"This is an old-fashioned movie about self-acceptance, about love and connection. It's a sheep in wolf's clothing. A family values movie. We shot in some very conservative places - notably red state Arizona, with its cowboys and Christians. And everyone was incredibly interested in and supportive of the story we were telling. "I believe it's a movie for anyone who's ever felt different and alone. For anyone who's discovered that growing up is hard to do. For anyone who likes to laugh. For anyone who yearns to connect. For anyone with a crazy family. For anyone who likes to travel. For anyone who understands that though you will feel pain as well as joy (that's what hearts do), keeping your heart open is the only way to live." Writer-Director Duncan Tucker
"Would Bree watch Desperate Housewives? Yes, she would love it and throw Desperate Housewives parties. She might even consider going blond."
Huffman is that rare gifted actor who has demonstrated not only great range but also a fierce sense of independence in the roles she has chosen and created on stage and on the small and big screens.
Huffman is, after all, co-founder, with William H. Macy and David Mamet, of New York's Atlantic Theatre Company. She has been nominated for numerous Golden Globe and Emmy awards for the tough women she has created on the acclaimed TV series "Sports Night" and "Desperate Housewives." And she has done memorable supporting work in such acclaimed films as "The Spanish Prisoner" and "Magnolia."
But with TRANSAMERICA, Huffman, for the first time, carries an entire feature film. Her portrayal of Bree, a conservative, biologically male transsexual "living stealth" in the days before her scheduled surgery, is a triumph of transformation, an astonishing example of how completely an actor can fearlessly disappear into the skin, and psyche, of another person.
TRANSAMERICA opens with startling sound and image: an attractive woman, looking right into the camera, modulates her voice from low to high. In a moment we realize this is a training video that Bree is watching, an exercise that is helping her more fully become a woman.
The opening also invites the audience to witness the transformation of a star of a wildly popular TV series into an almost unrecognizable character whose greatest desire is to avoid the notice of others.
The film's writer-director, Duncan Tucker, says "Transamerica is subversive insofar as the main character is a transsexual woman, yet the film is not about transsexuality. It is at root an old-fashioned story about a parent, a child and the bonds of family."
Huffman, who learned about Tucker's offer for her to star in TRANSAMERICA while she was at the first table read for the "Desperate Housewives" pilot, adds that "Duncan told me, 'it's not a movie about what's under your skirt.'"
Creating Bree, says Huffman, was about getting across the idea "That you feel alienated from your true being, that you feel you are an impostor."
Did Huffman feel that taking the role was a risk?
"Risky, no, scary, yes," she admits. "I didn't think I could pull it off. I knew nothing about the transgender world. How does a woman go about becoming a man who is becoming a woman? Did I become a man first and then figure out how, as a man, I should let my inner woman out?"
Says producer Sebastian Dungan, "I think Felicity was fearless in playing Bree because there is always a risk of bring perceived differently or typecast when you play a role like Bree. But," he continues, " I also believe Felicity, as an artist, is dedicated to honesty and, as a person, loves a challenge. So, I don't think she was worried about perception or glamour. She just saw a great part and dove into it."
Adds Huffman, "Everyone has had experiences like the ones Bree has: being self-conscious on an excruciating level, not fitting in, wishing people could see you as you really are, having to hide your true self from those you love. True, gender dysphoric individuals experience this at an intense level, but it is still a truth of the human soul. If TRANSAMERICA can tell a story about that, it transforms it from an "issue movie" to a movie everyone can relate to because the characters' struggles are true and universal. And those are the movies I want to watch."
The makers of TRANSAMERICA had very firm ideas about the kind of actor they wanted for Bree.
"The casting of Bree was always one of the trickiest parts of putting together the film," recalls Dungan. "Many people suggested we cast a male actor, but the last thing we wanted was for Bree to look like a man in women's clothes. We felt it would be too difficult to make a man pass completely as a transsexual woman without costly and cumbersome prosthetics and makeup."
Although Bree would be played by a woman, Huffman nonetheless went through a radical physical as well as emotional transformation to prepare for the part.
