Felicity Huffman is passed out on a leather couch. Her hair is mussed, her nose is chapped. Her eyeglasses are askew on her face.
It’s the flu — and she wears it well.
In theater rehearsals, anyway.
In David Mamet’s political comedy “November,” opening at the Mark Taper Forum on Sunday, Huffman plays Clarice Bernstein, an idealistic lesbian speechwriter with a nasty cold. Her employer is the president of the United States, played by Ed Begley Jr., and it’s just days before what appears to be a doomed election for the leader of the free world.
“Ah-choo!” Huffman sits upright on the Oval Office couch, wiping her nose, still in character.
“Do it again with the tissues plugged in your nose,” says the play’s director, Scott Zigler. “I like that.”
“That was my touch,” Huffman says proudly. “The tissues and the drool, both mine.”
There’s a relaxed intimacy between Huffman and Zigler as they retool the scene’s blocking, something that comes from 30 years of friendship and artistic collaboration. The two were theater mates at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where Huffman studied drama in the early ‘80s; both were mentored by Mamet, who taught acting there. They’re also founding members, along with Huffman’s husband, William H. Macy, and Mamet, of Atlantic Theater Company, which put on plays in Chicago for two years before moving to New York in 1987.
The familiarity that stems from these roots is evident in the ease between the actors onstage at rehearsal. Rod McLachlan, cast as the president’s aide, is also a member of ATC, as is Todd Weeks, who plays a turkey-industry lobbyist in “November.”
Begley is no stranger to Mamet. In 2005, he starred at the Taper in the Mamet farce “Romance.” And he played Del, a character believed to have been drawn from Mamet’s childhood, opposite Huffman in “The Cryptogram,” for which Huffman won an Obie Award in 1995.
“It’s sort of Atlantic Theater Company West,” Huffman says and later adds about Mamet: “He’s so truthful and specific. He combines such erudite language with comedy and silliness. It feels familiar.”
Huffman’s role in “November” marks a return to theater — and Mamet — after 12 years of television and film work. ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” on which she played the frazzled, working mother Lynette Scavo, came to its eight-season conclusion in May, leaving Huffman, 49, at one of those wide-open career junctures that can be exciting but also dizzying with new possibility. In late spring, she launched an ambitious parenting website featuring celebrity friends and a roster of mommy bloggers.
“It feels like stumbling forward, joyously,” Huffman says over coffee the day after rehearsal. “It’s like: ‘whoops … oh, wow … whoops.’”
She’s just come from dropping off one of her daughters at school, and in her loose-fitting purple dress, simple ponytail and no makeup, she could be any working mother grabbing coffee midmorning — except we’ve snagged a shady table on the back patio so as not to attract attention. She is relaxed and thoughtful, often pausing to find the right words and frequently punctuating answers with bits of self-deprecation followed by a quick, knowing smile.
Huffman unabashedly will tell you, for instance, that she knows little about politics and is easily influenced by others’ opinions. “I’m a lemming,” she insists. “I have the backbone of a chocolate éclair.”
“Wait, seriously? A lemming?” this reporter asks, recalling the actress’ advocacy work last year for Planned Parenthood and her fervent statement of support for transgender people in her 2006 Golden Globes acceptance speech for drama actress for “Transamerica.” “Come on. You’re a strong woman with strong opinions.”
“I’m not, I’m really not,” Huffman insists. “I go: ‘Yeah, that’s a good point. I think that.’ Then I talk to someone else and go: ‘That’s a good point too.’”
Pressed further, Huffman reveals an unwavering stance on abortion — she’s pro-choice. And acting in “November” with the real-life presidential election imminent has sparked certain political passions.
“One of the things about this country that I love — and I would call myself a patriot, and I’m sorry the right has co-opted that word — is that we can change regimes peacefully,” Huffman says. “I am here not only to defend my right to vote a certain way, but I’m also here to defend your right to vote the exact opposite from me.”
The knowing smile returns: “But I really am a lemming.”
Coyness aside, there may be some truth to Huffman’s ever-shifting points of view. Like many serious actors, she is an empty vessel of sorts, adept at inhabiting myriad characters. She and Macy host “power charades” at their house, she says, elevating the game to a near extreme sport, and for fun do accents around the dinner table with their daughters Georgia, 10, and Sophia, 12.
In the middle of discussing her role opposite Jane Fonda in the 2007 film “Georgia Rule,” Huffman sits bolt-upright, leans forward and grips her chin, eyes intense. “What do you want to talk about?” she says in a voice that suddenly becomes clipped and sharp. It’s a spot-on impression of Fonda in a free-form conversation with herself. “That’s interesting. Now why do you say that?! Why are you getting a divorce?!” Huffman then collapses back into her seat as herself.
