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
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
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
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
, a book she coauthored. In the spring, she returns to
the big screen with Georgia Rule
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.
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
Speaking of shopping, what's your favorite store
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
Where do you like to start your day?
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
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
What can you do in Chicago that you can't do
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?
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
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.