Across an expansive career in theater, film and television, Felicity Huffman has played all manner of roles, from executive producer Dana Whitaker in Aaron Sorkin’s cult series Sports Night to Bree Osbourne, a stiffly conservative trans woman in the 2005 indie hit Transamerica.
But in 2012, when ABC’s Desperate Housewives ended its eight-year run, Huffman openly fretted to reporters that she needed to take a break, that the public could now only see her as Lynette Scavo, the disgruntled stay-at-home mom of the soapy social satire.
In the intervening years, she did a semi-vanishing act, mostly appearing in small films, including Rudderless, directed and cowritten by her husband, William H. Macy.
What erased Lynette wasn’t just time, though, but John Ridley’s searing ABC drama American Crime. The anthology series put Huffman’s shape-shifting skills on display, assigning her a brittle racist character in the first season (Barb Hanlon) and a polished private-school principal (Leslie Graham) the following year.
Then, this past season — in the show’s third and final year — came perhaps Huffman’s finest performance, as Jeanette Hesby, a sensitive Southern homebody who tries to push back against the rich, business-first clan into which she married.
Huffman recently sat down in the anteroom of a photographer’s studio in L.A.’s Koreatown to talk with emmy contributor Margy Rochlin about American Crime; juggling career, two teen daughters and marriage; and why she considered Jeanette her biggest challenge.
“She was difficult because she was the least familiar to me,” says Huffman, when asked how she assembled her layered, delicately nuanced portrayal. “I don’t know that I’d have been cast in that part had we not been an ensemble. I don’t think you look at me and go, ‘Oh, she’s a soft Southern woman who has no agency or purchase in life.’” Here are excerpts from their conversation:
How did you hear about American Crime?
I’m a member of [David Mamet’s] Atlantic Theater Company and a writer friend of mine [from the company], Tom Donaghy, texted me: “My friend Michael McDonald [an executive producer of American Crime] is trying to get you a script. Can he send it to you?”
And I said, “Absolutely.” I read it and I didn’t know how I’d ever play Barb, but I was fascinated and had a lot of questions. I also knew they were after bigger actresses, so I had to wait a little while. I was fortunate enough [that none of them worked out].
Then John [Ridley, American Crime creator–executive producer–director] said, “Let’s go out to breakfast.” And I said, “Great,” but I didn’t realize it was the morning after he’d won the Academy Award [for best adapted screenplay, for 12 Years a Slave].
We met at some diner at 11 a.m. He tells the story that I came in and said, “Yeah, great. You won the Academy Award. Okay, now about this script: here are my questions.”
The truth was, I thought, “The last place you want to be the morning after you won the Academy Award is with me, so I want to get in and get out.” But I said, “I love this script and I love this story. But I don’t know how to play her because there’s a version where you go, ‘Oh, she’s an angry, bitter racist — and I don’t want to do that.’”
And he said, “No, I need her to be three-dimensional,” and I signed on. And it was my husband, Bill, who said, “I know how you do this.”
He said, “She’s dedicated to one thing, and that’s taking care of her son. Her son happens to be dead, so taking care of him is getting justice for him.” She’s not out to eviscerate, be harsh, cruel or bitchy. Anything that gets in the way of that, she just pushes aside and keeps going forward. I hope that you see that in the performance and think, “I don’t want to have dinner with her, but I do have empathy for her.”
Desperate Housewives ended in 2012. Were you eager to get back into series television?
Well, I never thought this would be a series. It was so outrageous for ABC to be doing this that I thought, “I’d love to work with [John Ridley,] this brilliant, talented man for 10 days, so I’ll go shoot the pilot, but no one is ever going to see it.” Afterwards I said to Tim Hutton [who played her husband], “Well, I’ll never see you again, but this was great — I had a good time!”
I never thought it had a future. Even in the first season, I kept going, “Okay, I’ve got an ugly haircut and I’m going to wear glasses and no makeup.” I kept waiting for the network to come in and go, “Flag on the play!” And they didn’t. They were amazingly supportive.
You won an Emmy for Housewives and the show put you on the map. But there was also a lot of well-reported, roiling off-screen drama. Did you have any concerns about returning to a series with an ensemble cast?
I didn’t. I’ve been with the Atlantic Theater Company for 25 years. We used to have fights that would go on until 2 a.m. and the neighbors would call. In any community that’s trying to do something collaborative and artistic, there’s strife.
But I was relieved to see that John Ridley is the leader that he is. He’s like a football coach. There aren’t individuals, there’s just the team. The lineup — the order of actors on the call sheet — is alphabetical. There’s no number one.
You have six sisters and a brother. Is that why you’re so collaborative?
I’m very comfortable in a group. There’s intimacy and distance in a group. When there’s a bunch of people, you can either be alone or with other people. I also think being the youngest of eight is why I like asking for advice.
