Theater Company, of which they are founding members along with director David Mamet. An alumna of London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Huffman replaced Madonna in Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow" and later won an Obie Award for her work in his "Cryptogram."

In 1998, Huffman showcased her fast-paced, no-nonsense wit as TV producer Dana Whitaker on Aaron Sorkin's "Sports Night," which the actress calls some of the best years of her professional life. Supporting roles followed, including "Christmas with the Kranks" and "Raising Helen," before Huffman found her home on Wisteria Lane.

Turns out the actresses weren't assigned their roles immediately. So Bree, Lynette, Susan and Gabrielle were fair game.

"I thought I had a good shot at all of them, except the Hispanic supermodel," says Huffman, to more laughs.

She received the call about "Transamerica" during the first table reading for "Desperate Housewives." Writer-director Tucker had seen Huffman in a few New York theater productions, and knew she'd be right for the role.

Huffman says it's not every day that she's offered a movie, but she looks for great scripts nonetheless. That's what drew her to "Transamerica."

As for future roles, she plans to follow the mantra she learned in theater:

"If it's not on the page, it's not on the stage."

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HUFFMAN HIGHLIGHTS

-Born: Dec. 9, 1962, in Bedford, N.Y. She has one brother and is the youngest of seven sisters.

-Nickname: Flicka.

- Husband: Actor William H. Macy.

-Kids: Two daughters, Sofia Grace and Georgia Grace.

-Idol: Tina Turner.

-Dream come true: Sang backup for Turner in a February "Oprah" episode.

-"Desperate" confession: Feeding her kids lollipops so she can get dinner on the table.

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(c) 2005, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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