"I had to figure out the physicality of the role," she recalls. "I met with two wonderful women, Andréa James and Calpurnia Adams [on whose life the award-winning Showtime movie A Soldier's Girl was based]. They not only talked to me about the inner life of gender dysphoria but about the physical challenges. They were my guardian angels throughout the shooting.
"I remember Danny Glicker, the brilliant costume designer, and I calling Andrea asking, 'What does it feel like right after sexual reassignment surgery and what does the bandage look like?' We passed the phone back and forth as she described the bandage to him and the pain to me."
Adds Tucker, "We often think of all TS women as odd-looking, caught in a limbo between masculine and feminine. That is because we're often only aware of the visible ones, the TS people we recognize on the street. In fact, every year hundreds of 'stealth trannies' pass through transition and then melt invisibly into society."
To reach a point where Bree could look, sound, walk, talk and dress like a transgender person who is on the verge of successfully "living stealth," at least most of the time, Huffman and the TRANSAMERICA crew worked diligently on the most extreme of makeovers.
Huffman began by asking herself, "How does a woman stand, sit, gesture?"
Says Huffman, "I went to work with a wonderful coach, Danea Doyle, who teaches transgender woman how to behave like women. I had to learn everything from the outside in. I learned how to walk, how to hold my arms and hands. For example, men's arms are longer and their hands are much bigger, so to hide this I stood with my elbows severely tucked in and my hands neatly folded over each other. I learned how to stand, walk, and gesture. For me, interestingly enough, a large part of the transformation was training to be more feminine."
Huffman continues, "For my voice training I went back to Andrea James, who also teaches transgender women how to find their female voice. The voice is the hardest thing. You can look like Kate Moss but if you sound like James Earl Jones or Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot you got a problem. So I had to sound like man who hasn't quite found his female voice. Understandably, Andrea had never had to do it the other way around, that is, make a women sound like a man trying to sound like a women. Andrea suggested I use 'the voice' as I went about my day.
"Wll, suddenly I didn't want to talk anymore. I was so embarrassed and self-conscious trying to speak in my woman/man/woman voice, so instead I found myself nodding or shaking my head or smiling in a "how yaw doing" kind of way. Anything to keep from speaking."
More superficial yet equally important elements of Bree came from her hair, makeup and wardrobe. Duncan Tucker describes the process:
"I had always been of the opinion that very meticulously thought-out and very feminine make-up, just a little bit too heavily applied, was the way to go," he says. "Our make-up artist, Lynn Campbell, was key make-up artist for Sex and the City, and Felicity worked closely with her. They contoured her face, accentuating the planes and angles, making her look more gaunt and bony. They used foundation that was just a shade off of what was appropriate for Felicity's coloring, to tell the story that Bree hadn't yet fully figured out how to use make-up.
"Jason Hayes, who did the wigs for Hairspray on Broadway, built us two amazing human hair wigs at a tenth of what they would normally cost, because of his belief in the project. We wouldn't have been able to afford them otherwise. He actually ended up taking a huge amount of hair out of the wig, to thin it so it looks more like the hair of a man who decided to begin hormone therapy in mid-life.
"I asked costume designer Danny Glicker to think about catalogue-ordered clothes, since I imagined Bree was too self-conscious to go shopping in public, and to stick with pastels and ultra-feminine colors. He and Felicity soon discovered that Bree's favorite color was lavender, though she was also partial to mint, beige and pink, that she wears scarves to conceal her neck, jackets to conceal her figure, long dresses to conceal her legs - all of Bree's clothing choices are about covering up."
Huffman observes, "Before sexual reassignment surgery, a candidate has to live as a woman for at least a year, before the person is cleared for the actual surgery. So I ask all the guys out there: think about waking up one morning and putting on a dress, make up and high heals and going to work or the grocery store or the bank. Can you imagine how terrifying that would be?
"I started to be able to comprehend the heroic journey gender dysphoric people take. If they are brave enough to fight for who they truly are, they are viewed as freaks and alienated from society. If they choose not to, they are alienated from themselves. I started the research for this movie thinking gender dysphoric people were interesting but at best an odd anomaly. I ended the film knowing that these are some of the bravest people in the world."
