When the secretary of State invites you into bed, it’s hard to say no.
At the end of a long week filming the new CBS drama “Madam Secretary,” Téa Leoni is exhausted. Because there are few comfortable places available on the makeshift Brooklyn soundstage where the show is produced, she suggests sitting for an interview in her character’s plush bed. Before it’s possible for a reporter to object, she’s draped her long limbs across a pile of downy pillows and, with a groan of satisfaction, kicked up her feet.
Though Leoni is still dressed in the silk blouse and crisply tailored pencil skirt belonging to her character, Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA analyst turned college professor and happily married mother of three who is unexpectedly tapped to become the secretary of State, the artifice crumbles just below her ankles: She’s already ditched the power heels for a pair of bright white sneakers.
“Wow, my ... feet,” says the 48-year-old, whose propensity for four-letter words is more Selina Meyer than Condoleezza Rice. “I think if John Kerry really wants to experience the role like Madeleine Albright or Hillary [Rodham Clinton], he should have to wear heels.”
For Leoni, the punishing footwear is merely one of the challenges of returning to series television after a 16-year absence. “Madam Secretary,” which has been given a prestigious Sunday night premiere on Sept. 21 between “60 Minutes” and “The Good Wife,” is not only her first outing as the lead of a network drama, but it also represents a major step back into the public eye for the actress. She has spent much of the last decade raising her two children, now 12 and 15, fundraising on behalf of UNICEF and turning down enough job offers to earn her the nickname “Pass-adena” at her agency. Her last on-screen appearance came three years ago in Brett Ratner’s action-comedy “Tower Heist.”
“Being No. 1 on the call sheet for a one-hour drama is like a marathon I’d never heard about,” Leoni says in her distinctive husky voice. Sizing up her character’s bedroom, a convincingly luxurious simulation of a Georgetown town house, she continues: “I pretty much live here. So, the more comfortable it is, the better. I was going to talk to CBS: ‘You know what? Can I just sleep here? I like this bed. Could we just get a working toilet?’”
Kidding aside, Leoni hardly seems the type to cower at a bit of hard work. As a teenager, she chose to transfer to the Putney School, an unconventional Vermont boarding school where manual labor was built into the curriculum. She fondly recalls waking at 4:30 a.m. to milk cows in the dead of winter and the mice that bounced off her bunk bed at night.
Costar Tim Daly, who plays Elizabeth’s hunky religion professor husband — he quotes Thomas Aquinas in bed — also happens to be a graduate of the tiny academy. “If someone survives that school,” he says, “you sort of know that they are as comfortable sleeping in a wet sleeping bag on a stone floor in 40 degrees in drizzly rain as they are at the Ritz-Carlton hotel.”
A similar spirit of adventure drove Leoni to drop out of Sarah Lawrence College and, after some globe-trotting, audition for a part in “Angels ’88,” a “Charlie’s Angels” reboot from mega-producer Aaron Spelling. It was never picked up, but other roles followed.
By the late ‘90s, following a critically praised turn in David O. Russell’s antic road-trip comedy “Flirting With Disaster” and a lead in the sitcom “The Naked Truth,” Leoni was proclaimed the Next Big Thing, a sexy throwback to screwball heroines like Carole Lombard and Katharine Hepburn. (Or even “Lucille Ball meets Sharon Stone,” as ABC’s then-President Ted Harbert once boasted.)
Instead, “The Naked Truth” was canceled after three tortuous seasons, while roles in popcorn fare like “Deep Impact” and “Jurassic Park III” did little to capitalize on her saucy charm. By the early aughts, Leoni’s pace had slowed to a single movie every year or so as she focused on rearing her children with then-husband David Duchovny.
The actress resists the suggestion that she somehow failed to live up to the early hype. “People will say, ‘It’s too bad you didn’t have sort of a bigger career.’ And I think, ‘My God, I’ve loved my career.’ It’s been plenty. I didn’t get knocked up in the back of a pickup when I was 18.”
What Leoni won’t contest is her reputation for being highly selective. “Even in the early days, I never worked back to back, because I wanted to fish or sail or travel or just take care of the house and the dogs.”
Although playing a government official privy to the country’s most closely guarded security secrets may not seem an obvious role for such a deft comedian, Leoni’s wit brings some levity — and maybe even some realism — to the world of “Madam Secretary,” says executive producer Lori McCreary. “When you meet people in the State Department, they have this gallows humor going on because they’re dealing with life and death situations every day.”
As creator and show runner Barbara Hall notes, Leoni also “brings her own political pedigree” to the role. Her grandmother Helenka Pantaleoni helped found UNICEF and served as president of UNICEF’s U.S. Fund for several decades. “She was a very strong woman doing things her own way in a world that was predominantly male,” says Leoni, who has carried on her family’s legacy and now sits on the organization’s board of directors.
The idea for “Madam Secretary” originated in a meeting between McCreary and producing partner Morgan Freeman, who were eager to branch out into television, and CBS Chairman Nina Tassler, who suggested building a show around a compellingcharacter — ideally female.
A short time later, McCreary found her inspiration watching then-Secretary of State Clinton testify before Congress regarding the deadly 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. (“It was, honestly, the moment when she raised her fist,” recalls the producer.)
With the vague idea of building a series around a female secretary of State, McCreary and Freeman enlisted Hall, creator of “Joan of Arcadia” and an executive producer on “Homeland,” to bring the concept to life.
Clinton may have provided the creative spark for “Madam Secretary,” but viewers should be aware that Elizabeth is no Hillary knock-off. Hall decided early on that to be relatable, the show’s protagonist could not be a career politician and she needed to have an active and functional home life. The latter trait, in particular, sets Leoni’s character apart from the women at the center of the many political shows inundating the small screen, including “Scandal,” “House of Cards,” “Veep” and the coming “State of Affairs.”
It was Tassler who proposed casting Leoni, despite her renowned choosiness. The actress and native Manhattanite quickly signed on, with just one condition: She would do the series only if it were filmed in New York City.
The return to work has been grueling, says Leoni, who’s been so busy that she forgot her parents’ wedding anniversary (she got Freeman to leave them an apologetic voice mail) and has had no time for indulgences like pedicures (“My toenails look like bear claws.”) At one point, she turned to ex-husband Duchovny, with whom she remains friendly, for advice gleaned from his years on “The X-Files” and “Californication.”
But mostly she has found the experience rewarding — and it shows. On set, Leoni yuks it up between takes, burping loudly and launching a failed crusade against a particularly annoying fly with a swatter a crew member has thoughtfully placed on top of the camera. (“Ever had one of these on the back of a bare thigh?” Leoni asks no one in particular.)
By the time Leoni’s done for the day, it’s already rush hour on a late summer Friday, and she is eager to get on the road to an escape deep in the Catskills for a fly-fishing weekend.
“I’m going to be on that river at 5:45 in the morning. I’m so excited.” She won’t make it upstate until well after dark, but that’s OK. “I have my bear mace.”