Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Full Interview: Téa Leoni covers 'More' Magazine - March 2015

Madam Téa’s Second Act

Téa Leoni is back, with a new hit TV show (Madam Secretary), a new marital status (divorced—and liking it, thank you) and a new life mantra (“Pain is where you grow”)

Téa Leoni is shvitzing under the lights.

SHE IS SEVERAL takes into a complicated scene on the Brooklyn set of Madam Secretary, the hit CBS series she produces and anchors, and she’s perspiring so much, her eyebrows are starting to swim. “It’s hot, right?” she says to no one in particular, fanning her cheeks with her hands. “I can feel the sweat dripping on my face.” Instead of waiting for a makeup artist’s touch-up, Leoni, 49, apologizes for her dampness, then balletically pulls a lean leg to her brow and pats her forehead with the cuff of her tailored dress pants. A handful of crew members break into laughter. Leoni mugs, does a goofy little hip waggle, drops her leg and falls right back into the scene, delivering her lines with captivating political gravitas.


A few minutes later, Leoni is in her dressing room. Pilates equipment rests in one corner (“It’s basically a coffee table—I think I’ve used it once”), along with potted plants, an inviting gold velvet couch with cozy blankets and a full-length mirror propped against the wall, with a floral cotton bra tossed over the upper left corner. Overripe bananas brown on the makeup table where Leoni is getting her face properly repowdered, something she clearly doesn’t relish.

A tomboy and sports lover from an early age (on a perfect day, she is waist deep in a cold river, fly fishing, barefaced and alone), Leoni loathes vanity, embracing every opportunity to puncture the myth of female perfection by belching loudly into her microphone or shamelessly admitting when she’s passed gas into her Burberry trench coat. “Flying Blind was the first time I’d ever heard the words it girl,” she says, remembering her well-reviewed though short-lived 1992 sitcom. “They built me some amazing bustiers for that show. I looked like a D cup.” She recalls being 17 and gazing into a mirror with her best friend when the friend’s mother walked by and proclaimed, “Girls, today is as good as it is ever going to get.” Leoni chuckles. “I didn’t understand back then, but I appreciate her comment now.”

As the set stylist curls her wig—“anything to reduce my time in the makeup chair”—Leoni tells a story about Brett Ratner, her director on The Family Man, the 2000 film in which Leoni’s considerable organic warmth managed to humanize professional eccentric Nicolas Cage. “Ratner—whom I really like, by the way—was going around telling people that despite my age, I was ‘still doable,’” she says. “I think I was 34 then. And he was something like 28.”

What upset Leoni was not the reductive misogyny of the comment—something every actress (OK, woman) develops an immunity to—but her own reaction to the assessment. “I asked myself, Do I still care about that? And at that time, I did. I felt that pressure to be ‘doable.’ It was the meanest thought I’d had for myself in a long time.” The more she contemplated the angles, and the futility, the more she realized she needed to let that instinct go. “Thankfully, I’ve moved past all that. Chasing youth is a war I’m not going to win,” Leoni says, playfully narrowing her striking blue eyes. “It’s not like I’m thrilled to turn around and catch my can in the mirror, but I can see now how much of my happiness could be a victim of trying to stay young and desirable. And it feels like peace and victory to be relieved of that burden.”

Leoni is, of course, still an arresting beauty (and doable). She looks much as she did as a younger woman, unaltered except for a trail of thin wrinkles etched across her forehead and the rogue hairs she happily discusses. Her lived-in attractiveness is the very thing that makes her so convincing as secretary of state. Much like Leoni, Elizabeth McCord, the character she plays on Madam Secretary, is a woman whose priorities extend beyond the mirror. Who focuses outward, on others. Who laughs at herself hourly. A woman we can unreservedly aspire to be. Leoni was born to Emily Patterson, a charismatic Texan, and Anthony Pantaleoni, a corporate lawyer, in New York City, where she was raised. Though the family was financially secure, hers was not an extravagant upbringing. Her parents frowned on softness and frivolity. “My dad refused to get adjustable seats in his car when they came out,” says Leoni. “He couldn’t see the point. Money was only there in case the bottom fell out.” Or so that it could be given away to those in need. Leoni’s paternal grandmother, Helenka, cofounded—and for 25 years served as the president of—the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, an organization Leoni herself has been deeply involved with for decades. “My grandmother used to threaten to sue the Social Register because she wanted to get us out of it,” Leoni recalls. While elite status meant nothing to the family, hard work and risk taking did, the latter vigorously embraced by Leoni when she became a teen. She left the storied Brearley School, a rigid place ill equipped to handle her brand of freethinking intellect (“I would ‘forget’ to write my stories down; I would just perform them instead”) to attend Putney, a progressive boarding school in rural Vermont where even the most privileged students are expected to muck manure at 5:45 am in the anesthetizing cold of January. Leoni fell in love. “Putney saved me,” she says. “The biggest thing I gained from being there was the truth that you are on the planet with other humans. I never forgot that what I did affected other people.”

Actor Tim Daly, who plays Leoni’s husband on the show, witnessed her consideration and startling lack of pretension on day one of filming. “In the pilot, we had a scene at a dinner table, which is a pain in the ass,” he says. “During cuts, everything needs to be reset—the napkins, the food. Actors will usually just sit there helplessly and allow the prop people to do the work. I looked over, and there was Téa, placing forks. And I thought, This girl is cool.”

“Téa works harder than any human I’ve ever known,” attests Eric Stoltz, veteran actor and a director on Madam Secretary. “She shames the rest of us into better behavior. It’s a tad annoying.” Stoltz remembers when, a few weeks earlier, Leoni arrived at work woozy and sounding “like Johnny Cash.” She had been diagnosed with acute bronchitis. “I was stunned she didn’t go home and curl up in bed, but here she was, first on the set, ready to pretend.”

Leoni says she knew playing pretend was the career for her as early as second grade, when, as one of the Wise Men in the school Christmas play, she misplaced her designated prop and improvised with her teddy bear instead. “I brought down the house,” she says. “I had them laughing, I had them crying, and I have never forgotten that.”

When Leoni dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College, where she was studying anthropology, and moved to Los Angeles in the late ’80s, she was initially told she was too edgy, too strong, too New
York. “I had one long thread of shitty advice throughout my career, which was, ‘You have to do this in order to do that.’ So I did some projects that were lacking. I was ‘the chick of the flick.’”

Complicating matters, Hollywood wasn’t sure what to do with a comic actress you also wanted to take to bed. But directors like David O. Russell and Woody Allen recognized a treasure when they saw one, and her indelible, complicated performances in their films (1996’s Flirting with Disaster and 2002’s Hollywood Ending, respectively) established Leoni as a contemporary Carole Lombard.

Around the same time, Leoni was starting a family with her then husband, actor David Duchovny. (The pair divorced in 2014, after 17 years of marriage.) After the birth of her first child, Madelaine West (now 15; they also have a son, Kyd Miller, 12), Leoni found herself saddled with a new industry nickname: Pass-a-dena. “For every project I do, there are a lot I don’t,” she explains. “People have asked if I’m lazy. In a way it’s flattering. But the truth is, if you’re going to pull me away from my children, I need to have some connection to the work.” Improbable as it seems, she connected with Jurassic Park III. “I nearly lost my daughter when she was nine months old,” Leoni says. “We were in the hospital for 10 days. They said she had double pneumonia. I was watching her drown, her lungs were so filled with fluid.” Leoni was told the chances for Madelaine’s survival were slim, so she kept vigil at the baby’s side, whispering for hours into her ear, telling her everything she could think of about life and how beautiful it could be and how she would need to fight. “I talked until my voice gave out.” Mercifully, Madelaine slowly began what would become a long recovery. After that, Leoni couldn’t relate to anything, she says. Acting felt trivial, cheap. And then Steven Spielberg sent her a script about a woman who had lost her child on an island full of dinosaurs. “And laugh if you want, but that is exactly how I felt in the hospital,” says Leoni. More important, “the movie had a happy ending. I felt maybe if I took the part, it could be like casting a spell.” Leoni smiles wanly. “People tell me I’ve never really made it. They say, ‘You don’t have an Oscar.’” She sharpens her gaze. “There’s not an accolade in Hollywood that could replace time with my kids. At this stage of my life, it’s not about contentment. Or appealing to 20-year-olds. Or awards. It’s about finding something more. As I tell my daughter, ‘Hear your voice first.’”

