Felicity Huffman is back on ABC, but there’s nothing funny about her new character.
Three years after the final episode of her Emmy-winning showcase Desperate Housewives, Huffman is starring in American Crime, the new drama executive-produced by 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley. As Barb Hanlon, Huffman gets a deeply challenging role, that of a grieving mother undertaking a journey through the legal system with her estranged husband (played by Timothy Hutton) after the death of her son. It’s a role that pushes her, though the actress, known for her Oscar-nominated role as a transwoman in 2005’s Transamerica, isn’t afraid of a little effort. Huffman spoke to TIME about call sheets, David Mamet and whether she likes being part of a celebrity couple.
TIME: Do you still get nervous before a show launches?
Felicity Huffman: There’s this wonderful golden cradle when you’re working on something before it airs. It’s like being in rehearsals for a play—it’s just about the work and not about how people are responding to the work. I love that period. Going into the premiere, it does make you nervous, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve done it before—you’re just hoping people will see its merits. Also, you’re trying to be self-aware. After all, it’s just a TV show!
Were you trying to break free from your larger-than-life comedy series, Desperate Housewives, with something darker and more realistic?
I don’t know if I was particularly funny—me personally—but the genre was comedy, soap opera/comedy, sort of larger than life, as you say. I think what I was hoping for in whatever my next job was that the legacy of Desperate and the character of Lynette didn’t impede the next story I was going to be a part of. It’s not “There’s Lynette as a police officer, there’s Lynette as a doctor!” I didn’t want memories of me to cloud a new story. I think American Crime does that.
What role are you most often recognized for?
Desperate Housewives was such a juggernaut that I think the majority of people, if they recognize me at all, it’s for Desperate Housewives, but it doesn’t really happen. That’s wonderful, I’m honored to have been part of it. Some people go, “Oh, Transamerica,” from a gazillion years ago. Some people say Sports Night. It doesn’t happen that much. A lot of times they go “I love—” and it’s “I love your husband!” I say, “Me too!”
The “Filliam H. Muffman” couple name, coined by Stephen Colbert, is still so memorable. Is it strange that people feel such fondness for you as a couple?
It doesn’t feel like that. It’s cool people like us as a couple. I like us as a couple, too!
What do you talk about now that you’re both on TV series? Is there a rivalry?
We say, Can you believe we’re both working? It’s so cool! I will say, if we were on softball teams, like the Broadway Show League, I think American Crime would kick Shameless’ ass. Timothy Hutton is a great athlete.
What political ideas are present in American Crime? It’s a pretty heady title.
It’s somewhat difficult for me to talk about the political nature of the show — it was my job to look at a very small part of the whole machine. I can say this: I think it’s unfortunate that crime in America is one of the melting pots where you get every race, religion, social class. It’s everyone from every walk of life, every background. I think that’s interesting — why John Ridley put it there. When you look at the American judicial system, you see how it affects everyone. Like any good story, you need an inciting incident. And the inciting incident is crime.
Talk about what it’s like working with John Ridley, who’s probably best known at this point for writing 12 Years a Slave.
He really leads with his intelligence. American Crime is his. It’s very specific and very unusual. What it was like working with him: He has a strong vision. He creates a true esprit de corps on set. It’s a team working together, not a hierarchy. Usually on a callsheet, the star is number one, and the costar is number two, and so on. But he did it alphabetically. He always thanks people for their hard work and not how good they were. And he had a true vision of what he wanted it to look like, and he’s brave.
How has working in TV changed since your career began?
Now is the golden age of television. We have the best of the best. It’s like repertory theater. They have the best writers and actors working in that medium. It’s so cool. When I did Sports Night, it was in front of a live audience. We had a laugh track. The audience doesn’t seem to brand-watch; they go where the content is. Amazon, Netflix, ABC, HBO: people are more emboldened to put out great content even if “it’s not what we do.” ABC, for American Crime, told John Ridley and [co-executive producer] Michael McDonald: “Do your vision.” And they meant it! They didn’t say, Do your vision, but she needs to be in a red dress, or, Do your vision, but you can’t use a curse word. They said, You create your vision and we’ll put it on TV and see if people like it. That’s a bold statement from a network.
It seems like there are more powerful female characters on broadcast TV, and on ABC in particular, between Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.
It probably started 10 years ago with Desperate Housewives, which showed women over 40 are viable and it can be a hit. And ABC listened.
What do you make of Transamerica, your Oscar-nominated film, in retrospect? It seems like it was ahead of its time in depicting trans life before it was top-of-mind for many people.
I feel really honored to be a part of it. When I did Transamerica, I thought—it was not an area I was familiar with. I went into it going, Who are these people? I left thinking, I love and admire them. Now that it’s mainstream, I think it’s wonderful. I wish it hadn’t taken ten years. The more we put people in boxes, which John Ridley shows so well—Oh, you’re a lesbian; you’re a Republican; you’re a police officer; you’re a bigot—the less we can see them as human beings. For Barb, even if you don’t agree with her, you can see her humanity. Going back to Transamerica, I think that was [writer/director] Duncan Tucker saying, “Open your eyes.”
What is getting you creatively inspired these days?
I’m doing a David Mamet play in Los Angeles. We rehearse every day. Working on Mamet’s point-of-view and Mamet’s script has really been fueling, and burying, me. I have to say, I did a play a while ago, and I said, “Friends dont let friends do theater.” I got used to people judging me from the comfort of their own couch, not ten feet in front of me.
I don’t think I’d have the guts to do that.
Or the stupidity!