It drives my husband crazy. I call at least two or three of my sisters all the time. He’s like, “Oh, my God! To decide which movie to go to, you have to make 13 phone calls and two people cry.” It’s an exaggeration, but I do sound out my friends and family a lot.
How does John Ridley introduce a new character to you?
We keep meeting for breakfast in weird places in the [San Fernando] Valley, and he sits down and says, “This is the space where I want to put the show. This is what I’m investigating.” The first season was about the judicial system, drugs and families falling apart. The second season was about education, social differences and economic diversity.
For the third season, he said, “I’m interested in forced labor.” And I went, “What’s that?” Because I knew nothing about it. Also, I wanted to do something different than the first two characters. Barb and Leslie were very different women, but people found them both unsympathetic — which is fine. But to play someone else, someone I hadn’t done before, at least on television? Wow.
Jeanette is emotionally without defenses. Did that make her harder to play than Barb and Leslie?
I think Jeanette is my favorite. But it felt like a bit of a freefall, because she doesn’t control anything . I haven’t talked about this before, but I started working with a new acting coach, Kim Gillingham.
I studied with David Mamet forever. And that’s very cerebral, very linear, very craftsman-like and that’s wonderful — I stand upon that scaffolding every time I work. But working with this woman helped me to do this sort of backwards swan dive off the diving board. It did kind of crack me open.
How much responsibility do you assume for making each character distinct from season to season?
I think that’s the work of the actor. You don’t want the audience thinking, “Oh, look, there’s Barb again, but now she’s a high-school headmistress.” You have to subtly shift everything — the way you talk, the way you look, how you approach people, how you touch people….
So, Barb? She wanted to fly under the radar. She wanted fine clothes, but not the kind where someone would go, “Where did you get those?” Leslie, she’s so put-together, but not threatening. I wanted to see her waist, in tight skirts. I wore a lot of Spanx. Then Jeanette, what I thought about her is, “That’s a body that absorbs things.”
So, I gained about 12 pounds, but it wasn’t showing up on camera because she wears loose clothes. Then the wonderful costume designer [Patia Prouty] figured out how to make it look like it was 25 pounds.
In each episode of American Crime, there are several non-intersecting stories being told. Are you always aware of what’s going on with the rest of the cast?
Yes, but as the season goes on, [John Ridley] redacts more and more scenes. I’ll come on set and be going, “What’s going on?” Like when [in season three] Benito [Martinez as Luis Salazar] kills Richard [Cabral as Isaac Castillo]? I had no idea, because the scene was redacted. Suddenly it was Benito’s last episode, and I was like, “What happened?”
You’ve often talked about the difficulties of combining parenting and a career. Is it easier now that your daughters are teenagers?
It’s so much easier. Kids, when they’re little, it’s a 24/7 job and they’re just sucking your resources out of you. Now I can go home from work, say hi and sit down and talk a little bit. Kids change so much, so you’re never an expert. But it seems to me that adolescents need you. You have to be there and know everything, but you’re kind of herding them instead of keeping them on a leash.
Is either child interested in acting?
Yes, my oldest is. She’s going to LACHSA [L.A. County High School for the Arts], the only performing arts high school in the county. She takes a subway, then a bus and she loves it. She’s like a member of the tribe. We’re like a circus family, so of course my daughter is going to [join the circus].
What’s it like to be directed by your husband?
He’s got an unbelievable eye. He knows my acting backwards and forwards. He knows what I’m going for, if it works — and if it does, if it’s full of shit or not. He’s also joyous, so I like being around him. It’s really fun. We drive to work together, we hang out, we talk about it.
Talk about your latest endeavor: producing.
That’s where I want to go next. I want to not just be the receiver of great material, but I’d like to support and create and give wonderful jobs to talented people. I love sitting around and talking about stories. I don’t know if I’m particularly good at it, but I enjoy it. I like going, “I’m not going to wait for the phone to ring. Let’s go after this.”
I read a wonderful book called The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats that I’m producing with Aaron Kaplan [American Housewife] and David Nutter [Containment]. I’m producing [a terrorism task-force drama for ABC] with Rachel Winter. I’m an exec producer on [and starring in] a pilot I did with Kenya Barris, called Libby & Malcolm. So I’ve got those projects.
At this point, your career has never been better. What do you attribute that to? Are roles for women expanding?
Well, I don’t think it has to do with me. You know how indie movies just exploded and there’s not enough audience members for them now? I wonder if the same is true with television. There’re so many venues, so they’re looking for more stories. And there’re more opportunities, so you don’t have to be 30 and gorgeous to work.
Desperate Housewives might have been a watershed event in the sense that women in their 40s were considered interesting and funny. That’s what I ascribe it to — and may it continue.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2017