Felicity Huffman on American Crime and Playing an Unlikable Character

Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

In the current TV landscape, antiheroes are still at the center of many dramas, cable and network alike. This week, ABC rolls out the racially driven American Crime, and show creator/writer/director John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) immediately makes clear there are no heroes here. We caught up with one of the leads, Felicity Huffman, at the show’s Los Angeles premiere screening. Huffman plays Barb, a woman who's out for justice for her son’s murder. Huffman talked about the difficulties presented by the material, and about playing Barb with an ice-cold exterior.

What was your first reaction when you read John Ridley’s pilot script?
I thought it was shocking. I thought it was a pilot and it would never make it to series, so I thought, I’m just signing on for a pilot — that’s great. And I thought I would love to be a part of that.

What struck you most dramatically?
Because I was reading it from the point of view of the character I would play, Barb, I thought it would be a tightrope walk to play that character because it’s hard to make someone so driven — you know, her motivation is pure, but the way she presents it is so off-putting — I thought that would be a tightrope walk, and I was interested in the challenge.

Stylistically, there are a lot of long, lingering close-ups. What was that like during shooting?
Well, actually, it wasn’t that that was so shocking. What was shocking is that John [Ridley] shot so much in a single [take]. We would have these long scenes, and John would do it in one [shot] with no coverage. There’s a wonderful scene with Tim [Hutton] and I on the side of the road when I get out of the car — that was shot in one [take], which is so shocking. I kept turning to John — it was in the beginning of the pilot, and I said, “You don’t want to cover this?” and he said, “Nope, we’re doing it in one.” I said, “You don’t want to get a shot of the grass or the sky? Y’know, if I’m bad in a moment or Tim is bad in a moment …” And John said, “No, you’re gonna have to be good in every moment 'cause we’re gonna do it in a one-er.” So that was cool and shocking.

Where do you see this role in the overview of your career?
I feel like the older I get, my characters become less and less likable [laughs] as I work my way down the ladder of affability. I think it’s a cool challenge, and maybe one of the few gifts of getting older is possibly you’re courageous enough to go, “I don’t care if you like me.”

What was the biggest surprise of the role of Barb?
How much people dislike her.

As shooting progressed, what was the biggest challenge of the role? 
All the episodes were really hard to do. I guess it was staying in that internally parched [place] — Barb is internally, emotionally parched, and it was sort of like, hanging out in that place was not fun. And also, I was shooting to be really simple — at least that’s what I was going for.

American Crime premieres Thursday, March 5 at 10 p.m. on ABC, following Scandal.