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LOS ANGELES - Accidentally walking into the bathroom for the opposite sex can be a little disorienting and embarrassing. But actress Felicity Huffman experienced the same emotions when she entered the correct bathroom.
The "Desperate Housewives" star's confusion occurred while shooting the indie film "Transamerica," in which she plays a transgender woman born in a man's body.
"Towards the end of filming, I walked into the ladies room and went,
Wow, I'm not supposed to be here,' and I walked out," says Huffman. "Then I said,Oh no, I am,' and walked back in again. It took me twice before I said `OK, I'm actually a woman,' and walked into the ladies room. That was sort of frightening."
"Transamerica" centers on a transgender woman (Huffman) on the brink of having a sex-change operation to leave behind the identity of Stanley and officially become Sabrina "Bree" Osbourne. Just before taking that final step, Bree learns that she fathered a son named Toby, who is now a 17-year-old street hustler.
In researching the role, Huffman learned of the emotional, social and physical difficulties faced by men who have decided to go through sexual reassignment surgery.
"Either you feel alienated from yourself or you actually do it and you're alienated from society - you're an oddball," she says. "It usually takes until you're a little older to go,
I don't care. I have to really be who I am.' Consequently you get 30- and 40-year-old guys who are told,OK, tomorrow wear a dress and go work it. And make sure you make the colors that work well on your skin, put on makeup.'"
At this stage, Bree is living "deep stealth," physically appearing as a genetic woman to the rest of the world. The challenge for Huffman was to play a biological male who is learning how to express femininity-with varying success-through makeup and clothes.
"(Bree) doesn't want to go makeup shopping and go to the counter and ask `What base do you think I am?' So she does it through the mail. It's got to be thick because it's got to cover any stubble. She's had 350 hours of electrolysis, but there's still stubble," explains Huffman. "The costumes were all catalog and cheap because Bree wouldn't go clothes shopping. She didn't know what color looked best on her. Lavender is the color of transformation, so she's going for that."
The actress also attempted to change her body movements - walking with longer strides, sitting more loosely and creating the illusion of "man hands" by moving them as if they were underwater. Probably the toughest physical challenge, however, was finding her transgender voice since she didn't have the chest capacity to create the necessary resonance to sound male.
"One thing the hormones do not change is your voice, so you can look like Kate Moss ... but you sound like James Earl Jones," she says. "I worked with transgender women on it, and they didn't know how to work on it backwards. Finally I found a woman in New York, and we approached the voice work from the inside out. What does her voice express? It expresses discomfort, it expresses loneliness, it expresses self-consciousness."
Because of the difficulty of creating the voice, Huffman found it easier to stay in character the whole day during filming. This caused some problems when she'd call her husband, actor William H. Macy, from the set.
"Finally after about three weeks, he was `OK, I can't hear the voice anymore. It's too weird. Call me when work is all done.' So I'd have to wait until the end of the day because I couldn't break the voice," she recalls. "When he finally came to Arizona with my kids, it was a shock. My children didn't recognize me."
Huffman became so immersed in Bree that a scene in which she accidentally exposes her male anatomy to her on-screen son became extremely stressful.
"(Director) Duncan Tucker wanted to shoot me by the side of the road (urinating) - the full-on shot. So when he said he wanted to shoot that, I burst into tears and I was sobbing and couldn't breathe," she says. "He said, `What? It's a prosthetic and it doesn't matter.' I realized that I was living with Bree so long that the idea even doing it for the crew and showing that was humiliating because it wasn't who I was and it wasn't who I truly am. I found it too vulnerable."
Although it's not exactly a parallel struggle, Huffman already had experience with the pressures of being a woman in today's society, having overcome eating disorders and living with the Hollywood body image ideal.
"I think I have in common with Bree self-loathing, depression, excruciating self-consciousness, not wanting to wake up in my own skin, the pain of existence," she reveals. "After I had my children, I have to say, I like my body a whole lot better. I can actually eat and go yes, `I'm a size 6 or size 8.' That's kind of hard to say for Hollywood - that's big. I go about my day and have dinner anyway."
(c) 2005, Zap2it.com. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.