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In her skin

For years, Hollywood didn't quite know what to make of Felicity Huffman. Now, with an Emmy for 'Desperate Housewives' and a shot at an Oscar for 'Transamerica,' she has arrived

LOS ANGELES -- Such frankness might have felled other actors. But Felicity Huffman appreciated it every time she heard the words: Sorry, you're just not pretty enough.

At least, she figured, no one ever said she wasn't good enough. Now that would have hurt.

''Maybe I wasn't that good earlier; it took awhile for me to get my [acting] chops," Huffman said, contemplating why she wasn't cast in more starring or costarring roles over the years. ''I'm not a movie star beauty. I know that. And I don't think that helped. . . . But I was really grateful for their honesty."

The self-deprecation that comes through during a long telephone call from the set of the hit TV series ''Desperate Housewives" is partly self-analysis, partly self-preservation. Numerous TV guest appearances aside, along with minor movie roles and two seasons on the critical darling ''Sports Night," Hollywood has never known what to make of Huffman, who is much more attractive and thin at 43 than she'd ever let on.

Then she got cast as one of the plainer housewives on Wisteria Lane. But even before the Sunday soap opera hit big and Huffman won her Emmy last year, she had landed the kind of role that other serious actresses (and in this case actors, too) dream about, if they have the nerve: a middle-aged man on the cusp of becoming a woman. It may be the only time in movie history in which a character displays full frontal nudity as both genders.

''Transamerica," which opens today, just won Huffman a Golden Globe for best dramatic film actress -- and a fashion rave from Joan Rivers for her white empire waist goddess gown by Marchesa. In the movie, however, Huffman is anything but glam.

Instead, she plays a pre-op transsexual in Los Angeles whose family named him Stanley Osbourne but who now calls himself Bree. His sex-change surgery is only a week away when a troubled teenager who turns out to be the son he fathered during his one heterosexual encounter in college phones from New York. The rest is classic road picture, with every odd encounter and awful thing possible happening as they make their way by beat-up car back to LA. Huffman jokes that the moviemakers called it ''Tranny Get Your Son."

That's not to downplay the responsibility she felt making the movie. In Monday night's televised acceptance speech, after the usual disclaimer about never having expected to be a winner or even a nominee, Huffman saluted people who brave ''ostracism, alienation, and a life lived on the margins to become who they really are." ''Transamerica," she says, is their story.

Writer-director Duncan Tucker said he always wanted to cast a woman in the lead role, and that Huffman was on his short list from the start. He first caught her on stage, in sometimes experimental work that included playing one-half of a lesbian couple in David Mamet's comedy of manners ''Boston Marriage" at the American Repertory Theatre in mid-1999. Lucky for Tucker he wanted her for his movie before she'd even shot the pilot for ''Desperate Housewives." In other words, she was still affordable, no small thing since ''Transamerica" was being made for next to nothing over six weeks, a rapid-fire filming schedule by traditional movie standards.

''From the first time I saw her [on stage] I thought she was an incredible, intense, and intelligent actress," Tucker said, speaking by telephone during a whirlwind tour in support of his self-described little film. ''I kept watching her over the years and thinking, 'Why isn't this woman a star?' I love her kind of acting, where you don't see someone acting, you just see her breathing life into a character on the screen."

To accomplish that, Huffman consulted with real-life transsexuals, read everything she could find on the subject, and met with numerous voice coaches until she found one who could help her lower her voice to the bass of a man striving to sound like a woman. As Huffman put it, ''You can look like Kate Moss but sound like James Earl Jones and get [recognized as a man], which is what you don't want to happen."

To make sure it doesn't, Huffman's Bree goes to the other extreme. She is hyper-feminine, favoring pink suits and breathy pronouncements that she means to sound womanly but that seem stagy instead. Her discomfort in her still-transforming skin is obvious. Although she lives in anything-goes Los Angeles, she's spinster prim. Tucker says that at first movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose new company is distributing ''Transamerica" domestically, didn't even recognize Huffman on screen.

''Harvey was sitting there waiting and waiting for her to come on and then he goes, 'Oh my God,' " when he realized that Huffman had been on screen the entire time, Tucker said. ''It's not mimicry Felicity does. She got all the externals right. But that's just the architecture. She really inhabits the skin, the hopes and dreams and sense of humor and irony and self-deprecation of this character."

For her part, Huffman says the idea of playing a him becoming a her was as terrifying as it was tempting. No prosthetics were involved (except for a brief glimpse of Stanley's penis during a roadside bathroom break). Instead she relied on makeup inexpertly applied, the wrong shade on her face, forgetting it altogether on her neck sometimes -- all signs of someone trying out beauty tricks but too afraid to ask anyone for help. But Bree Osbourne's exterior wasn't nearly as daunting to Huffman as her interior.

''The first thing I had to understand was her internal journey, her journey of becoming who she really is," Huffman said. ''That speaks to me because to a certain extent it's everyone's journey about coming home to yourself, whether as a writer or a woman. Yes, I understand that journey and that pain of waking up in your own skin."

At the same time, however, Huffman knows she leads an enviable life: happily married to the character actor William H. Macy, mother of two young daughters, costar of a hit TV series. Add to that last year's Emmy for playing harried mother-of-four Lynette Scavo, and this week's Golden Globe win, not to mention a second nomination for lead comedy actress on a TV show. As she said, ''My cup runneth over. It's not like I need anything else. I couldn't do more."

For now, between long days on the ''Desperate Housewives" set, Huffman is doing all she can to pitch ''Transamerica" to middle America. The subject matter is no easy sell, and she knows it. But Huffman says she also knows that Bree's story, her pain and promise, are more universal than people might imagine at first.

''People are going to say, 'I don't want to go see a movie about that,' she said. ''But if someone says, 'The package is different than what you're used to but it's really a wacky road movie,' well I hope people will give it a shot. I feel like in the first five minutes the fact that she's transgendered falls to the background."

So, she hopes, does the fact that she's a woman playing a man becoming a woman, and not a particularly attractive one at that. After years of being rejected for her own looks, it's a role Huffman was almost destined to play.

Lynda Gorov can be reached at lgorov@aol.com.

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