Before Felicity Huffman was a star on screens big (this spring's Georgia Rule) and small (Desperate Housewives), she was a hardworking, couch-surfing, snow-shoveling Chicago actress. She's more than happy to take us back there.
"I did my homework," Felicity Huffman begins, talking about how she spent the night before our interview carefully researching where to go and what to do in Chicago. She came of age as an actress there, and her husband, William H. Macy, is a transplanted Chicagoan who's almost synonymous with the city. But Huffman, like Lynette Scavo, her always stressed but very smart character in Desperate Housewives, doesn't do anything halfway. "I have all these notes in my computer," she says. "I was talking about Chicago, and we were like, Oh, what about that, and what about that?" Doing her homework has paid off very well for Huffman. Not only has she won an Emmy and a Screen Actor's Guild Award for her Desperate Housewives role, but last year she was also nominated for an Oscar for her work in the film Transamerica. This month, she's back on TV with Desperate Housewives and in bookstores with A Practical Handbook for the Boyfriend: For Every Guy Who Wants to Be One/For Every Girl Who Wants to Build One, a book she coauthored. In the spring, she returns to the big screen with Georgia Rule, which also costars Jane Fonda and Lindsay Lohan. Huffman has come a very long way from her Colorado hometown. Here's what she remembers (and what she's researched) from her years in Chicago.
Tell us about your early days in Chicago.
When I first came to the city, I stayed on a friend's floor - because nobody had any money - and I started working in the theater. In 1985, David Mamet and a man I know named William H. Macy said, "Why don't you start your own theater company?" Which sounded to us like, "Why don't you build your own shuttle and go up into space?" But we did. We were interns at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and we decided to start a theater company. So I started my career xeroxing for the wonderful Greg Mosher and making popcorn in the microwave. We would summer up in Vermont, but for the first two years, we were in Chicago, because Chicago is good to its arts. The arts scene is a small town in a big city, with a loyal audience base, and there are theatergoers who will give you a shot. In New York, if you put on a terrible play, they might not give you another chance. I spent two years in Chicago doing theater. My friend Clark Greg and I drove in my little Honda from New York; we were all NYU graduates. We did one of those nights like you do when you are young: You leave at two o'clock in the morning because that is when your restaurant shift is finished, and you load up the car. We drove into Chicago as the sun was coming up, and it was the most spectacular skyline I had ever seen - which goes right into the architectural element of the city.
Okay, talk about the architecture.
When you travel around Europe and see these beautiful cities that have been there for hundreds of years, you get a little bit of an inferiority complex. We are such a young country, and we have some pretty cities but nothing that compares to Paris or Vienna or Budapest - until you get to Chicago. The architecture is just unbelievable. You've got the Wrigley Building. You've got the Sears Tower. You've got the John Hancock Center - which they say is a beautiful skyscraper if you ever take it out of the box. You've got the [former] Montgomery Ward building. One of the most spectacular things I did that first morning in the city was drive along Lake Shore Drive. You have an urban landscape on one side, and on the other, you have this inland, freshwater "ocean" - you can't see the other shore. That's like nowhere else. When you're on Lake Shore Drive, you have all these gorgeous buildings on your left and this vast expanse of peaceful, gorgeous water on your right. The sun comes up and sparkles off the water. One of the things we used to do was go to Oak Street Beach, and from there you could see the Navy Pier. Oak Street Beach is not as busy as North Avenue Beach. You are in the middle of the city, yet you can take out your little beach towel and lay out.
Where do you stay now?
When I was first there, I was a poor actress, so I had a crummy little apartment or I stayed on people's couches. Now when I go, it's for press, so I stay at a hotel. I've stayed at the Peninsula several times, and I love it there. Yeah, it's a big skyscraper, sort of odd. The lobby is on the second or third floor, so I'm turned around when I get in there, but the service is amazing, as with everything in Chicago. The rooms are lovely, and it's right on Michigan Avenue, which has some of the best shopping in the world. Every time I walk down Michigan Avenue, I'm stunned by some new, beautiful angle. The architecture is really sublime, and the shopping is not too bad either.
Speaking of shopping, what's your favorite store in Chicago?
There is a great store that is unique to Chicago called Blake. It's a true boutique. Whoever owns Blake goes around to all the designers and handpicks what is the best and brings it to Blake. So the store has the four best pairs of boots this season. It has extremely high-end clothing, but it is the best of everything, so you don't have to sift through the department stores. In 15 minutes, you can find what you couldn't in six months somewhere else.
Where do you like to start your day?
There is Ann Sather, which has Swedish cuisine, and they do an amazing breakfast. They have the best cinnamon rolls in the universe. Their Swedish pancakes are famous, and they are now starting to serve egg-white omelets. It's fantastic, because someone comes in being health conscious and goes, "I'd like an egg-white omelet and some vegetables and six cinnamon buns." There is another breakfast place, 3rd Coast, which is what Chicago is called. It's not New York; it's not L.A. - it's the Third Coast. It's a city in the middle of the country that quietly gets things done. It kind of feels like the real America. They also call it the Queen of the Heartland and the City of the Big Shoulders.
What Chicago landmarks do you love?
Wrigley Field is fantastic. It's a real park, and it's right in the middle of a neighborhood. If someone hits a homer, a kid on the street could still catch it. There are the bleacher bums, whom I think someone wrote a play about. They sit in the cheap seats on the right- and left-hand sides, and Wrigley Field won't presell [those seats]. They only sell them the day of the game, and the bleacher bums line up to get them. The tradition is that if a visiting team hits a homer to the bleacher bums, they don't keep the ball; they throw it back to the team because they don't want it. Wrigley Field - greatest park in the majors. You know, it was the last park to get lights. It was a huge decision. They don't want change. Everyone thought it would ruin the park or ruin the feel of the park.
