Getting the Right Exposure : Tea Leoni Falls Face First Into Sitcom Success on ‘Naked Truth’
In short skirts and sleeveless tops, her legs and arms whirling and splaying more like a lopsided spider than the fashion model she resembles standing still, the star of ABC’s new sitcom “The Naked Truth” fearlessly dives headlong each week into some of the most bruising physical comedy since Lucille Ball.
In real life, Tea Leoni (pronounced Tay-uh and named for a Tahitian friend of her parents at the University of Virginia Law School back in the 1960s) scoffs at any such comparisons--as perhaps befits someone who still throws up before every taping.
If critics like her, the raspy-voiced actress says, it’s probably because she isn’t doing another “Friends” or “Seinfeld” like so many of the other new shows this season.
“Nora lands on her face a lot,” Leoni, 29, says of her character, a broke, freshly divorced high-society trophy wife who is forced to take a job as a photographer for a supermarket tabloid to pay the rent on her apartment.
“She pretends to be a little bit more wise than she is, but it’s so thin and easy to see through that she always gets caught having to admit it in the end. I think that’s more enjoyable than watching characters who don’t do anything--who don’t take any chances, like the heroes in so many other sitcoms. They don’t talk about much except, ‘Should we buy the couch?’ or ‘How do you like my hair?’ It’s just not very risky, and to get a certain amount of critical praise, people want to see you taking chances. The safer you are, the less admirable it is.”
Chris Thompson, the creator and executive producer of “The Naked Truth,” said that when he sat down to talk series ideas with Leoni--who previously played the flamboyant girlfriend of Corey Parker in the failed 1992 Fox sitcom “Flying Blind"--they deliberately avoided the current sitcom vogue. Instead, they thought about the TV heroines they both admired, Lucy and Mary Tyler Moore, and Thompson decided to make Nora a woman with a classy, elegant facade who continually is thrust into situations where those qualities do her absolutely no good.
So one week she is chasing the frozen sperm of Elvis in a cryogenics lab, only to get her tongue stuck on the frozen tube; the next she’s climbing into one of those coffin-shaped, refrigerated drawers at the morgue, bare legs kicking and squirming, to snap a picture of a just-expired celebrity.
“Neither of us wanted to see her in a stock situation--a family situation or a roommate deal,” Thompson said. “I’m fed up with the twentysomething, navel-examining comedies. ‘Seinfeld’ brought forth all these adult banter comedies that have short bursts of dialogue examining a toothbrush. But I like to see things happen to people. To make things difficult. And this kind of broad physical comedy is tough to do--much tougher than people think.”
Leoni can certainly attest to that every Saturday morning, bruised and battered from rehearsing her myriad pratfalls all week. But the physical toll is really nothing compared to the emotional battery she puts herself through before each show.
Before the taping of the pilot episode, she “kissed the porcelain God,” as she puts it, five times. Now, about 12 weeks into production, throwing up just once before curtain seems to suffice.
“What’s very funny is Friday afternoon, when you’re sitting in the makeup chair and you see yourself ahead in the mirror and you think, ‘Why would anybody voluntarily put themselves into these shoes?’ ” Leoni said. “Because I’m so nervous and clenched, and I think, ‘My God, what am I doing here? This is not what I imagined.’ I thought it was going to get safer, and in fact the further along that it goes, I feel less and less secure because alongside the success is a feeling that the pressure is more and more paramount to your situation.”
She didn’t feel that with “Flying Blind” because it wasn’t her show and it had a tough time slot. But “The Naked Truth” is berthed on Wednesdays behind ABC’s hit “Grace Under Fire,” where it’s been getting good enough ratings to merit a full-season pickup. And it is shot before a studio audience.
“On film, you can stick a camera up my nostril and I won’t quiver, but there’s something about taping this in front of a live audience that gets me just all entangled in nerves,” she explained. “I don’t know if I’m hallucinating some image of people throwing tomatoes and cabbage at me down here on stage or what. I spent a healthy tax return at the psychiatrist’s office this summer trying to figure it out because, trust me, I’m not a great fan of throwing up. It burns.”
Though her grandmother was an actress in New York, Leoni first studied anthropology at Sarah Lawrence before dropping out to crew on a sailboat and travel to Japan and Italy. When she returned, she modeled for sports equipment ads and then moved to L.A. and won a role in a remake of “Charlie’s Angels” that never aired. She’s also played small parts in several movies, including “Wyatt Earp” and “Bad Boys,” and she will appear opposite Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette in “Flirting With Disaster,” due out early next year.
She married about the time that “Flying Blind” was taking flight but has since divorced.
All gawky arms and legs, Leoni--sitting down at the end of a long day of rehearsal with a couple of cigarettes and a soft drink, sans makeup, her blonde hair more like straw in a barn than the coif of one of TV’s most beautiful actresses--chuckles hard at the idea that anyone could ever see her as glamorous. She can’t even dress herself without the help of her costume designer, she says, and she longs for her school days when she only had to put on a prescribed uniform every morning.
“I was the tomboy growing up, with the broken knee,” she said. “I was hailed for my athletic prowess and perhaps my academic verve, but I was never the class T&A.; No way.”
Leoni also has been drawing attention of late for her relationship with Thompson. They fell in love and moved in together earlier this year, and the print and TV tabloids have gleefully reported the story of the producer leaving behind his wife and children for the divorced sitcom beauty.
As perhaps befits someone who herself plays a tabloid employee, Leone is uncommonly understanding of their interest.
“I’ve put myself up for this, to be a target of the tabloids, and so I think I have to have a sense of humor when they take a pop at me,” she said. “It hurts, though, when it’s someone else’s family or my family, because they didn’t sign up for this.
“But I don’t blame the tabloids. People out there are starving for information. Now unfortunately, the tabloids are certainly the easiest kind of information and people tend to take the easy way out. If they are only reading the tabloids and taking that as reality and throwing away everything else that they really should care about, then I’m disappointed. But that’s their choice and you can’t blame the tabloids for that. It’s entertainment. There is a humanizing of celebrities in the tabloids--that ‘they are just as fat, ugly and stupid as we all are’ kind of thing. And, obviously, that’s true.”
* “The Naked Truth” airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC (Channels 7, 3 and 42).