Felicity Huffman’s American Crime character, Barb Hanlon, was a tough one for the previous Emmy-winner (Desperate Housewives) to crack. She’s a grieving mother, a bitter ex-wife, and a bit of a racist in John Ridley’s anthology series, which nabbed 10 Emmy nominations, including for Huffman as lead actress in a movie/limited series, as well as for her costar Timothy Hutton, who plays Barb’s ex and with whom Huffman shared several highly-charged scenes. It’s a long way from shooting the series pilot, which Huffman never thought would be picked up by ABC when they were filming in Austin, TX last year. Here, the former Oscar nominee (Transamerica) talks about working with Hutton, the small physical changes she’s willing to make for series creator John Ridley, and hints at her new character for Season 2.
You were cast a week before production on Season 1 started. What was your first meeting with John Ridley like?
John was willing to meet with me the morning after he won the (adapted screenplay) Oscar (for 12 Years a Slave). They said, “The only time John really has available is”…I don’t know what it was…”Monday morning at 11 o’clock.” I was, like, “Yeah, OK, that’s totally fine. I can be wherever he wants to be.” Then the night before (our meeting) I went, “Hey, it’s the Oscars.” Then I watched John win the Oscar and do that great speech and talk about his sweet wife. I thought, “That poor bastard. He’s got to get up early and go meet this person that he doesn’t even know.” He couldn’t have been more gracious that morning and was happy to sit there and talk with me. He’s incredibly articulate and smart. I thought, “Oh, yeah, I’ll ride his coattails for a while.”
After you first read the script, how did you wrap your head around Barb, who was one of the more polarizing characters?
I knew I was in the mix for the part so I thought, “I’ll have Bill (William H. Macy, Huffman’s husband) read it.” I was trepidatious about taking it on because Barb is so difficult, and I wanted to make sure that I could do her justice, which for me is making her understandable, if not agreeable. Bill gave me that way in. He said, “Yeah, it’s like that Stanislavsky quote”—or is it Chekov?—“about how a man with a toothache cannot be in love.” When you’ve got an all-consuming thing, you’re only doing one thing all the time. And he said Barb is taking care of her son, who happens to be deceased, but she’s being a good mother. Once he sort of put it in that context, I went, “Oh, yeah, I can endorse that. I can back that up.”
Timothy Hutton said that you two would rehearse lines off set, but as soon as you both were on set, you avoided each other. Did you plan that?
You know, we didn’t, but part of the reason is I that adore Tim and so when I saw him, all I wanted to do was play: “Let’s be funny and play jokes.” I couldn’t do that (in character), so I literally had to just stay away from him. Barb carries her old wounds with her so prevalently that I had to kind of stay in the history of it. As you can tell, she’s never appropriate to the situation exactly. She’s very appropriate to her objective, but in terms of making friends and influencing people and getting things done, she’s not appropriate to it because her past has so clouded her future. I had to stay in that past on set. I don’t mean to sound all method and stuff. It took that level of concentration for me.
Barb had brown eyes—yours naturally are blue. Where did that idea come from?
John did a smart thing, which is—in the same way that ABC said, “OK, John, go for it, do your vision,” and they didn’t get in his way—he let us do what we felt was right. I wanted to do the brown contacts because I just wanted to help the audience, in almost an unconscious way, separate from things I’d done before. I didn’t want them to be, “Oh, there’s (Huffman’s Desperate Housewives character) Lynette as a cop, and there’s Lynette as a doctor, and there’s Lynette in American Crime.” It had the added effect of giving me shark eyes. You know, she was shut down. I think Barb Hanlon has a very parched interior, desert-like, and I think those eyes gave her…you couldn’t get in there very easily. She became somewhat impenetrable.
And now you have brown hair. Is this for your American Crime character in Season 2?
Yes. The dark hair I actually ran by John. As we were talking, and he met different people about next season, there were a couple of people he met that he was like, “I think this is the type of woman that we’re going for.” Oddly enough, they were all brunettes. So I dyed my hair. I tried to talk him into a wig, but he was like, “No, that’s not going to fly”—in the same way that I had gray hair showing in (Season 1 of) American Crime, and Lily (Taylor) looked very natural, and I was wearing no makeup. He was like, “No wig. If you’re going to do your hair dark, do your hair dark. And if you don’t want to, that’s OK, too.”
The brown hair also has the added benefit of helping you distance yourself from Barb for Season 2.
And, thanks to John, this character is 180-degrees different.
Have you ever portrayed a character who was this polarizing and this far from your own personal belief system?
At the beginning of the process it’s hard to sort of go, “Wow, I say this?” And yet as you get deeper in the script, as an actor, you’ve got to figure out a way to not only endorse it but believe it. If you asked Barb, “Are you a racist or a bigot?” She’d say “No, I’m a realist, I’m a pragmatist. I’m not racist, I tell the truth.” You have to get to that place so that you’re never in the position of being on set that day, having to do the scene, and going, “Oh, I don’t want to say this,” because you don’t service the story well. That’s my job, is to fulfill John’s intention.
You got scripts as you went along in production. What’s it like not knowing the full extent of a character’s arc?
Here’s what’s great about it—you can’t play the end at the beginning because you don’t know the end. You’ve really got to be in that moment, which is helpful. Here’s what’s a gamble: You choose a particular entry point or point of view about a scene. You hit it at a certain angle. It is possible that then, in the next episode you go, “Whoa, I hit that at the wrong angle. I wouldn’t have been playing it that way to that character had I known that the next episode I had to, I don’t know, apologize or befriend her or something like that.” I have to say, there were a bunch of scenes where I went, “I blew that scene,” because I didn’t realize what was coming, so I wish I played that differently. But maybe that’s life.
The series is harsh in its truthfulness. The 10 nominations must be gratifying, but was there trepidation in the beginning?
I know that when we were doing the pilot—because it was so ballsy—I remember saying to Tim (Hutton), “Well, it’s been great working with you. This will never get picked up. Boy, was this fun.” It was like this great artistic enterprise, and I think with John it’s more art than TV show. I never thought that ABC would go for it. Then when we got picked up, it was the stamp of approval and that ABC really backed John. There weren’t suits on the set going, “What do you mean she’s wearing a red sweater? Are you going to put her in a hat?”, which often happens. ABC gave him carte blanche because they believed in his vision. Once we got picked up for 10 more episodes we didn’t know if anybody was going to ever watch it. You never know as a whole if it’s going to work. But we knew we were working on something that was worthy and striving for a truth that hadn’t been told on network TV.
What can you tell us about your character in Season 2?
I play the headmistress of a private school. I think she’s a warm, welcoming, passionate educator. She appreciates people. After you meet her, you kind of say, “I think I might want her to be my best friend.”
To see a short clip of Felicity Huffman as Barb Hanlon in American Crime, click play below: