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American Crime's Felicity Huffman opens up about playing a racist

Julie Sprankles is a freelance writer living in the storied city of Charleston, SC. When she isn't slinging sass for SheKnows, she enjoys watching campy SyFy creature features (Pirahnaconda, anyone?), trolling the internet for dance work...

'Empathy allows us to see people whole,' says Felicity Huffman on racism and her role on American Crime

Felicity Huffman is smart, tenacious, outspoken — she is by no means a timid woman. But in a refreshingly frank interview, the actress admits that even she wasn't certain at first how to approach her controversial character on ABC's American Crime.

Or the dialogue it would inevitably create.

The brainchild of 12 Years a Slave visionary John Ridley, American Crime centers on race, class, religion and gender politics in the wake of a racially charged murder.

More: 9 Ways American Crime is the most unique show on TV right now

At the center of the critically acclaimed series' story arc is Huffman's character, Barb Hanlon, a woman whose young war veteran son was brutally murdered during a home invasion robbery. Huffman fearlessly plays Barb, a mother hell-bent on getting what she perceives to be justice for her son, and the result is arguably one of the most compelling characters on television this year.

But to say the role is complex would be an understatement. In fact, we don't honestly know how to describe Barb in a way that truly captures her.

"I didn't quite, either," Huffman confides, "and a good friend of mine said, 'You know, she's internally parched.' And I was like, 'Yeah, you know, she is. She's brittle. She's been damaged and she's pissed.' And of course, one word for that is she's a racist. But there you see the building of a racist, which I think is the genius of what John Ridley did."

And at a time when our country's sociopolitical climate is tense (to say the least), racism is a topic that is at once sorely neglected and desperately needed. We need more characters like Barb Hanlon to help serve as a catalyst for the hard conversations.

It was only after such a conversation with her husband that Huffman could even consider taking the role. Because while Huffman "doesn't mind playing bitches," she didn't want the bitchiness of this character to be the entirety of her experience.

Huffman was simply having a hard time wrapping her head around Barb, the person.

"I was talking to my husband, going, 'I don't know if I should take this part. I don't know if I understand it,'" she says. "Here was my problem — she was so harsh to everyone. I asked [my husband], 'Does she have to be so harsh to everyone?"

It was only when he (her brilliant husband and fellow actor, William H. Macy) humanized Barb that Huffman could commit to the character.

"He said, 'Here's the thing. She is hell-bent on one thing, which is being a good mother and getting justice for her son, and that is something you can endorse. Anything that she perceives as getting in her way — whether it's her ex-husband, whether it's the police, whether it's the media — she will take on to the extent that she needs to either co-op them or neutralize them. That's the goal. It's not to be mean to her ex-husband. It's not to be a racist to the black cop. It's to get justice for her son,'" says Huffman.

More: Big Game star Felicity Huffman opens up about the 'wilderness of mothering'

In that, Huffman found a thread of humanity in Barb she could dig into. "That's when I could go, 'OK, I can endorse that, because we all want to be good parents,'" she elaborates. "And I certainly know that as much as I want to be a good parent, how it manifests in the outside world is oftentimes the exact opposite of being a good parent."

Through her portrayal of Barb, Huffman doesn't fall into the trap of proselytizing on behalf of her character. She plays the part, presenting a side of the story that is often polarizing.

She says, "I think what was interesting about Barb Hanlon the way John [Ridley] wrote her and hopefully the way I played her was that even though you don't endorse her point of view — even though you wouldn't have exactly wanted to have dinner with her, even though you knew that she kind of made every situation worse — you empathized with where she was coming from, and so you didn't hate her. Even though she was a hater, you didn't hate her."

In light of the recent shooting of nine black American church parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, at the hands of a 21-year-old white man — and the victims' families' public forgiveness of the killer — this proves to be a complex perspective.

But Huffman makes one important distinction. "Having empathy for someone is different from endorsing their point of view or their actions."

Is it possible empathy is one part of the picture we've been missing?

"I think empathy allows us to see people whole. You know, instead of going, 'Oh, she's a racist, let's put her in that box;' 'Oh, she's a liberal, let's put her in that box;' 'Oh, they're a Republican, let's put them in that box;' 'Oh, she's a lesbian' — whatever it is, we put them in a box," Huffman explains.

"And the minute we put someone in a box, we don't have to understand them," she continues. "We don't have to have empathy for them, and I think the only way through this is to have understanding."

More: Race discrimination commissioner advises on how to fight racial abuse

Unflinchingly honest dramas like American Crime and complicated (and often unlikable) characters like Huffman's Barb are helping to address race disparities in our country in the hopes that we might one day soon come out on the other side.

"To tell you the truth, I think it goes like this: empathy, compassion, understanding," says Huffman. "And that, I think, opens the doors to transformations."

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