For a long time, Felicity Huffman felt lost in Hollywood. She'd go from a failed TV series to stage-managing student plays. She was making $12,000 a year. In one really bad dry spell, she threw up her hands in defeat and got an application to one of Los Angeles' Marinello Schools of Beauty. She could always be a hairdresser.
When casting agents told Huffman why they weren't giving her a role, they'd say they were holding out for a babe. '''You're so good, but you're just not pretty,''' she remembers. ''And I actually appreciated their candor. They weren't saying it to be mean. They just didn't want me to think I wasn't right because I couldn't act.''
Huffman matter-of-factly ticks off her physical complaints: ''I look like a bird, I have no lips, my face is falling off my face, my legs are like melted candlesticks.'' (Her fans, of course, would heartily disagree. Huffman's husband, actor William H. Macy, was on an airplane once when he got to talking with a man about Aaron Sorkin's critically beloved Sports Night. When Macy said his wife played steely show producer Dana Whitaker, as cool a broad a there ever was, the guy took a pause before gasping, 'You lucky bastard!''')
As confounding as Huffman's self-deprecation is, it has come in handy recently. When her agent sent her a script of Transamerica, a low-budget story of a pre-op transgender woman who discovers that she's the father of a teenage son, she didn't flinch. ''If an actress was going to be scared off by the material, then she wasn't the right actress,'' says writer and director Duncan Tucker, who was first introduced to Huffman's ''compelling intelligence and edgy presence'' in the 1995 Off Broadway production of David Mamet's The Cryptogram. ''I needed somebody, as Felicity is, who was completely without vanity.'' ''No kudos for me,'' Huffman insists. ''I was never a beauty, so it was never something I had to safeguard.''
The 42-year-old actress found out that she got the role in Transamerica when she was at the first table read of a little pilot called Desperate Housewives. Nearly two years, one Emmy, and a growing brushfire of Oscar heat later, and Felicity Huffman is never ever going to do your hair.
Fresh from the nearby EW photo shoot (''I've had four people working on me,'' she says, fluffing her blond curls), Huffman relaxes with a pot of tea, corn chowder, and a Caesar salad on the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton's terrace. ''Where are we?'' she says, looking out at the deserted pool at dusk. She's just gotten off the phone with one of her sisters. Huffman, a Colorado native, has six sisters and one brother (he recently watched a screening of Transamerica in their mother's living room). The whole family's been terrifically supportive of her performance. She's well aware, though, that the movie's subject matter might be a tough sell to mainstream audiences.
''If someone came up to me and went, 'Hey! Wanna go see an independent movie about a transgender woman and the son that she didn't know she had?''' says Huffman, ''I'd go, 'Ugh!' because I'd think it would be upsetting and dark and violent, but it's an independent movie so it's culture and art and I'd take it like medicine. I was in a theater doing a play once and I heard this older couple talking, and the guy turned to the woman and said, 'I don't like getting upset after 6 p.m.' Well, I kind of feel that way too. I want to go to something that's easy. And here's the thing about this it's an adorable, fun road movie.''