By Kathy Blackwell
Photography by Frederic Auerbach
Styling by Robert Behar | June 17, 2015 | People
With rave reviews pouring in for her honest portrayal of a flawed, grieving mother in the hit ABC series American Crime, Felicity Huffman talks about why the show is so important and why she completely fell in love with Austin during filming.
Felicity Huffman starts gushing about Austin before she’s even taken her seat for lunch, talking about her favorite neighborhoods and, as the hostess sets the menu down in front of her, declares that if she had to leave Los Angeles, she would move to the Texas capital—no question. Her love affair with the city began last year while shooting the timely and provocative ABC drama American Crime.
Her four-month Austin residency—she rented a charming house complete with a screened-in porch in historic Pemberton Heights—was actually Huffman’s first time in Texas. “I’m now assuming it is all as kick-ass as Austin,” she says. When told that that’s not necessarily the case, she says, “That’s what everyone says, but I don’t care. I’m holding on to that. I now love the state because of the city.” She even wrote a love letter to Austin on What the Flicka?, her popular parenting website.
Huffman, looking casually chic in a white shirt, black sweater, and little makeup, sips on hot tea while recalling the previous night’s 30th anniversary party for the Atlantic Theater Company, which was founded by two important men in her life: the actor William H. Macy, her husband; and the legendary playwright David Mamet, her longtime theater collaborator to whom she credits her career. In fact, it was a member of the theater company who advised Huffman to read the pilot for John Ridley’s American Crime, and she signed on quickly. Her first meeting with Ridley was scheduled for the morning after the 2014 Oscars ceremony, where he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave and celebrated into the night. She felt horrible about the timing.
“At 11 in the morning, John Ridley had to go meet this middle-aged, thinlipped TV actress,” she recalls. “I kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry you’re here; I’m so sorry you’re here.’ But I wanted to be a part of it. It was the writing—it’s always the writing.” American Crime, the 11-episode anthology series that debuted in March, is a network revelation: a nuanced look at racial tensions stemming from the murder of a white war veteran at his home in Modesto, California (played by an unrecognizable Austin). Huffman and Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton star as grieving parents Barb and Russ, whose gambling drove them apart years ago, leaving Barb to raise their two sons in public housing, where she developed hard, ugly prejudices.
Ridley, who calls Huffman a “phenomenal partner,” was impressed by how completely she embraced such a difficult character. “Sometimes an actor wants to make sure that people know, ‘That’s not me,’ and there’s a little wink or nod to the audience,” he says. “Felicity relied purely on what was provided on the page and then as an actor brought out the humanity in her character. If she was going to take on that challenge of playing someone like Barb, she was going to play all of the aspects of her—from those that some people might find repugnant to those that people might find admirable.”
Huffman, a mother of two daughters in their early teens, says she entered her character by relating to Barb’s deep love for her children. “People ask me if Barb’s a racist or a bigot, and I say, ‘I don’t know.’ I know she wouldn’t describe herself as that. She would call herself a realist and a pragmatist…. But I think possibly the new face of racism is saying, ‘I’m not a racist; I’m a realist.’ I don’t quite know how to talk about it, so something this series does, in addition to the great storytelling, is have those conversations.” While they were filming American Crime in Austin, news reports from Ferguson, Missouri, and Ohio to New York City kept coming in a relentless stream of headlines.
Explains Ridley: “We really wanted to make sure we had emotional honesty, and to do that you have to have a show that’s about more than the headlines. It’s about family; it’s about interactions; it’s about people evolving over time.” Ridley adds that Hutton and Huffman were true leaders and consummate professionals. “To do a show that is very personal to me, and that is very much a statement about where we are now as a country, and to have two people at the head of it who in every regard did everything they could to see that we would succeed, is very special.”
Huffman recalls feeling an instant familiarity with Hutton at their first encounter, when he came into the production office as she was reading the script. “I looked up, and it was like, ‘Oh! It’s you. I know you. You’re part of the tribe—I get it.’” That kind of connection doesn’t happen often, she insists. Hutton felt the same way. “It instantly felt like I was with one of my best friends,” he says shortly after arriving back in Austin in March for South by Southwest. “It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had working with an actor in my career, if not the best one.”
