In her new film, “Transamerica,” the “Waking Ned Devine” and “The Others” star plays Elizabeth, the disapproving mother of Stan, a self-absorbed but fundamentally decent man preparing for sexual reassignment surgery and life as a woman named Bree.
Although the cross-dressing Stan (played by “Desperate Housewives” actress Felicity Huffman, who just won a Golden Globe for her performance in the film) tells people his judgmental parents are dead, a series of bizarre circumstances, including the discovery he has a teenage son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), sends him home to mom for help.
While Huffman’s uncharacteristically dowdy appearance as Stan/Bree has certainly set tongues a-waggin’, Flanagan’s feisty demeanor, brightly colored clothes and hilariously bronzed skin are also hard to ignore.
“When I first saw the script, I laughed out loud,” Flanagan told The Irish Echo in a recent phone interview. “I thought the scenes I’m in looked more like fun than work. I also thought that if (first-time writer-director Duncan Tucker) could bring this off and make it work, it would be fabulous and if he can’t bring it off, then no one will hear about the picture any way … But I thought it was such an interesting and risky story to tell, that I thought, ‘Yes, I’d like to do it.'”
Asked if she could immediately picture herself playing this woman when she read the screenplay, the 64-year-old actress declared: “Oh, yes! Very much so!
“I liked having that kind of challenge to play that kind of large creature, who is very passionate.”
Admitting her character can be something of a monster, Flanagan argues the core of Elizabeth’s constant criticism and interference is her fear for how others will treat her son because he is different.
“I don’t think any parent would say to their child, ‘If you’re not happy, why don’t you go have a sex change?’ I don’t know any parent who wouldn’t have knee-deep concerns about such a choice. Is it going to be a perilous or dangerous path you embark on? You know, every mother and every parent knows it’s a big, dangerous world out there and they never give up that notion where their child is concerned. Her concerns aren’t as facile as they would seem.”
Although we don’t meet Flanagan’s character until about two-thirds of the way through the film and she appears pretty set in her ways when we do see her, a horrible moment when Stan/Bree is injured forces Elizabeth to deal with her feelings for her child and offers her a second chance to be a supportive mother.
“She has a redemption because of her realization that she loves her son,” Flanagan observed. “She loves her child, whether a he or a she. It doesn’t matter.”
While the Abbey Theatre School-trained actress found ways to understand the psychology of her character, getting her appearance just right didn’t prove as easy.
“I had been preparing for that,” Flanagan confessed. “I wanted her to have the look of the desert, well-heeled matron, all bejeweled and I think having the little dog, who was the director’s dog, was just the icing on the cake. Danny Glicker, who did the costumes, and I talked about choices and we agreed on this kind of wonderful, flashy look for her.”
So that explains the clothes, but how in the world did the lovely, fare-skinned Ms. Flanagan manage that shiny golden hue she sported?
“I went to a sun-tanning salon and you take off all your clothes and put on a ridiculous cap and you stand there and press a button and they spray you all over with this paint and then you have five seconds to turn around and have them spray you the other side,” she recalled in horror. “It is the most ridiculous activity on the planet and I laughed. We did use makeup, too, of course, but that was the whole idea — we wanted that bronzed look.”
Asked how she thinks the folks back home will receive “Transamerica,” Flanagan says she is confident they will embrace this unique and very human tale.
“I think that they’ll be very open to it,” she said. “Irish film-making has just brought out ‘Breakfast on Pluto,’ the Neil Jordan picture, so I think that the Irish, maybe more than anyone else, are ready for this.”
A long-time Los Angeles resident, Flanagan says she tries to get back to Ireland several times a year.
“I go home a great deal,” she said, adding she got home five times last year. “I do go a lot. I have to. That’s the well for me … We’re talking about doing something there in the early part of the spring next year — a miniseries in the Irish language, actually.”
Flanagan will also soon be seen in a new Showtime series called, “Brotherhood,” a contemporary drama, set in an Irish neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island and co-starring Jason Isaacs and Jason Clarke.
“I play the matriarch in a family where there are two sons, both who grew up in the same household, raised by myself and with no father in view and one is a straight-arrow politician and works in the legislature and the other son is a gangster, murder, killer and he’s the one who lives at home with me,” she revealed.
“We’ve just done one season so far and we’re waiting to see if they pick it up for another season.”