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It’s an interesting statistic that Felicity Huffman has been nominated for five Emmys (winning in 2005 for Desperate Housewives) and each year she’s been joined by husband William H. Macy as a fellow nominee.
This year marks the third straight year Huffman has been nominated for ABC’s American Crime and the fourth Shameless nomination in a row for Macy.
Huffman admits that she isn’t going into this year’s show expecting to win. The absurdly stacked lead actress in a limited series category includes Big Little Lies stars Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, plus Feud stars Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, all Oscar winners.
In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Huffman talks about her Emmy rivals, getting to play a sympathetic American Crime character after two near-villains and her disappointment about missing out on John Ridley’s proposed fourth season.
Your category is one of the most star-studded Emmy categories I’ve ever seen. What was your reaction to seeing the company you’re in?
I was like “Wah“! Anyway, I’ve admired Susan Sarandon, and Jessica Lange, and Nicole Kidman, and Reese Witherspoon forever, and you know they’re top-notch, they’re A-list movie actors. So, sort of, “What am I doing in that category?” But I am really pleased that I’m running a race with such high-class, such A-list talents. I was really thrilled about that. I was also going, “Well, I don’t need to worry too much about my dress, I don’t think, I’m not gonna win this one.”
Well, does that make your approach to Emmy evening more a, “Let’s just have fun being out there,” kind of night?
Yeah, it does, it really does. I’m thrilled that Bill [Macy] and I are both nominated, you know, we both sort of look at each other and pinch ourselves and go, “This is pretty swell.” So what happens is that there’s this golden cradle period from when you get nominated to when you lose.
Does it change things when only one of you is nominated versus when you’re both nominated?
It does. It heightens it and it makes it sweeter. And I have to say for as hard as this business is, you know that 5 percent of the union makes a living wage, and that it’s more like a Gold Rush than American Democracy, I have to say the highs are just magical. And us both getting nominated is, you just sort of go, “It doesn’t get any better.” I guess if we both won that would be even better, but I don’t know if that’s ever gonna happen. But it just doesn’t get any better than that. You wake up in the morning and you go “Hey, that happened. That’s so cool.”
What was it like seeing those first two American Crime characters, who were, let’s just say, prickly, or difficult? What was your reaction to how John Ridley was looking at you? To what he was kind of seeing in you and your strengths?
You mean, why did he cast me as the internally parched bigot? And the school principal with no heart? I don’t know what he was thinking of me. I don’t know. John Ridley brings a 365 degree perspective to his characters. They’re not good or bad. And I hope that’s what he wanted me to bring to those difficult characters. That they were human. And I hope that’s what he was looking for me to bring, and I hope that is what I brought.
And then, this past season Jeannette was much more a conventionally “sympathetic” character, I guess. What was your reaction to seeing that you were going to get that kind of character finally?
I was really pleased. The first two seasons, of course, because as an actor, you endorse your character, the first two seasons kept feeling like these poor women were misunderstood. So getting to play a character that was sympathetic and also getting to play a character that … it’s a simple story, she’s a simple housewife and the camera isn’t usually focused on those people. And, so, I was pleased to get to bring light to that person.
Had you made it clear either directly or in hints to John that you kind of wanted that kind of character, or were you really just putting yourself in his hands?
We had a slight conversation, I would say at the end, when we knew we were gonna do a season three — which is incredible — saying, “What do you want to play?” and I always say to him, “I want to play something completely different.” I want to play something completely different because that’s the gift of anthology. You know, you get your team and you get to play a different position. It’s awesome.
Now, working with an ensemble like this, obviously you’ve done long-running shows before, but how is it different when each time you guys get together, you’re all playing different people versus getting together every summer and just everyone moving back into the same roles on a recurring show?
For two years, I got to work with Tim Hutton, the second year less than the first. The second year I got to play more with Lili Taylor. So you have a level of trust because you know them, you worked with them, and also you’ve seen their work in seasons one and two. It’s kind of a mix of both things, you have the safety of the old and the known and the trust there, but you also have the excitement of, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never played shortstop when Tim Hutton is being the pitcher. Or I’ve never played first base when Lili Taylor is up at bat.” It’s really pretty cool.
And then in the third season, you were working with mostly new pieces to the ensemble. Do you get to be the cool kid showing the new kids around the school cafeteria?
Oh my God! No! Look who I was acting with. I was acting with the best of the best. I mean it was Cherry Jones and Dallas Roberts and Tim DeKay. I mean, you can’t be bad with those people, so I felt more like the rookie coming in and going, “You guys! I get to play with you this year! I’m so excited!”
Were the people who were coming into the show new surprised by anything about the process that you guys all had?
No, they’re old pros. People kept saying, “I’m so surprised that the set is so quiet.” The set is so quiet that everyone’s really concentrating and there’s not a lot of — oh, Janel Moloney, I mean, my God, that’s another A-lister that I got to play with on the third year — that’s what they kept talking about. They were “Wow, this is a heavy set,” and I kept going, “I think it’s just a quiet set. Everyone’s really dedicated, and there’s some heavy lifting to do, so we all have to concentrate.”
The big issues of the individual seasons, have you found any of them particularly hard to, I don’t want to say shake off, but have they stuck with you to any sort of variable degree, those issues that the seasons tackled?
I would say that the first and the third season have stayed with me the most. The first because that character was so internally parched, that that was hard to shake off. And the third because that feeling, I think that it’s somewhat universal, of being, feeling powerless in your own life to affect change in your life or in others. How, with this overwhelming world that needs help, and you feel you have no agency, that sort of hopelessness stayed with me.
John Ridley has talked a bit about how workplace sexism and sexual harassment were going to be kind of the backdrop, at least to some degree, in the fourth season. Had you already had any conversations with him about the capacity that you were gonna take in the fourth season?
He dropped that little gem, I think, when we were all doing press on stage at some talkback thing. He was, “Well it was going to be inequality in the workplace for women,” and I went, “Oh Lord, I would have loved to have tackled that, I just would have loved it.” And I can only hope that Regina and I would get to act together.
That was going to be my next question is, of the recurring pieces of the ensemble, who did you want to work with more still? Who maybe you hadn’t you worked yet at all who you wanted to get some time with?
Oh, Regina King, Regina King, Regina King.
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