Felicity Huffman has no idea how she has become the patron saint of mothers -- at least screen mothers, as in her television alter ego Lynette Scavo on "Desperate Housewives." There was also her Oscar-nominated role as a transsexual reconnecting with a son in "Transamerica." And now in her latest film, "Phoebe in Wonderland," Huffman plays a blocked writer turned ambivalent full-time mom to two girls -- one a very troubled child, played by the angelic-looking Elle Fanning.
"I was thinking about it this morning," says Huffman, referring to her recent spate of mom roles. "I thought that maybe it's my age [she's 46] -- or maybe it's a little gift or joke from God: 'That thing that you struggle with so mightily, well, I want you to do it in your professional career as well,' " says the real-life mother of two daughters, Sofia, 8, and Georgia, 6.
"I did not enter into motherhood with any sense of equanimity or grace," she adds with a laugh. "I'm surrounded by women who are much better mothers than I am, and they come to it much more naturally."
Self-deprecation does seem to be Huffman's metier, as does unpretentiousness. On a rainy day in Los Angeles, the actress is huddled over a bowl of soup in a Valley cafe not far from her Hollywood Hills home. She wears her black trench coat pulled tight around her slight frame, her hair definitively uncoiffed, and her face free of makeup except for the jet black mascara around her eyes. The black outline looks like an afterthought, like a kind of quick-fix that busy moms do when they suddenly must leave the house, which it turns out Huffman has in fact just done, leaving her girls at home with the baby sitter. (Her husband, William H. Macy, is in New York, having replaced the mercury-inflicted Jeremy Piven in the Broadway revival of "Speed-the-Plow.")
In "Phoebe," which premiered at Sundance in 2008 and opens Friday, 9-year-old Phoebe begins exhibiting obsessive-compulsive tics, unexplained spitting, unconscious rudeness and extreme anxiety in almost all situations except when she's acting in the school play, "Alice in Wonderland," or lost in her own imagination, where characters from "Alice" seem to come to life. Her mother is a frustrated academic with writer's block, a larger-than-healthy dose of narcissism and burbling feminist rage at the personality deterioration that stay-at-home motherhood has wrought.
Huffman describes her character's despair as "that feeling which I've heard and felt and other mothers have said so to me also -- not all mothers -- but you sort of become a mother and you look back and you kind of go, 'Where did I go? I disappeared somewhere.' She is lost in motherhood and is lost in her writing -- she can't write anymore. So there is that conundrum of you feel imprisoned by motherhood and at the same time you love and cherish motherhood. And you can't seem to marry all the conflicting components of it."
"One of the things that is amazing about Felicity is that she speaks very publicly and candidly about the incredible highs and lows of parenting," says "Phoebe" writer-director Daniel Barnz, who not only is a close friend of the actress but is also father to Zelda, the best friend of Huffman's 8-year-old. "People really crave that voice. It's sometimes considered taboo about how difficult it can be to be a parent." In fact, her character's monologue -- in which she charts the highs and lows of motherhood -- comes directly out of conversations Barnz had with Huffman.
The actress certainly doesn't pretend to be able to do it all. Huffman rarely takes her daughters to the "Desperate Housewives" set because, she says, "I'm not good at that multi-tasking thing: kids, conversation, kids, work. I find that very difficult. Also there is sort of a rarefied air around a set, which is weird."
And her launch into motherhood, which she loves, she nonetheless describes as complicated and overwhelming. "You feel your heart break open," she says. "It was scary. I felt unequal to the task. I felt like I was moving from mistake to mistake, sleep-deprived forever." She adds: "I'm not sure happiness is anything like finding the perfect pair of black pants and breakfast in bed."
Her best parenting advice: "Know your story, the story you have told yourself about your past . . . the decisions you have made. I think it's essentially self-knowledge. So at least when you are inflicting your unconscious or your views, you are a little bit aware of it."
She declines to elaborate on her specific story, though she does offer an anecdote that sheds light on what kind of mother Felicity Huffman is.
"One of my daughters turned to me last night and said, 'Am I adopted?' And I said, 'No, you are not adopted,' " Huffman relates. "And she said, 'Well, sometimes I feel so different.' So I said, 'I think it's part of human nature that you would feel different and that you would feel like you don't belong. You feel like you are the odd one out. It just feels like that -- even if you are the center of everything.' "
That's the message of "Phoebe in Wonderland," adds the actress. "That sort of innate alienation that goes along with being human."
-- Rachel Abramowitz
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Where you've seen her
Felicity Huffman's first break came as the replacement for Madonna in the original Broadway version of David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow." She went on to become a television presence in Aaron Sorkin's "Sports Night" and guest starred on "Frasier," "The X-Files" and "The West Wing" before landing her Emmy Award-winning role as Lynette Scavo on "Desperate Housewives." In 2005, she won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for her role in "Transamerica" as Bree, a preoperative transsexual on a road trip with the long-lost son she fathered. She was also Lindsay Lohan's mother in "Georgia Rule."