IT’S THE LAST day of the week’s shoot, and thanks to a vicious winter storm, the Madam Secretary set is taking on water. Sleet seeps from the window seams. Pieces of the ceiling are dropping in chunks like soggy space trash. Leoni gamely sloshes through the wet hall in a Derek Lam shift dress, camera ready save for her fuzzy gray Uggs. She notices water in a costar’s dressing room. “Can we get a fan on this?” she asks a crew member. As she examines the damage, she squats and reaches out to straighten a filthy buckled rug so no one will trip. On set, Stoltz directs her: “You’re sick of these stupid men.” “I am,” she deadpans. “I want my own penis.” Fourteen hours later, over dinner at a favorite vegan restaurant, a weary Leoni reflects on her latest role—and why, after turning down other parts in favor of family, she jumped at this one. “I felt my kids were ready for me to take on a potentially multiyear project,” she says. “Shooting in New York, working with Morgan Freeman [the show’s cocreator] and getting a paycheck sealed the rest.” She was also named one of the show’s producers, which meant she could have real input. “Above everything, I want my character to be nonjudgmental,” she says. “People assume that inspiration comes from Hillary Clinton or Madeleine Albright. It doesn’t. It comes from my dad. I’ve never once in my life heard him engage in gossip. He would have made a great secretary of state.” Leoni aspires to the same generosity in her off-camera life, and while she succeeds in not criticizing others, like most women she struggles a bit when it comes to not criticizing herself. “Fear is terrible,” she says. “I’m no different than anyone else. I don’t want people to judge me and find me wanting. I spent some time in my marriage being fearful of how it would go, or end, or not end, and I think, with the kids, some fear as a new mother. I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember packing the freaking diaper bag. I would get obsessed. If there is an earthquake, can we survive for two weeks on the contents?”

After years of striving for control, trying to wrap her arms around the messy, uncontainable whole of her life, Leoni has at last concluded that her energy may be better spent elsewhere. “Now when the kids walk in, I’m listening to them and just loving them. I’m not worried about the equivalent of the diaper bag. I’m not looking in the wrong direction. I’m a much better witness than I was.”

She and Duchovny still coparent and talk almost daily. They even shared a rental house with the kids and extended family during the most recent holidays. Boys in one room, girls in another. “On occasion, I want to throttle him,” Leoni says of her ex. “But in any real relationship with someone you love, that’s true.” As for tabloid rumors of a romance with costar Daly, Leoni explains that after the horror show of surviving a private divorce in the public eye, “especially after what it did to my kids,” she will “never speak again” about her personal relationships. That said, even a casual observation ofthe pair’s chemistry and shared bigheartedness suggests if ever there were two people who should be together, it’s them.

In every way, Leoni is embracing her second act. “I’m more capable than I’ve ever been,” she declares. “I’m getting much better at noticing that life is good. That everything passes. I tell my children that. Think about the now, not the then or later. That’s the art.” After a much-needed dessert of chocolate cake and ice cream, Leoni exits the restaurant and inhales a deep breath on the streets of her hometown, the snow swirling in circles around her. She reflects on her life so far, all the magic and mystery of it, also the rough patches, the bruises.
“I wouldn’t trade my trauma for all the tea in China,” she concludes with certainty. “My trauma landed me right here. And I love it here.” She tightens her coat to shut out the storm and turns to walk into the night.
“Pain is where you grow,” she shouts over one shoulder, eyes flickering with delight. “Bring it on.”

MORE words with Téa Leoni
If you could start over, what would you do MORE of?
Singing. A lot. It kills me that I’m not in a band, playing music all over the world and doing duets onstage with people who would be so much better than me.

What do you appreciate MORE as you age?
How much pain I caused my parents. I’m sorry I scared the bejesus out of you with all my big ideas: To float out the second-story window with an umbrella like Mary Poppins into a pile of leaves below when I was five. To ride my bike off the big rocks into the ocean on a dare when I was eight. To sneak out and see Rocky Horror at midnight when I was 13. To drop out of college. To try chewing tobacco. To be an actor.

I wish I had MORE time for . . .
Travel.

The world can use a little MORE . . .
People who understand that the left lane is for passing only.

What’s MORE terrifying than failure?
Finding out that I waited until I was 100 to try anything

Source: More Magazine 

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