Actress Téa Leoni, 49, currently plays the U.S. secretary of state in the CBS drama Madam Secretary. Born and raised in New York (where her grandmother was the founder and director of UNICEF), she has spent summers throughout her life at her family’s Bay State home, and her extensive ties to this area include a great-grandfather who played in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the early ’90s, she had her first starring role in a TV series on the Fox sitcom Flying Blind, and she went on to star in the ABC and NBC comedy The Naked Truth. Her film roles have included Deep Impact, Spanglish and Fun With Dick and Jane. Divorced from actor David Duchovny, with whom she has two children, she currently lives in New York.
Téa Leoni: Breathe underwater. Duh.
Hidden talent? I can blow spit bubbles. And I have to just admit that the thing I really wish I could do is taxi whistle. I can’t do it. I can cough up a loogie. I can burp an anthem. But I can’t taxi whistle. I’m so discouraged by what an absolute spaz I am.
Surprising for a native New Yorker. I know! I’m out there with tourists, waving my hands. It’s just awful.
One thing you would tell John Kerry or Hillary Clinton? There are so many things. What a best-kept secret secretary of state is! I wouldn’t want to be president if I had been secretary of state first. That’s the cool job. It would be such a letdown to go from there to the White House. I’ve really come to appreciate the importance of the State Department. This is the real deal. This is the grown-ups’ table.
No. In the beginning, there was so much chitter-chatter about my being Hillary. Most flattering of all, Fox News accused me of trying to get her elected. So then I questioned myself, thinking, “Do I need to dye my hair brown to get out of this? Or should I start donning really fabulous brooches? Play it that way? Or do I go full-on and get a perm, slick it back and go for Kissinger—throw ’em all for a loop?”
It’s funny. She’s been fantastic. I’m actually speaking to her today. She’s the one who introduced me to the very simple concept of how cool this job is. Just laying it out about what you’re up to in this seat. So that’s really the one thing I’ve been toying with in this role—her handle on her ego. Of all the positions in our government, that’s the one where you can say, “I’m gonna grab the scepter and the crown and go parade myself around the planet.” You can exploit an incredible arrogance if you’re not as poised as someone like her. That’s the thing I didn’t know before about all those people—Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright—how in-check they kept themselves throughout, because it’s a tremendous amount of power.
[Laughs.] I just found the on button to my Mac, and right now, I’m sitting here with a phone the size of a dinner plate—thing is just so huge. More often than not, if you email me, you’ll get an auto-response that says, “I’m either fishing or lying. Either way, I’m not getting back to you.” I think all of this technology is a crushing blow to humanity.
Foreign policy initiative you’d pursue if you actually were secretary of state? The draft. I’d bring it back.
Ever modeled any of your characters on your grandmother? Yes. I think this current one is my whole family. I come from a long line of diplomats. Maybe not official ones, but my parents are just Switzerland. I think maybe twice in my entire life I’ve heard my mother gossip, and she was so bad at it. I don’t even know that you could really call it gossip. It was so not juicy, so yesterday. And I think what made my father such a great attorney was that he was always very aware of the other guy’s argument. I think that’s how he won. He knew theirs as well as his own, and it was never personal.
Oh, God … I would have loved to put a little spark under Jimmy Carter. And if it were to be, I think it would be great to make history with Hillary.
So Flying Blind—most underrated TV show ever? [Laughs.] I was at some TV thing, and this guy who had worked for Fox back then sent me all the DVDs. I hadn’t seen it since maybe ’93. I put in the episode with Charlie Rocket, and I just burst into tears, because he killed himself a few years ago. But that show was really fun.
Oh, gee. I haven’t ever stopped laughing. I’d say comedy. Even when it’s been drama, I never lost my sense of humor.
Funniest thing you’ve read about yourself in a tabloid? That my daughter is an alien. That was shocking to me. I think it was because of David’s somewhat intimate affiliation with brothers from another planet on The X-Files. I guess they were meaning to impregnate Gillian Anderson, but somehow I got in the way. Of course, I cut the story out and pasted it in my daughter’s baby album.
You’re not going to believe it, but first and foremost it’s the weather. I love New England weather—hurricanes, feet of snow. I love the history. I love everything about it. There’s no bullshit. The only part that didn’t work for me is that they don’t have any studios up there.
Role you wanted but didn’t get? I can give you a list. Three roles I was up for and didn’t get: Lori Petty’s role in A League of Their Own. I really felt like I was perfect for that, and I ended up playing first base on the other team. You have to push pause to see me in that film. Another one was Nobody’s Fool with Paul Newman. I was very young, and it wouldn’t have worked out. And the other one was Four Weddings and a Funeral. I was sorry about that. But of course, the thing to ask yourself is would I have done better, and I think no. They’re really lucky they didn’t cast me.
Did you have any Madonna moments during A League of Their Own? Oh, yeah. I really got a kick out of her. We hung out quite a bit, and I actually stayed with her in Indiana. We even went up to Chicago for a weekend we had off.
Jurassic Park III I think so. It’s some of my best work, for sure. If you could get your hands on the outtake reel for that movie, it’s hilarious. All that screaming, as soon as they yell, “Cut,” just dissolves into hysterics. I gained 70 pounds when I had my daughter. David said it was like being married to a science experiment. So when I started that movie, I still had about 30 pounds on me, and filming took place over like nine months, during which I lost it. So in one take, I ran into the jungle weighing 150 pounds, and literally eight seconds later I ran out at a crisp 113. I never laughed so hard. Needless to say, they didn’t use that shot.
I wish you would. I tried to get my dad to do it, and he won’t. But there was a time I tried to put my name on the ballot for mayor of Revere. I was living there, and my platform was to be sure planes didn’t take off from Logan before 7 am or after 9 pm.