Thursday, October 9, 2014

Téa Leoni knows what you’re thinking when you see her on ‘Madam Secretary’ - October 2014

Téa Leoni stars on the new CBS drama “Madam Secretary” as a secretary of state. It’s an intense role in which her character deals with complex international relations. This character also has blond hair and wears the occasional pantsuit. Want to guess the only thing people tend to ask her about?

If you assumed “Hillary Rodham Clinton,” well, welcome to Leoni’s world as the star of one of the most anticipated shows of the fall television season, in which Leoni dominates the screen as newly appointed Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, a brilliant former CIA officer plucked from obscurity for the job. During a five-minute break on set on a September morning, Leoni settles into a small, uncomfortable sofa in an area decorated to look like the nicest floor of the State Department.

The other day, someone asked her which politician inspired her in the role. No need to be coy. She knew what the person meant.
“They were sniffing out Hillary. That always seems to be the direction of the interrogations,” Leoni says dryly. She pauses. “I have that word on the brain because I’m going to interrogate somebody at 3 o’clock.” She pauses again to clarify: “On the show.”

Leoni and the executive producers insist that the character is not based on Clinton, who served in the position from 2009 to 2013. Still, it doesn’t really matter. The talking point has been established.

Really, any talking points can help the show. Because once the dust settles from the intriguing concept and first two episodes (which averaged a healthy 14 million viewers), this show’s particular political setting is one of the biggest challenges for the “Madam Secretary” producers. “Secretary of state” is a job that people know exists, but few understand the depths and details of it. How do you make a series about the State Department appeal to an audience beyond Washington’s insiders?

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While, again, the show is not about Hillary Clinton, executive producer Lori McCreary explained that watching the Benghazi hearings sparked the idea for the series. She kept thinking about the human element behind it all. Was the government compelled to cover up something to protect people from things they shouldn’t know about and keep them safe? To prevent more problems?

“I just started thinking it would be a really interesting world to dive into,” McCreary said, sitting in a quiet room a floor above the set. “Instead of seeing what we see in the news on these international crises, maybe what we can do is peel back the curtain on the State Department and see what’s really going on.”

At the time, McCreary and longtime producing partner Morgan Freeman were looking to develop a TV series. Once they decided on this idea (Freeman came up with the title), they got together with creator-writer Barbara Hall (“Joan of Arcadia,” “Homeland”) and director David Semel.

The underlying themes are ultimately about people and psychology, McCreary said. If you look beyond the gritty details of foreign affairs, diplomacy is simply asking: “How do you bridge a gap between our way of thinking and someone else’s way of thinking?”

McCreary is hoping viewers can relate, even if their work lives are far removed from brokering a deal to rescue two American teens imprisoned in Syria or plotting strategy for a visit from a leader of an African country. “As for the State Department, if you’ve experienced an office at all, it will feel very similar,” said McCreary, who wants the series to have an optimistic “West Wing” vibe about what government could be. “Because it’s all office politics: Someone wants your job, somebody’s vying for this or that, someone’s looking to date someone else. It’s all very familiar.”

The plan is to split the show into three major story lines each week, Hall said: one about an international incident; another about the State Department office; and then Elizabeth’s life at home with her husband and children.

Hall and McCreary both talk about staying far away from the current working mom trope on TV, where many women are amazing at their jobs and disastrous at everything else. Particularly of interest is the relationship between Elizabeth and her husband, Henry (Tim Daly), which — difficult to imagine in a TV marriage — is very strong.

“Right now, the idea of trying to depict a functioning marriage is a challenge, and it’s a refreshing point of view,” Hall said. “The idea is not to present a perfect marriage; the idea is to present a marriage that works.”

It will continue to evolve as Elizabeth’s job gets tougher. The balance runs parallel to Leoni’s real life. Leoni hasn’t been on TV since the late 1990s with “The Naked Truth”; but when she read the “Madam Secretary” pilot script, she knew almost instantly she wanted to sign on.

“It was delicious and perfect. Now I’ve decided to make a bigger commitment. . . . I’ve made a great career out of being number two to some very interesting, strong, hilarious men,” Leoni said of her previous films, including “Spanglish” and “The Family Man.” “So this is a change. And the hours are significantly more hellacious.”

***

Indeed, long hours are a requirement on the set that doubles for the District, actually tucked away in Brooklyn. (“The Good Wife,” CBS’s Sunday night companion show, films a few blocks away.) On a recent weekday, the “Madam Secretary” team is a well-oiled machine while shooting the eighth episode.


One big scene: Elizabeth and her team, including speechwriter Matt (Geoffrey Arend) and press coordinator Daisy (Patina Miller), debate what to do when a foreign leader accused of war crimes starts tweeting sexist comments about the secretary of state. (Sample tweet: “She calls me a criminal but it’s a crime to hide those gorgeous legs #wearaminiskirt.”)

The cast keeps things light between the many, many takes. Some wear slippers (hidden under the table) with their business attire and State Department badges. Later, Elizabeth and her chief of staff, Nadine (Bebe Neuwirth), will rehearse an urgent walk-and-talk scene, reminiscent of “West Wing”-type conversations.

When one take is over, Leoni, full of energy, slips out of heels and into flats and someone hands her a bottle of water. An assistant offers to bring food, and Leoni embarks on a monologue about the amazing food served on set. “They make a chickpea salad that’s out of control,” she raves.

Less than a minute after she sits down, talking about how much she enjoys playing the character, a production assistant apologetically says she’s immediately needed again on set.

“Seriously?” she asks without standing up. “Okay, on ‘rolling,’ I’ll fly in,” she tells him. The nervous assistant walks away to inform the crew that Leoni is not ready yet.

“Watch this; this is where the panic starts,” she jokes in a whisper. “It’s kind of fun, ’cause he’s new. You’ve got to kind of break them in. It’s like hazing.”

But Leoni has more work to do, so she stands and starts walking to her mark, still talking. She explains that while she understands the Clinton comparisons, she hopes people can still separate the two.

I guess there has to be that, because she’s a really smart, really charming, really dynamic woman. What we didn’t see was her life,” Leoni says. “There’s so many reasons that we’re not the same. But if there was a woman I could say I wanted to see at home pouring cereal, it would be her, you know? So instead, you’re just going to see Elizabeth.”

“Madam Secretary” (one hour) airs Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.

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