"Felicity created a whole range of movements, tics, a walk and a voice that made her an entirely different person," recalls producer Dungan. "I'll always remember when we were shooting in Phoenix and Bill Macy came to visit the set with their two young daughters. The youngest didn't recognize her mother in her full hair-makeup-costume-deep-voiced persona and started crying when Felicity tried to pick her up. I felt bad for Felicity as a mother but I knew that we had really succeeded in her transformation at that point."
Huffman reports that the transformation ran so deep that vestiges of Bree stuck with her as "Desperate Housewives" went into production a couple of weeks after TRANSAMERICA wrapped.
"It was a culture shock," she says. "My voice was several octaves lower and by the end of TRANSAMERICA. I honestly was having some confusion as to what side of the public restrooms I was supposed to use. Seriously, I would walk into the ladies room and suddenly freeze 'am I allowed in here?…yes!…no! This isn't my side… oh yes it is, I am a girl'! Plus I kept answering to Marcia Cross' character whose name is Bree. I'd hear an AD say 'We are ready on set for Bree' and I would come flying out of my trailer."
"Actresses are under enormous pressure to look beautiful," concludes Dungan. "But they also want good, meaty parts, and Felicity's work in this film reminds me of what Charlize Theron went through for 'Monster' and Hilary Swank's performance in 'Boys Don't Cry,' as examples of actresses taking risks that have paid off. Felicity's total commitment to the reality of Bree is one of the things that I admire the most about her involvement in the film. The work she did on her voice and walk and mannerisms, getting coached by real transsexual women, was entirely her idea.
"It was also entirely Felicity's idea to wear the uncomfortable undergarments of a transsexual even when there was no way they could be seen."
Once shooting began, Huffman's greatest challenge was to maintain the character, though she reports the film's director helped with this.
"Duncan became my watchdog," she says. "Every time my voice went into a higher register, every time my gestures became too comfortably feminine, every time I lost Bree's walk, every nod of the head that wasn't totally Bree, Duncan would call me on it.
"I have to say, Duncan is a brave man, because if I wasn't snapping at him, denying the lapse, the producers were snapping at him saying we couldn't afford another take just because my gesture was slightly off. But Duncan is tenacious. He wrote the script and loved Bree and when she didn't show up on the screen in all her authenticity he became a bulldog. I had to do it again. He pushed me and pushed me. It is a blessing to have a director who won't settle, and believes in your ability so much that he won't accept anything but the absolute, one hundred percent, truth from you. I settled into the character more as the film progressed, and consequently neither my husband nor my agent could recognize my voice when I called. My husband finally made a rule that I couldn't talk to him 'in character.' It was too weird."
A ROAD MOVIE
"TRANSAMERICA draws its life and soul from the people whose story it tells," says writer / director Duncan Tucker. "I chose to make it a road movie because I wanted to show these two extraordinary characters against a backdrop of ordinary America and Americans. Bree and Toby unwittingly pioneer new territory in their own lives as they travel from the Northeast to the Southwest, and the sweep and scope of the landscape they pass through mirror their interior journeys. It's impossible to write a screenplay like this without honoring the tension implicit in the characters and situation. But Bree and Toby remain spirited, hopeful people. I tried to make their story swift-paced and funny, with a lively sense of adventure and of possibility."
As a Road Movie, the makers of TRANSAMERICA were able to offer their cast and crew the rare luxury of shooting the film more or less in sequence.
But shooting in rural and "red state" America, the producers were a bit concerned that the film's subject matter would get them into trouble. Producer Sebastian Dungan recalls instructing the crew, if asked by locals, to say the film was about a woman and her son going on a cross-country road trip.
"Not exactly a lie, but not the whole truth either," Dungan recalls today. "Like many low-budget films, we often had to rely on the hospitality of local churches and community centers who rent their facilities as inexpensive holding areas near sets. I remember being particularly nervous about one such holding, a Mormon church in the middle of Nowhere, Arizona, that was down the road from where we shot the Sammy's Wigwam sequence where Toby confronts Bree about having a penis. Locations posted signs to respect the church - "no cussing, no smoking" one read - but I was nervous that our rowdy New York crew would forget where they were. At one point, I walked in on some crew members having fun with one of the prosthetic penises that we were prepping for an upcoming scene. There was an image of Jesus on the wall. I had to break up the fun."