Chicago is a city based on neighborhoods, so you have wonderful, upscale ethnic restaurants, but because they are neighborhood based, they are not expensive. I have to say that's true of Chicago in general. It's kept its local flavor, and it seems like Chicagoans are so fiercely into things that are Chicagoan. There is a wonderful department store called Marshall Field's, and it is quintessentially Chicago. Marshall Field's was sold to Macy's, and everyone said, "Okay, fine," until they were going to change the name to Macy's, and then people boycotted. [Macy's] didn't understand the psychology of the people of Chicago. They won't put up with someone taking their individuality away. They pride themselves on it.
What does a visitor need to know about the city before going there?
The winters are brutal. You get up in the morning and it has snowed, and you go out to your car and not only has it dumped snow, but the snowplows have come and just completely buried your car. You are standing there going, "What the heck am I going to do?" But that's what I love about Chicago. Some guy will drive by and stop, pull over his car, pull out the shovel he keeps in the back of the car, shovel you out, and then say, "See ya." He doesn't expect anything, and he is not doing it for a date. He is just doing it because he knows somewhere in the city some other guy is doing it for his mother or sister. There is just this wonderful, small-town feel in a big city. The other thing is - and I wrote this down because I thought it was really true - a friend of mine described Chicago as a city where they don't give you a lot of frosting, the people there. The people are very nice, incredibly kind and helpful, but they are direct and simple, and they get it done. You get a good cupcake but not a whole lot of frosting. As a matter of fact, they are a little suspicious if there is too much jive going on.
Chicago is famous for its food. Let's begin with lunch.
There is a neighborhood called Roscoe Village, and it's kind of where the actors hang out, and there is a restaurant called Turquoise. This is a great place, and you can get a meal for 25 bucks or less. It is delicious, and they deliver. It's upscale Turkish cuisine, and it's fantastic. There is also a great place called Jaks Tap, which has great burgers and about 500 different kinds of beer on tap.
Take us outdoors.
I love to run in Lincoln Park, and it also has a fantastic zoo. Lincoln Park Zoo, I think, rivals the Bronx Zoo. It is wonderfully laid out, and it is outside. They give the animals a lot of room. They have the scariest reptile house you have ever seen, with snakes as big as your couch hanging out there. The zoo is in the middle of this big park, and it's not crowded. We used to go running in Lincoln Park, and then we would always end up at the zoo and just sort of walk through and visit it. You see all the schoolkids there, and it is well kept and friendly. It's just a lovely place to spend the day with your children - I was actually doing that even before I had kids.
What can you do in Chicago that you can't do anywhere else?
First of all, you can get a windburn on Chicago Avenue in the winter that I think would rival anything you can get in the Arctic. It is one cold city. It has a unique personality, because you've got to be hardy to live there, and the faint of heart don't stay there for many years.
Did you meet your husband in Chicago?
No, I met Bill in New York, but very quickly we went to Chicago. So during the first part of our going out we went to Chicago. Where he took me then wasn't great, because we didn't have any money. Mainly we hung out at the Gaslight. Everybody was working in restaurants because we couldn't get any other work. But we would have to have company meetings, so our meetings would start at midnight and go until three in the morning. There are legendary stories about the Steppenwolf and the Gaslight, where they would start a company meeting that would end at five in the morning, with everyone out on the street and throwing things and the cops being called. What I remember with Bill when we first went there is his love for the city and his love for the people of Chicago. They are direct, and there is a close-knit acting community. Everyone loves each other, and everyone supports each other - unlike in Los Angeles, where you are always looking for your next job and everything is a stepping-stone. Every play you do is a stepping-stone. Every television or movie you do might lead to bigger things. In Chicago, they care about the work, that the work is good, and you can stay with a theater company for 30 years there, and you are not moving to New York, and you are not moving to L.A. You are a Chicago actor and incredibly respected.
Tell us about the Chicago theater scene, where you came of age.
They really support their arts, and they have wonderful museums and great theater. For a great Saturday night, I would go to a play at the Steppenwolf Theatre, and then I would go to a restaurant called the Landmark, which has a great clubby feel. It has a wonderful atmosphere. It's certainly true for actors that, irrespective of what is going on in the country, you can always get a job in Chicago. It is a city that works. You can go there and just learn what to do. I remember doing these plays in these loft spaces, where usually the cast outnumbered the audience members, and once in a while the fire marshal would come shut us down. He would say something like, "Come on, you kids; you can't be doing this now." We would be like, "Yeah, sorry, fire marshal." And the next week we would be up again.
Where would you go for dinner before or after the theater?
One great dinner place is Le Bouchon. It has been there a long, long time, and it is this tiny, 15-table French restaurant. It has the best soup. It has stuff like frog legs, but they are good. It's this quiet atmosphere, romantic and old-world. The owner and chef, Jean-Claude Poilevey, is out and about. He's running around the tables, with his thick French accent, going, "Do you like your meal?" I'm saying, "Excuse me, I didn't understand." He's checking with you and checking on you. That's a great restaurant. The Landmark has a restaurant on one side, which is great, sort of Americana food, but then they have a lounge with great drinks and appetizers. You can just go hang out for a really long time and talk with your friends.
Where do you like to unwind after work?
There is a bar called the Matchbox, and it's the tiniest bar in Chicago. It used to be a factory bar, and it would open at three in the morning and go until noon. It's a good old Chicago-feeling bar. You go in and get a martini and a cigar.
Then what would you do?
Then I would go home and go to bed. I have two kids; I don't stay up late.