Some might see the low-rated but award-winning “American Crime” getting canceled after Season 3 as a tragedy — but Felicity Huffman appreciates the time they got. “It’s unbelievable that [ABC] did it for three years,” she told IndieWire. “It wasn’t just like, ‘We tried it for a year. Oh, it didn’t work.’ They invested and they also gave John Ridley and Michael McDonald carte blanche. The suits never showed up to go, ‘Wait a second. Can’t you be wearing a bikini, and where’s the car chase?'”
That quality is what made “Crime” stand out amongst broadcast offerings, Ridley and McDonald bringing premium cable drama style to each season of the anthology series. All three installments enlisted a high caliber of talent, including Lily Tomlin, Timothy Hutton and Regina King, to tell three different stories about the damage we do to each other and the underlying issues that contribute to that.
While Huffman’s initial introduction to Ridley was watching him receive his Oscar for writing “12 Years a Slave,” she was familiar with McDonald as he’d previously been an executive at ABC. In fact, over the decades she’s been working, ABC has been an off-again/on-again home for her thanks to shows like “Crime,” “Sports Night,” “The D.A.,” and of course “Desperate Housewives.” In fact, her very first screen credit as listed on IMDB was for the ’78 “A Home Run for Love,” a classic ABC Afterschool Special.
Thus, she was a bit tentative initially, saying that “I knew the script was brilliant, but I sort of went in as one does when you’re a colleague going, ‘I don’t know what you’re gonna bring to the table. I don’t know how this is gonna work.'”
That changed after Huffman saw Ridley direct: “There were a couple of key scenes I thought he directed the shit out of and I went, ‘Oh, okay. I can trust this guy,’ and hopefully he felt the same way about me. So, over three years we got to know each other. It’s a real ensemble. We got to trust each other.”
Her intriguing metaphor to describe it? “It’s bungee jumping, a little bit. Every year you go, ‘Let’s jump off the cliff and see if it works,’ and I knew that they’d strapped [the bungee] firmly around my ankle.”
The result is a creative partnership that left Huffman feeling empowered about her ability to help determine the unique looks of each character she played, season to season.
“The first season, I went, ‘I want my gray to come in. I’m gonna have an ugly bob and those glasses and no makeup,’ and the second season, where she was “quite curvy wearing tight things and high heels, and I dyed my hair dark. All of that came directly from me,” she said.
The choice to go dark in the second season was a choice directly inspired by her research into the world of these boarding schools. “I met a lot of very powerful women heads of school, and across the board for some reason, they had dark hair and pearls, and so I based it on one particular woman I know in LA.”
But the reason she’s constantly changed her look goes deeper than that. “What was behind it is, I keep wanting to give the audience a break from the last character, I played so they could see the new character as complete and whole, with as little residue as possible from the last year. You can always thread it back to, I feel like, what that character’s objective is. But it also helps to kind of give the audience a little bit of a relief.”
And in Huffman’s eyes, it goes beyond “American Crime.” “I think you feel the history of your career that’s come before,” she said. “One of the reasons that I wanted to do ‘American Crime’ and look completely different is because I wanted a break from Lynette of ‘Desperate Housewives.’ I didn’t want them to go, “Oh, there’s Lynette as a grieving mother on ‘American Crime.'”
How would Huffman had changed her look for Season 4? We’ll never know, but she was able to share what Ridley and McDonald had told her they had planned: “It was going to be women in the workplace.” (If your reaction to reading that was “Aw MANNNNNN!” you’re not alone.)
“I think that’s something that needs to be addressed,” she added. “And I don’t think it’s been done.”
Huffman doesn’t hesitate to participate in the awards game, though there is one element she doesn’t love. “The red carpet does make me want to barf, I have to tell you. It just feels like running the gauntlet,” she said. “I mean, it’s super fun to get the dress and it’s super fun to get dressed up, and I do love it when I get to walk through with [husband William H. Macy], but it’s really challenging on an internal level…The scrutiny makes me want to go to bed.”
She’s survived thus far. However, while Huffman has been nominated by the Emmys two years out of two for Lead Actress in a Limited Series for “American Crime,” she acknowledges that this year, the field is looking a lot more competitive. That’s thanks to new challengers like “Feud: Bette and Joan” and “Big Little Lies.” While the calibre of actress nominated in this category was never in question, in years past she wasn’t facing off against Susan Sarandon, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.
“It certainly is a loaded year,” she said. “But the good news about that is there’s just wonderful stuff to watch. Yeah, the race is harder, but I’m really pleased that everybody’s working in television, because it’s such a wonderful place to work and I think it’s really representative.
“Our business is a little bit playing catch-up to make the industry more reflective of the world we live in, and more diverse economically and socially,” she said, “and I think television does that.”