Calpernia Addams and Andrea James
28 March 2006
Calpernia Addams and Andrea James may not have Hollywood marquee clout, but thanks to their work in Transamerica and Felicity Huffman’s daring and fearless portrait of a transsexual woman, you’d better believe you’re going to hear their names loud and clear.
The women run Deep Stealth Productions, a company dedicated to offering more accurate and positive portrayals of transgender people in the media. Huffman – taking on arguably the most layered and difficult role of her career – came to the women for help in preparing for the film.
If Huffman was to fully transform into Bree, a male to female transsexual just days before her final operation, she wanted to walk the walk, talk the talk and feel the emotions. So Addams and James got to work.
Though the prep work presented them with challenges they’d never before faced (James, a voice coach who helps transgender women find their female voice, had never done the process in reverse before), both women were up to the challenge and were ecstatic to be a part of a project they say has the power to change minds and open doors for LGBT filmmaking.
So how did Transamerica come to you both?
Andrea James: Felicity was doing research for the role, pouring her heart and soul into this before they started filming, and she found our information and called us up. So, you know, that’s always a bi of a shock.
She called you up herself, she didn’t have one of her people do it?
AJ: Well, she had someone helping who told her who we were and what we are all about, but she called us that day. It was very exciting to get that call because, at the time she checked in with us, Desperate Housewives hadn’t hit yet, but I knew her work from Sports Night and I’d always loved Magnolia. So it was early in the process.
What was she most concerned about learning from you?
AJ: One of the things she really wanted to get was the voice. So we looked through the script with her and we went through page by page and said, â€šÃ„Ã²Well, this is a bit of a stretch plot wise,’ and she was able to get some things revised.
But I guess the main thing about working with her was that she really wanted to get a sense of what’s going on in this character’s head at that really difficult time of transition.
Calpernia Addams: And she said before that she really wanted to make this a unique individual character, having her own particular life experience. She never was trying to represent all trans women with this portrayal, and I think she really did a great job of that.
What were your primary concerns before taking on this project? Before pursuing any project, really?
CA: I always go into anything like this expecting the worst, unfortunately, because usually Hollywood and the media in general likes to use trans characters as plot points that are a punch line – a prostitute or a psychotic killer.
AJ: In most movies about trans people they’re portrayed as victims or criminals, and this is the first movie where it’s funny. It’s a nice movie where the laughs are not at the expense of the character.
The things that she goes through could happen whether she was trans on not.
AJ: Right. She’s really the first fully human character who has been portrayed. There’s a completeness to her that you usually don’t get.
Felicity Huffman in TransamericaTell me a bit about the process of working with Felicity. I know you worked on so many things, but what were some of the main points she wanted to cover?
CA: She felt she had so much ground to cover to really familiarize herself. She asked us a lot of questions about the feelings behind transition and the life experiences that you go through in the process. So we shared a lot of our own background with her.
I think one of the things that stands out in my mind that we shared with her is that, early in your transition, you don’t want people to look at you. You want to blend in and hide and be secretive. You really see that in Felicity’s character. She’s always turning her head away a little bit, she’s closed off physically.
In that first scene especially when she leaves the house and she has so many layers of clothing on, like all she wants you to see is her face.
AJ: And even then she’s hiding behind these big sunglasses. She really is trying to find her way in the world and she’s still sort of in this cocoon stage, she’s still in development. Every scene is sort of a peeling away of that discomfort, so by the end, you see it in her movement, in the way that she talks to her son.
Felicity is very honest in interviews that when she came into this film, she had prejudices of her own. Did you see any of that in her when you first talked to her?
AJ: It’s very cute that when she first came over, she confided in us later that she was very nervous because I think she didn’t really know what to expect. I think there’s always this fear of the unknown and, once it’s known, it’s not so fearful.
CA: Yeah, when we say we were aware of prejudices, I didn’t see any negative behaviour like scorn or ridicule. I think it was more that she didn’t know. She was more than willing to open up and learn things, but she didn’t have prejudice in the pejorative sense that it was some negative vibe I was feeling.
And it’s obvious she thinks very highly of you both. I see her mention you constantly in interviews. It seems you really bonded. She seems to really care for you as people.
CA: We had dinner at her house, she called us even after filming was over. I got to do the scene in New York with her and Andrea is in the film (as the voice coach) at the beginning. So it’s been great. She’s so open. She didn’t just sort of use us and lose us.
AJ: And, it was such a remarkable experience – to see someone of her calibre come at this. As you said, she came into it not knowing much of anything. And all of a sudden she threw herself into it with such panache and Ã©lan.
I think most actors who take these roles are phoning it in. They think, â€šÃ„Ã²Oh, this is going to be an interesting little experiment.’ But she did something beyond that that I think shows in her performance.
So how do you feel about the finished product?
AJ: It’s a really nice, family sort of movie. You know, it’s probably not going to play in mainstream America, you know. It’s not going to compete with King Kong. But even that it’s just out there, that’s going to make a difference. It’s going to be rented. It’s going to be seen on cable. It’s going to be available to get into the hearts and minds of people who might not otherwise be exposed to this.
CA: I’m so glad that it was made and I’m so proud we had the opportunity to work both behind these scenes and on camera, just to be a part of something that is another step toward acceptance and normalization on a large scale for us.
To answer your question directly, I love the movie, and I don’t just think of it as a political tool. I was really entertained by it.