Huffman’s pliable voice and precise movements are necessary onstage in “November,” where she must infuse her most frequent line in the play — “Sir” — with more than a dozen vastly different meanings.
There is the question: “Sir?” by which she means to say, “Are you seriously suggesting I write that Thanksgiving originated as a sexual orgy? You’re out of your mind.”
There is the exclamation: “Sir!” to say, “Legalize gay marriage and you have my vote!”
And there is the trailed off, “Sir …" meaning, “Please, may I finally go home now? My fever is spiking.”
Her character’s many sneezes must have nuance as well; she practices perfecting them in stolen moments between rehearsals — while driving, in the shower — layering each ah-choo! with subtext.
That creative gestation process is part of what drew Huffman back to the stage. The long lead time feels luxurious compared to television’s much brisker production cycle.
“There’s all this breathing room to explore and discover and excavate,” she says of theater. “It’s fantastic. With ‘Desperate Housewives,’ the scripts changed all the time; you’d sometimes have to learn it in the hair-and-makeup chair!”
Reuniting with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mamet has been, she says, “like riding a bike.”
Mamet cast Huffman in her first Broadway play, 1988’s “Speed-the-Plow,” after Madonna left the cast. Following in the Material Girl’s footsteps was thrilling and terrifying, if at times humiliating, says Huffman, who wanted to act since she was 8 and saw Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet.” “I’d sometimes go into work through the box office, and you’d hear people going: '[Madonna’s] not in it anymore? I want my tickets back!’ I didn’t know what I was doing; it was just Dave’s incredible loyalty.”
Mamet paved Huffman’s way on screen the same year as well. Her first film role was as a casino worker in Mamet’s mob comedy, “Things Change.” And her 1995 performance in the play “Dangerous Corner,” directed by Mamet, is what caught Aaron Sorkin’s attention.
“Because of that, I got ‘Sports Night’ …" Sorkin’s 1998-2000 ABC show "… which eventually led to ‘Desperate Housewives.’ I owe everything to Dave, everything,” she says. “He shaped my work ethic. It’s not about convenience or being comfortable; it’s about telling the truth.”
Mamet is more humble: “I never did anything but praise her work and stay out of her way,” he says. “She’s a wonderful actress with a vast amount of talent. She works like the devil, she always has.”
On what Huffman brings to the role of Bernstein in particular, Mamet adds: “She brings herself. And that’s what it means to be a great artist.”
But even artists have to deal with child care. Not unlike Wisteria Lane’s multitasking mom, Lynette, Huffman takes a short break from her interview to call home on her iPhone.
“People say: ‘How do you juggle it?’ I don’t. I drop the balls,” she admits. “Like any working mom, it’s hard.”
That’s partly why “Flicka,” as everyone in Huffman’s personal life calls her, started the website What the Flicka? at whattheflicka.com. As the youngest of eight children, seven of whom are girls, Huffman says she and her sisters would often gather around their Aspen, Colo., kitchen counter to kvetch and exchange advice. Huffman wanted to create a virtual kitchen countertop for moms. Bloggers on the site, including Eva Longoria and Jennifer Grey, offer everything from hump day cocktail recipes to marital advice. Huffman put up the seed money for the website, and handpicked contributors from more than 100 blogs she researched.
The challenges of motherhood are an endless source to draw on, she says. In 2008’s “Phoebe in Wonderland,” she played the mother of a gifted but troubled child. And her transgender parent in the 2005 road trip movie “Transamerica” not only earned her a Golden Globe but also an Academy Award nomination and a Spirit Award.
Huffman’s own mother, who studied acting before starting a family at 23, was a seminal influence. Over the years, she regularly helped Huffman run lines before plays and gave her notes after previews; she also did community theater until she died in 2009.
“She kind of poo-pooed TV,” Huffman says. “She was like: ‘Are you still in that television show?’ ‘Yes, mom, five years.’ She didn’t approve. But she went to every play I was ever in.”
Huffman pauses, looking upward, perhaps distracted by the rustling in a nearby tree. “This is the first play I’ve ever done that my mom will not be coming to,” she says.
Then, shrugging off the nostalgia, Huffman whips out her iPhone to show a photo of herself from rehearsals of “November.” In it, she wears an early version of the frumpy Bernstein wig.
“I should tweet this,” says Huffman, who has become something of a sticky-fingered Twitter poster lately, regularly putting up photos and updates from play rehearsals. “Bill’s gonna be so mad. He said I looked too ugly [to post it].”
With a devilish smirk on her face, she then pecks at the phone’s touch pad: “Pretty, pretty …" she writes, before hitting send.
Not like a lemming at all.