Barb joins the other groundbreaking television and movie characters in Huffman’s impressive catalog. Her portrayal of Dana Whitaker on Sports Night was something rare on television in 1998: a strong yet flawed female leader in a male-dominated work environment. A few years later her next show on ABC, Desperate Housewives, for which she’d win an Emmy for her portrayal of Lynette Scavo, pushed the envelope in front of a wider audience, defying stereotypes and proving that a cast dominated by women in their 40s could be entertaining, sexy, and profitable. And soon into the success of Desperate, Huffman turned in a memorable, Oscar-nominated performance for Best Actress as a transgender woman in Transamerica; it’s a role that, exactly 10 years later, seems ahead of the curve.
Huffman’s choices are admirable for the risks and leaps of faith she must take to completely own a character, which goes back to how the stage—and working with Mamet in particular—shaped her. As she digs into her bunless burger and salad, she explains, “I was trained by a playwright. What that means is I was trained to serve the play, and to serve the playwright’s intention. It’s had a profound effect on me; it’s had a profound effect on my husband.” (Macy is enjoying TV success of his own, starring in Shameless on Showtime.) And although she’s doing a production of a Mamet play, The Anarchist, which opens April 24 in Los Angeles, she says that TV is now her preferred platform because of the separation between her and the audience. “During Desperate, I got used to people judging me from the very own comfort of their couches,” she laughs.
If Huffman sounds hard on herself, it’s because she is, and it seems to come from a deep sense of self-awareness. She feels guilty when she’s at work away from her family, and she feels just as guilty when she’s not working. She has found relief by sharing her thoughts and feelings on What the Flicka?, which she started three years ago as Desperate was ending and is read by moms around the world (although not by as many as Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle site Goop, she jokes). And she set a clear intention for herself while she was in Austin. If she was going to be away from her family, she was going to use that time as best she could. She learned to meditate, practicing every day, and took a break from running—instead going to yoga at studios like BFree in Central Austin and taking spinning classes at Ride in the 2nd Street District. This period of self-care was made stronger and easier by the hospitality she says she encountered everywhere. “Everyone in Austin was incredibly kind and incredibly helpful…. Everyone was so wide open,” she says, recalling the invitations to shop or have meals that she would get at yoga, at spin class, and from the group of women she bonded with in her temporary neighborhood. She is especially proud that they invited her to their monthly dinner.
Huffman indulged in Austin’s pleasures when her schedule allowed. “I must have gone to Uchi so much that I think most of my paycheck went there. I went to Guero’s Mexican restaurant on South Congress quite a bit with Tim,” she says, adding that she also loved nearby Home Slice and Hopdoddy. She was fascinated by the LBJ Library and Museum, which she visited half a dozen times. Huffman, who played Lady Bird in 2002’s Path to War, calls the beloved late first lady one of her heroes, especially for her insistence that people not be judged by appearances. She also made repeat treks to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which tapped into her love of nature (protecting the environment is a cause she’s passionate about—supporting groups like the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and Greenpeace).
Huffman and Hutton spent a lot of time outdoors, riding their bikes all over town and to different parks. “She’s fearless—she’ll ride her bike 40 miles to a spot, no problem,” Hutton recalls. “I even took her jet skiing on Lake Travis. It’s such an amazing place, Austin. We had a great time.”
Huffman is hopeful that American Crime will get renewed, although, like American Horror Story, each season stands on its own—a new story with some of the same characters and actors. Although hesitant to leave her daughters again to return to Austin, which Ridley chose as a location shoot for the first season because of the state’s tax incentives program as well as its rich film community (local cinematographer Ramsey Nickell shot every scene), she’d love another chance at Barb. And no one is happier about the rave reviews the cast—especially Hutton and Huffman—is receiving than Ridley.
“She took a chance on me and signed on to this before the Oscar,” Ridley says. “She did it because she thought the material on the page had value. Her performance is reminding people how powerful an actress she is, how accomplished she is, and nothing makes me happier. I know that her being involved with it has elevated it to a degree beyond the work I put on the page, and that’s a simple fact.”
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