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It all started with a set of a pearls and a flip.

Marcia Cross is talking about the creation of Bree Van De Kamp, who she plays so brilliantly on Desperate Housewives.

“Nobody actually talked to me at all, except for the fact that she wore pearls,” Cross reveals in a very forthcoming phone conversation. “I got this notion in my head about her hair, and I think that truly horrified my hair girl at first, but now she’s completely in love with the whole flip thing.”

It’s not unusual for an actor to begin working on a character from the outside in, and Cross began to understand Bree by determining how she would look. “I wanted a hairdo that was a little bit stuck in time and a little square in a certain way. It was organic. The things that came to me were like, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this but this feels right.’”

Since the Housewives pilot, Cross has 86ed some things, now that she knows who Bree is. “I wore jeans one day last week and it was all wrong.” And initially, Cross admits, the color choices for Bree were a little more specific, until, she says: “I couldn’t wear another pink sweater set to save my life.”

We may be talking about clothes and hair, but what we’re really talking about is one of the most intriguing – and sincerely touching – characters of the new season. Marcia Cross’s Bree may be very coordinated on the outside, but the look tells you more about a woman who is falling apart on the inside. Bree is fighting to save a marriage, fighting to save her son from an arrest, and ultimately, fighting to save herself, and it’s the kind of teetering the actress does every Sunday night, between silly and sad, real and surreal that wins acting trophies, though Cross, both a Golden Globe and SAG Award nominee, modestly laughs off this suggestion.

The truth of the matter is that Bree was not a part she initially wanted. “They kind of had to persuade me,” she reveals. She was finishing up her role as Dr. Linda Abbott on the Utah-based WB series Everwood during last year’s pilot season, and the producers were kind enough to accommodate her auditions. “It was so awful and sad, I hated it,” Cross says. “I was flying back and forth so much [between Utah and LA] it was painful because it felt like little goodbyes every time.”

Finishing one series and signing up for another was not something she was desperate to do. “I’m not a hungry, hungry actress,” says Cross, who has also found time in recent years to earn a Master's degree in Psychology. She explains her reasoning. “I wasn’t feeling hugely ambitious…I was struggling more toward how do I fill in my life and they say that’s when it grabs you.” And Bree did grab her. “I thought she was a difficult character…but once I auditioned and tested for it, I really started to like her. It turned out to be the greatest challenge I’ve ever had. It was the first time in a long time where I thought I could fail…it was really like flying without a net in the beginning.”

How does she strike the right balance with a character like Bree, on a show like Desperate Housewives with its very risky, very wry tone? “It’s an interesting process,” Cross admits. While the gentle, nurturing Linda Abbott was a character very close to her, Bree Van De Kamp is something else again. “It was a stretch for me,” Cross says. Early critical response – and the ABC press materials -- took the easy way out and likened Bree to Martha Stewart, which Cross says she understood, but really didn’t agree with, though she understood the need for relatable press on a show chocked with characters who were so odd. “I kind of went along with it…but I’m not inspired by her for this part.”

Instead, Cross says, “the trick is always to really know Bree and be clear about the moments when you see her heart and when she covers up. She’s an interesting woman but you just can’t open it all up because that’s not who she is. You’re just constantly monitoring it, just paying attention to her inner and outer life. When she’s more stressed and uncomfortable, she’s more mannered and you see other moments when she lets her guard down, but I don’t think she’s comfortable living with her guard down.”

Cross plays those heartfelt moments judiciously. She agrees with the observation that Bree is very much in love with her estranged husband Rex, played by Steven Culp, but that fact, she says “was on the page. But there was one day I understood that on a deeper level.” As the show goes along, she reveals, that relationship will become even richer. “I think it is a testament to Steven.” But when asked if she had discussed the marriage with Culp, she demurs. “I don’t know his side and I don’t want to know. I think actors should keep some things to themselves.”

In a recent episode, after Bree and Rex have begun marriage counseling, Bree shows up in a fur coat – with only some skimpy lingerie underneath – at Rex’s hotel room to offer herself to him. “Not eating too much for a couple of weeks [in preparation] was a little difficult,” she says. “Luckily we were working with a second unit that day so I didn’t know a lot of the crew people. I just said, ‘Look, I’m not going to talk to any of you, don’t take it personally. I’m happy I don’t know you and I’ll talk to you afterwards.’” That, and her working relationship with Culp, made the scene easier, but it wasn’t dropping the coat in front of the crew that really scared her, it was the truth of the scene that was far more frightening: “Loving as deeply as she does, I come right up against the vulnerability of that, and the scary part of not being loved in return, being lost.”

At the halfway point of the first season, Cross feels she has learned a lot about playing this character. Now, she says, she has the faith that she can “trust the writing about who she is, not that I didn’t trust it before [but] now I can feel OK about those heightened moments. I know I can do the depth, that’s not an issue for me. It’s trusting that I would have the time to flesh her out totally as a character and not be judged, ‘Oh she’s arch or a caricature.’”

When asked about the title Desperate Housewives, Cross allows that she has met Brees in the real world. Are we all living lives of quiet desperation? “Of course, absolutely, I don’t know anyone who is not desperate for something,” she replied. In Cross’s recent Oprah appearance, she was as honest as she was in this phone interview, telling Oprah that she wanted to be married. “Maybe I was a little too honest,” Cross laughs. “From now on, I’m going to keep that to myself.” / Issue 43 - September 2018
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