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Felicity Huffman goes dark for 'American Crime'

Felicity Huffman goes dark for 'American Crime'
Felicity Huffman in the Wolf-Kasteler Public Relations office in Los Angeles. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

For almost two decades, Felicity Huffman has been one of the busiest and most popular actresses on ABC's prime-time slate. From her starring turn as a producer in "Sports Night" to her Emmy-winning stint as a harried mother on "Desperate Housewives," Huffman has specialized in playing successful, likable women trying to make the best of difficult situations.

But "likable" is one of the last words you'd attribute to Huffman's characters on ABC's "American Crime," the highly acclaimed anthology series from Oscar winner John Ridley that has taken on tough and edgy subject matter rarely examined on network TV drama.

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In her Emmy-nominated role from last season, Huffman played Barb Hanlon, a bitter, divorced woman whose racial prejudices are exposed when minorities are accused of killing her grown son during a home invasion. In the show's current and second season, Huffman portrays Leslie Graham, the ambitious, driven headmistress of an elite high school who confronts a mother (Lili Taylor) accusing members of the basketball team of raping her son during a drunken party.

In a lively interview at her publicist's Hollywood office, Huffman, the mother of two teens, discussed her move to the dark side, memories of "Desperate Housewives" and twisted breakfast table talk with her husband, "Shameless" star William H. Macy.

Viewers we're surprised last year on "American Crime" when you played a woman with bigoted views. Now you're portraying a woman who is more pleasant on the surface but is more cunning and dangerous. What was your response when John Ridley first talked to you about her?

I was pleased. As we were building Leslie, I said to John, "She wants to be someone that people are drawn to." Men find her attractive, but women don't find her threatening. They go, "I like her skirt, I like her hair." She wins people over. She's such a chess player and a mastermind, a politician.

And you changed your hair color to dark to become her.

If you're as fortunate as I've been to work in television all these years, the audience gets attached to your character. Particularly after eight years of "Desperate Housewives," I didn't want any residue left over. I wanted to flavor a new character. John's characters ask for audiences to see them as a whole against a wide sky. That's why last year I went with the brown contact lenses. I didn't wear any makeup, the gray was coming in. It was kind of fabulous. I spent all of two minutes in the makeup chair. This year, I wanted to not have an aftertaste of last year.

You have described Leslie as a politician.

She is a company man. She will do the job that is given to her, and do it 100%, whether it is a private school or a Fortune 500 company or a nonprofit. She cares about the big picture. I also think she's lonely. She's a bit of an island. The way Barb was.

Although she cares about the institution, she's also insensitive to the mother who is so distraught.

That's exactly right. But if you care about the institution and your goal is the greater good, there will be times when you go, "I understand that you're upset, but I can't do anything about it." If the body is sick, sometimes, you have to cut off the foot to save the body.

You're a mother. How would you respond if Leslie were the headmistress at your children's school?

It depends on whether my children were in trouble or not. It depends on whether I had to cross her. If I did, it would be difficult because she's formidable and somewhat unmovable. But if she were in my corner, I think it would be swell. [Laughs]

An interesting irony is that Barb last season was in a desperate fight to get justice for her son. This season, you're playing a woman fighting a mother seeking justice for her son.

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Kudos to John Ridley. He set that up. It's a wonderful turntable to have me on the other side of the fence and watching this brilliant actress, Lili Taylor, being agonized over her boy. Lili is so brilliant and so heartfelt . But I do believe in Leslie's point of view, which is to consider what it means to falsely accuse young men of something they didn't do. Their life is done.

The "American Crime" cast seems very bonded, much like a repertory company. We heard through the years of tensions behind the scenes of "Desperate Housewives." How does being in this situation differ from being a part of an ensemble playing the same characters over many years?

I'm honored to have been a part of "Desperate Housewives." It will be on my tombstone and made it possible to be where I am in my career right now. There was an explosive element to that show. From the moment we aired, it went "boom." We were shot out of a cannon, and it was kind of bewildering. We were all seasoned professionals, but experiencing that makes it hard to find your sea legs.

What we had on "Desperate Housewives" was [creator] Marc Cherry's distinct unifying voice, which was the defining factor, and not so much a common aesthetic. With "American Crime," there is a unifying aesthetic, and it incorporates the actors.

Your husband stars on "Shameless," which couldn't be more different than "American Crime." What are those breakfast conversations like?

Bill is hilarious. We're all sitting around the breakfast table and one daughter will say, "I have a French test today," and the other one says, "I have a field trip today," and my husband says, "Uh, I'm doing cocaine on a toilet seat today." [Laughs] Georgia has her school photo, and Sophia brings her school photo, and Bill brings in a picture of him naked with pink pasties and tassels and a fluffy feathered cod piece. The really funny thing is, he's in his sixth year. We run lines in our house all the time. When he started, I said, "The girls cannot run lines with you." But now they're old enough, and he runs lines from "Shameless" with my girls.

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