Thursday, September 18, 2014

'Madam Secretary' role lures Tea Leoni back

It has been three years since Téa Leoni starred in either a film or TV series and the past 10 years saw her do only a limited number of acting jobs. That self-imposed slowdown and hiatus has ended as she stars in the new CBS political drama, "Madam Secretary."

"I've always really enjoyed a fish out of water, a lively fish out of water, and pretty much by about page two of the script, I knew that's what this was going to be," Leoni says. "I'm scared to death about coming back to work because the hours are so daunting, but I missed everything about acting.

"I also loved being home with my children. I'm just happy that people keep inviting me back."

What drew Leoni back to work is playing a professor and former CIA analyst who is asked by the president to take over as secretary of state. She will have to figure out a way to deal with conflicts, arguments, battles, questionable activities and tough negotiations — and that's only her home life. Work will be even more difficult.

Leoni was willing to star in the series despite knowing some people have become disillusioned by the political process. She wants to show that political shows don't have to be full of strange bedfellows or people who just act strange in bed.

The easy assumption is the role is based on Hillary Clinton but if there is any real political influence that will be from Madeleine Albright. Leoni sat down with the former secretary of state to talk about politics before the show started filming.

"I realized that I had some tremendous unconscious forethought to name my daughter, Madelaine, after her," Leoni says. She smiles and adds that's the new story she is telling and her daughter is OK with that. "I think it's Madeleine Albright's fierce diplomacy and wit mixed with Hillary's charm and dynamic womanhood. And, it's also Condoleezza Rice's courage, intelligence and legs."

Leoni reveals what she found out by talking to politicians: The key to survival is having a sense of humor. That also will be a part of the show.

She can tackle this complicated political/parental role because her children were OK with her going back to work — lots of work. It's not like a movie where she will be gone a few weeks and then be home. Network series are long hours every weekday (and nights).

As for those agreeable children, Leoni jokes she didn't really understand when people would say that your time with your children goes by so quickly.

"I can't believe I have a 12-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter …" Leoni pauses, then adds, "and neither one is a jerk. I'm not a helicopter parent. I have a rule with my kids that they graduate from Outward Bound before they can graduate from the house. I did the Outward Bound experience and I believe every girl should know how to survive. My daughter is doing that now and I am sure she's cursing me out in the middle of nowhere.

"But, honestly, I think I just got lucky because I have two really tremendous kids."

That's why it took the right role to get Leoni back in a series, and series creator Barbara Hall provided that.

As soon as she finished reading the script by Hall — whose past work includes "I'll Fly Away," "Judging Amy" and "Joan of Arcadia" — Leoni called CBS boss Nina Tassler and said she wanted the role.

Hall knew simply calling the show "Madam Secretary" paints a relatively clear picture of the show's premise. One key for Hall was coming up with a way to make a character — who is often engulfed by political chatter — interesting to a large audience. Too much political chatter could alienate viewers.

The other key was to make sure the character wasn't a lifetime politician and to make her home life just as important.

"I wanted her to have a recognizable and active home life, a successful marriage and children who are still at home, because one of the things that's a challenge in trying to show strong women in positions of leadership or women in a man's world is trying to show them going back and forth between those worlds," Hall says.

SHOW INFO
"Madam Secretary," 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21, KGPE (Channel 47.1)

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