Recalls Huffman, "The film started shooting in New York. Which was wonderful since I got to be in the city again. As a young actor I always dreamed of actually filming a movie in New York. And since I am a member of the Atlantic Theater Company I cajoled several of the members to come down and watch the first couple days of shooting, just to make sure I wasn't too far off in left field or completely full of shit. Then we went to upstate New York, which was beautiful and made me miss the East Coast. We flew to Flagstaff, which was the honeymoon of the project for me."
"It worked out well that as Felicity and Kevin got to know each other better, so did Bree and Toby," says Tucker. "When, halfway through the production, we moved out to Arizona, where the country feels enormous and the skies are always blue. It was fun to be in those beautiful locations - the high desert outside of Chino Valley, Watson Lake in the Granite Dells, a beautiful ranch nestled in the boulders outside of Prescott, white bluffs in Skull Valley on the old Senator Highway. Everyone started having a really good time on the set. We shot what we call Bree's and Toby's 'honeymoon scenes' there, the sequence of their trip where they really start to enjoy each other.
Those "honeymoon scenes," and the scenes leading up to the film's dénouement, in which Toby discovers Bree's true identity, required that Huffman and Kevin Zegers created a tricky and transparently honest dynamic between them. As producer Sebastian Dungan puts it, "Toby and Bree could not be more different characters. She is conservative, verbal, extremely body conscious. He is wild, exhibitionistic, and insecure about his intelligence. Both are loners, with a suspicion of a world that has abused and stigmatized them. Both have retreated and closed themselves off rather than get burned again. The tension between their differences and their similarities and the compromises the story leads them to make is the core of their journey."
Zegers fought for the role of Toby.
"Young actors are hard to cast," explains Dungan. "Too inexperienced and natural and you worry about their range and consistency. Too experienced and polished, and you worry that they won't be able to be raw. In Toby, we were looking for a balance between the two and a very specific age range.
"Duncan was insistent not to cast older for younger as is so often done, especially on TV where 28-year-olds play high school students. When our casting director Eve Battaglia first showed us Kevin's pictures the reaction was, "this kid's way too good looking." But Kevin and his reps really pursued the part. Kevin had a lot of success early in his career and he's now at that crossroads where he has to prove that he is more than a cute kid. He put himself on tape for us and the performance blew us away with its vulnerability and rawness. Also, Kevin, with his flawless looks, had managed to rough himself up. His passion for the part was clear, his acting chops undeniable and when we saw how "real" he could look, he leapt to the top of the list."
Recalls Huffman, "I watched Kevin's audition tape and thought he was phenomenal. But I was nervous he was going to be a young movie star, you know: arrogant, late, frightened, letting everyone know he was slumming it in an independent movie, and doing us a favor just by being in it. So I was relieved when Kevin walked into rehearsal and was the antithesis of the young, hot, jerky actor. He is hard working, polite, kind, considerate and a team player. Most importantly, for this project, Kevin is a brave actor. He was willing to go out on a limb and try new things. We spent 6 weeks together, sweating in an old station wagon with no air-conditioning in the Arizona 100 degree heat and we had a great time."
Adds Tucker, "The Toby Kevin discovered was a boy who's been hurt and abandoned and ostracized his whole life. He's the kind of teenager who just doesn't let on what he's thinking and feeling, he often just seems blank - so that you want to shake him by the shoulders and say, 'What's going on inside that head?' It took guts to do so little, and talent to, within those constraints, convey so much.
"Toby is a weight on Bree's shoulders, an obstacle in her path," Tucker continues. "He's the catalyst that dissolves her reserve, the trumpet that finally brings down the walls she's built to protect herself. In the end, when Bree cries after her surgery, her tears are her reward, the grace she's achieved, the treasure she brings back from her journey."
Read more about Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers
Duncan Tucker On Transsexual Women and TRANSAMERICA