Movie star and Desperate Houswives actress Felicity Huffman tells Julia Molony how she struggles to juggle roles of mother, wife and actor, but that casting out guilt makes her feel better about it
Throughout a career that has spanned three decades, Felicity Huffman has developed a remarkable knack for deftly dancing between the lines of rigid categorisation. She can do big mainstream entertainment and hard-hitting indie. She can do articulate and incisive, as well as prime-time gloss. It's an unusually wide repertoire for any actor.
She's best known, of course, for her role in Desperate Housewives, in which she plays Lynette, the harassed, harried and recently separated working mom whose life is a perennial juggling act.
On-screen separation notwithstanding (Felicity is blissfully, almost sickeningly happily, married to acting legend and Fargo star William H Macy) it's an experience not a million miles away from her own. “People always ask me how do you juggle it, how do you balance it? And you know, I don't,” she admits, refreshingly frank from the off.
“Everything sort of falls by the wayside and I'm out of balance everywhere. I'm at work and I feel guilty that I'm not with my children. I'm with children and I'm thinking, 'My gosh, I've got to get that work done'. I don't know how people blend it really well. I find it really challenging, and I have not figured out the recipe where it's not.”
It's a hot potato issue for women around the world, and Felicity has developed a strategy, a little reminder to help her keep perspective.
“Do you know what's interesting?” she says. “A wonderful producer on the show has a small son. And I think it was the second year I said I was crushed under the guilt of not being home, and I only work two, three, four days a week. I said to her ‘What do you do about the guilt of not being at home with your son, and she said, ‘I don't feel guilty'. And I said, ‘How do you do that?' And she said, ‘I read an article in which they asked women who worked outside of the home how guilty do you feel, and it was something like 89%, and even mothers that stay at home, you feel guilty that you are not being a good enough mother.
And then they asked men who worked in and out of the home. None. There was 0% that felt guilty.' And she said, ‘So I'm not going to buy into it.'.”
It's an attitude that helps Huffman sleep at night. And in the meantime, though between them she and her husband certainly have plenty of resources to keep things running smoothly, on a more emotional, duty-of-care level, it helps that they are both in flexible jobs, where they are able to find a way to cut each other some slack.
“We can't exactly say — oh I need Wednesday off,” she says. “But it helps that he understands and it helps that we're all pushing for the same thing. If for some reason one of us has to get to set at 9.30am we can both go, ‘Ok we can both take the kids to school, is it possible that you can pick them up?' We understand the challenges but also the allowances.”
Huffman and Macy met on a job, and have worked together several times since. “Usually it's a big mistake. It's like you don't want to play tennis with your husband,” she says. “But we started out working together before we were a couple, so that's always been part of the fabric of our marriage. And it's actually wonderful to work with him.
“First of all, he's a great actor and so, the level of your game goes up when you are working with someone good. And also, it's just fun to spend time with him. We got to come and do this press junket — with our girls — but, you know, it's good to be on the plane or if you are working together you get to go to work together or have a trailer together — it's really fun.”
It's a union that seems to be grounded in a great deal of mutual professional admiration. It's not hard to see why. She's an Oscar nominee, and he's a Hollywood star. Which must mean, if nothing else, that they recognise the value of listening to one another. They are, it seems, a genuine creative partnership as well as a domestic team.
“We have a common aesthetic, and we have a common technique,” Felicity explains. “And so we can break down a scene the same way to tell a story. What our interests are in storytelling are different, and I think that probably cuts through somewhat of a character and somewhat of a gender line. I think in general boys like different stories than girls like, but what we are shooting for is the same.”
For Felicity, being Oscar-nominated — for playing a transgender role in the indie hit Transamerica — marked a watershed in her career.
“Are you kiddin'? It was a dream come true and a dream that I had dropped so long before because the business kind of beats you up and you go from going ‘I'm going to be a movie star' to being ‘I'd like to be a working actor'. So yes, it was a dream come true, I remember the morning that they said that I was nominated. It was odd, living your dream it doesn't get to happen very often.”
How important is the critical reception in a job that involves constantly putting yourself up for appraisal? Did the nomination bring her a new security and credibility?
“No,” she says bluntly. “For a certain amount of time, yes. I don't know, it's probably like a two-year time limit before your meter runs out. But I think it puts you in a different place. You can be proud of the work.
“I don't know how you feel being a freelance journalist, but for a long time as an actor you're kind of going ‘Am I an actor? I mean I know I act a little bit, but can I actually call myself an actor?' And one of the things that it gave me is, yes, I can call myself an actor now. I don't know if I'll work after Desperate Housewives, but I can call myself an actor because this part happened and people paid attention to it and that kind of thing.”
She has a couple of other indie plans on the back burner, and two new films due for release, but with the independent movie industry in such dire straits, she wouldn't bet her mortgage on them.
“Independent film is on life support,” she says. “So we're looking for financing. But we're also doing two television shows.” One is with TNT and the other is being put together by both Huffman and Macy, among others. “We're steering it towards television, which I think is more viable right now.”
Thankfully, as television flourishes, she's been firmly embedded in a hit show. But this next series of Desperate Housewives is to be the final one, thus the challenge to keep such a well worn character fresh and interesting is reaching an end. “For me the challenge is not so much the part, but because I get comfortable with the part. And oftentimes complacency comes with comfort and so then it's just a slippery slope away from sort of phoning it in,” she says.
“I feel the work is a big part of my life, and it's the whole experience for me,” she says, of the process of re-entering Lynette's skin for each new series. “Lets say we'll have a 12-hour day, sometimes even a 15-hour day and out of that, you're only acting, all told, eight to 10 minutes of film. So it's not like a play where you disappear into the character for two hours. And it's not like a movie, where you have to stay in character for those eight minutes. For me the experience of Lynette is everything — it's getting to the set, it's my wonderful hair and make-up people, it's the whole crew, it's lighting and sound. So I live with that a lot. It becomes,” she says, “an interdigitating mishmash,” with the rest of her life.
“The way I keep it alive is rededicating myself to it — making sure I do the homework, making sure that
my only job when I'm on set is to act. Everybody has other projects and you have to shift your focus and say, I'm just here to do this. And like anything, once you invest in it, once you pursue it, once you work towards it, then it's interesting, because you are invested. The commitment engenders interest.”
Certainly, she's committed. Both to the show and to the role. “You can repeat a genre but you can't repeat a voice,” she says, crediting writer Mark Terry with the show's enduring appeal.
“He has brought together these iconic female characters, which are very disparate and brought them together in a community and made them good friends. And so you sort of have someone for everyone. I know there are fans who love Gabby and fans that love Susan and Bree and Vanessa, or Lynette.
“And then you have that kind of delicious wicked soupcon at the end that makes it sort of fun and naughty to watch. It's like gossip.”
Desperate Housewives is on Channel 4 on Tuesday, January 10. 11.15pm