FOR almost 30 years, Felicity Huffman has been a “working actor.” This is a term used most often to describe someone who is not a movie star, who still requires a list of titles to explain who she is -- “You know, the woman who was on ‘Sports Night,’ the one who’s married to the guy from ‘Fargo.’ ” Now, of course, Huffman is a star. Last year, she went from being the “Desperate Housewife” on the back fold of the “Vanity Fair” cover to the one with the Emmy in her hand.
This year, she may wind up with a few more statues to dust. This week, she got Golden Globe nominations in two mediums. One was predictable -- she, along with several other members of the “Desperate Housewives” cast, is up for best actress in a television comedy -- the other less so. In “Transamerica,” she plays Bree, a transgender woman coming to terms with her son -- it’s not only her first nod for best performance by an actress in a motion picture drama, it’s her first lead role in a film.
The sound you hear in the background is the rising drone of Oscar bookmaking. With so many of the best picture possibilities dominated by men -- “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “The Constant Gardener” -- the best actress category is wide open, and Huffman’s chances are getting better all the time.
“Last year,” she says, “I couldn’t get a dress for the Emmys. I finally had to ask for one I had used on a photo shoot. This year I’m getting calls from people who want to send me sketches already.”
Still, Huffman remains a working actor; frankly, she’s never worked harder in her life. On the day of the Golden Globes nomination, she was on the phone with her sister while making oatmeal for her two young children when her publicist called. A few hours later, she was on a plane to Phoenix to attend a screening of “Transamerica,” only to fly back later that night.
“I am thrilled,” she said of the nomination. “It really is the lifeblood of these independents -- how else will anyone know to see it if there weren’t film festivals and awards shows to spotlight them?”
In the weeks around the limited release of “Transamerica,” she was everywhere -- at the New York opening, at the Los Angeles opening, in every magazine from Entertainment Weekly to Time. The film is about a male to female transgender woman who discovers she has fathered a son. To get her psychologist to sign off on her final surgery, Bree must meet and get to know the young man, who has a complicated life of his own. As they travel from New York to Los Angeles, much is hidden and revealed.
Huffman’s performance got raves. With a physical presence that is difficult to reconcile with her small frame, Huffman nails the self-conscious and self-obsessed Bree, from the hopeful lilt of her still tenor voice to the studied hair-swinging swivel of her head.
Still, she had to sell the movie, which doesn’t exactly have “blockbuster” or even “indie smash” written all over it. In every possible venue, she has explained how she prepared for the role (by meeting with transgender women as well as a life coach who helps them through transition), how it differed from life on “Desperate Housewives” (night and day; for one thing, on a low-budget film, craft services “is a saltine and some mayonnaise”) and what her actor husband, William H. Macy, thought of it all (he advised her not to get so caught up in playing a man becoming a woman that she forgot to actually act).
“I have been very busy,” she said recently, as she gave an interview while driving. “No one has ever been this interested in me before and probably never will be again.”
With the film going into wide release next Friday and the Golden Globes nominations out, Huffman is pretending that things will calm down. “I told my friend that and she just laughed and said, ‘It’s just getting started.’ ”
Taken together, the two nods make her chances for an Oscar nomination seem more likely. With no multiple-nomination front-runner in this year’s race, many smaller independent movies are shouldering their way into awards season with big publicity pushes. Huffman and Macy have a lot of goodwill in Hollywood -- they are one of those rare industry couples who actually seem sane -- and the role of Bree is the sort of utter transformation that often transfixes the academy.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, predictably. “Really. But I will say that if you had told me a year ago that this movie we were making for $2 was going to win awards, I would have told you you were crazy. I would have said, ‘No, this is going to be one of those movies where my husband watches, slaps his hand to his forehead and just shakes his head.’ ”
Which doesn’t mean she isn’t working the room for “Transamerica"; she most certainly is, making sure everyone knows that it is not a “cause” movie, that it is funny and sweet and that Bree could be any woman who isn’t sure, exactly, who she is and too busy obsessing about this to notice when it becomes clear.
“She’s a freak,” Huffman said of Bree fondly. “Not because she is transgender but because she’s trying to fit herself into this image of what she thinks a woman is. She can’t just let herself be who she is. Until the end. When she does, a little.”
Huffman has been asked many times about the voice (she got a coach who helped her open her larynx up but still it took a half-hour warm-up every day), the hands (no prosthetics, just the actor’s knowledge that if you behave as if something were big and ungraceful it will appear big and ungraceful), her prosthetic penis (named Andy) and the general lack of vanity it required for a woman to allow herself to be shot so that she looks like she was once a man.
“I’ve never been a beauty,” she has told countless interviewers, all photographic evidence to the contrary. “So it wasn’t a problem for me.”
“It is hard talking about something again and again. But the story [of the film] is the story, so I tell it because I want people to see this movie. I do whatever I can to get people to see this movie.”
The stardom thing, though, she’s not buying, her appearance in Time notwithstanding.
“This has been a great year, a fantastic year,” she said. “But I am very cognizant of the shelf-life of the spotlight. There have been so many times people have said to me after I’ve done some project, ‘Oh, now you’re going to take off,’ and then I didn’t work for a year.
“If I start feeling I was anointed, all I have to do is remember how many times I’ve been fired.”
And the cool sideways glance of reality is always there to help remind her. When she was in New York doing publicity Huffman ran out between interviews to shop at Barneys. People have been recognizing her more on the street lately, she says, so when a woman tapped her on the shoulder, Huffman turned with the murmur of ‘Oh, thank you very much’ all prepared. The woman looked her straight in the face and asked where the gloves and scarves were kept.
“That’s something anyway,” Huffman says, laughing. “At least I looked good enough to work in Barneys.
“It was great actually,” she adds. “The best thing that could have happened right now.”