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Like Stanley/Sabrina, the pre-op male-to-female transsexual Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman portrays in Duncan Tucker's comedic drama Transamerica, there is more to the movie than meets the eye. What first seems like it will be a gimmicky road picture cast in the mold of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert turns into a surprisingly accessible quest for acceptance, not just by others, but by ourselves, too. Huffman (who was nominated for Golden Globes for both the film and Desperate Housewives this week) pulls off more than just a Victor/Victoria, going far deeper than the woeful "I was born with the wrong parts" routine. In the end, after Tucker ramps down his emphasis on Bree's peculiar circumstances, which helps courageous trouper Huffman to better humanize her, Bree's struggle becomes a universal one.
Transamerica is Tucker's first feature, and he took the time to share his enthusiasm for it and his super star with Cinematical:
Here's a 'chicken or the egg' question - did you write the role of Stanley/Bree for Felicity Huffman or did your casting director just luck out?
I wrote the role with a short list of actresses in mind and Felicity at the top of it. I had seen her off-Broadway about ten years ago in David Mamet's The Cryptogram [for which she won an Obie], and she was so compellingly intelligent with this intense immediacy. After seeing her in Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner and on Sports Night, I thought, "Why isn't this woman a star like Frances McDormand or Meryl Streep?" I had a gut feeling that she was the exact kind of transformative actress I needed, and I was right. Felicity disappeared into the character, something that takes a rare breed. In terms of Desperate Housewives, we really lucked out, though the show presented a challenge. When we hired Felicity, she said, "I have this TV pilot to shoot in 14 weeks," so I called the producers and after a frantic meeting, we agreed that we could pull it off if we started pre-production that very day. I didn't sleep much, but we did it.
How do you feel about her Golden Globe nomination?
I'm delighted with it, as well as her award for Best Actress by the National Board of Review. She is just so fantastic; she doesn’t just do mimicry - every nook and cranny seems alive, nuanced and exciting. She works a particular technique and craft, but she is able to make that disappear on set and reach into that place total creative play. I would throw her a curveball and she would be delighted. She knows that you can't play it safe and be a great actor or a great anything. I'd love to work with her again anytime.
Has the question of transgender authenticity regarding the casting come up?
People occasionally do ask me why I didn't cast an actual transgender actor in the role. I did my due diligence, though, when I heard that there were a couple transgender actresses in Hollywood. Ultimately, though, I thought it would be inappropriate to approach them, as they were closeted, and an offer would have totally shaken them up. I knew I had to find someone the right age and type for Bree, someone who could do stealth - not someone who was going to look like a guy in a dress. I knew I needed someone more in-between, someone you look at and say, "She could be a woman." Felicity had the chops.
Why did you cast a woman?
I always wanted a woman in the role because I wanted to honor where character was going and not get stuck in what she left behind. I did a lot of research on transgender women, and most of them don't look like guys in dresses. Of course, you do have the occasional 6'4" Marine or linebacker - and the actual transgender actresses in the party scene with any acting experience were big - but for a man 5'7" who has been taking hormones for two years and has maybe had some light cosmetic surgery, they just don't look like Daniel Day Lewis in a dress.
What prompted you to write this?
I was thinking about the themes of family and what it's like to feel like a misfit and not at home in your own skin. Anyone who has been to high school knows these themes. Everyone's journey in life is to grow up, and Bree thinks her journey will end when she becomes female, but realizes that hers is really a journey into womanhood, to a place where she can feel the pain and joy of life again. Hers is the kind of story I really love to hear, the kind of story that you tell a kid and watch him go wide-eyed. Hers is really an epic quest adventure, a road movie like Bob and Bing or better yet, like Frodo, in that Bree also leaves home on a journey with a treasure she doesn't want. I wanted to tell a story with a capital S.
Was this story inspired by any one person?
A woman I knew a little in L.A. sat me down one day and said, "Pour yourself a drink - I have something to tell you." She told me her story and a light bulb went off. I did some research and learned that there are thousands of gender reassignment operations performed every year. We all probably know someone, even if we don't think we do. So many of the stories are hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, and I wanted to compress them all into one bullion cube, so-to-speak.
Did you have to do much research?
I researched for between 3 and 4 months, reading every piece of literature I could find on male-to-female transsexuals from non-fiction to biographies and even some fiction. I went out and met about a dozen-and-a-half transgender women. I was very secretive, especially with the ones who were stealth, whom I was the most interested in. I met a lot of them through friends of friends, and if I could gain enough trust, we'd usually arrange to meet in a restaurant. I'd get there and look around, asking myself, "OK, who's the transsexual?" You don't say "tranny" for the same reason you don't say "nigger". Usually, I had no idea and would foolishly be looking for large women or women with large hands. The actual transgender women would usually end up finding me.
Were any of the conflicts transposed from your own life?
Bree's family is not my family, but her mother is my mother, and Fionnula Flanagan [playing opposite Burt Young as Bree's father] is so out there but dead-on with her performance. If I saw this in a movie, I'd never believe that she was based on a real person. It was risky to write her with no boundaries between torture and love, and Fionnula was so brave to play it like a diva and walk that razor's edge between sad and loving. Take it from me - she's not really over-the-top.
Was the 'Crying Game' moment necessary?
I think so. I could have shot it another way, but when I saw how real Bree was becoming, I wanted to tell the truth. I didn't want a Hallmark Hall of Fame moment, as I realized that it was very possible to forget what her baggage is. I talked with Felicity about it and told her that I wasn't going to be exploitative, just honest. She was into it, but we ran into trouble when I found out that for a prosthetic penis [like the kind Mark Wahlberg swung at the end of Boogie Nights], it was going to cost $20,000. So instead, we found a prosthetic "stuffer" [an artificial limb of sorts used by prospective female-to-male transsexuals]. We had the folks in Props drill it [Bree pees with it in the scene], and Make-Up, well, made it up. Felicity tried it on a few hours before the shoot, and called me in to look. Two feet away - and under fluorescent light - it looked just like the real thing [and it does on-screen]. So, for $12.95, I can now say, "Screw you, special effects house!" [Laughs.]
Felicity then started to withdraw inside herself. I asked her if she was OK, and assured her that the scene would go well. Her shoulders began to shake, and within 30 seconds, her body was heaving with deep sobs. She cried a lot because she had started identifying so much with Bree and realized how hard her life had been. I let her cry, told her a silly, off-color joke and we shot the scene. It was a special moment, and it marked a new level in our friendship.
What did you have to do to make sure that Transamerica didn't play out as cliché?
I designed it purposely as a very epic quest, like a sonnet with a heightened sense of reality. It's like Oedipus in a way, and while both stories are not likely, they are both real, or at least I tried to make it real. Also, I made sure that the humor came only from character, from the reality of the moment. So many people think the movie is going to be one of two things: something campy and silly or a dark cross-country trek in which the main character gets beat up. It's just so not either one of those. Hopefully, you'll laugh more than cry, because it really is joyous - or at least I hope it is - and not grueling and dark and like taking medicine.
Transamerica is now playing in New York and L.A. and opens in the Top 20 markets on December 23rd, with a wider rollout planned for January.