Tea Leoni is more than making up for her frequent absences from the screen of late, first as Adam Sandler’s neurotic wife in James Brooks’ Spanglish, and she is currently filming the remake of Fun with Dick and Jane opposite Jim Carrey. First earning fame as a witty, agile comic actress on TV, smart, leggy beauty Tea Leoni was poised for Hollywood movie stardom by the late ’90s.
Born Elizabeth Tea Pantaleoni and raised in New York City, Leoni graduated from boarding school in Vermont and headed to Sarah Lawrence College to study psychology. After dropping out to travel for several months, Leoni intended to finish college at Harvard. Though she had never planned on acting, Leoni auditioned on a dare for a planned TV remake of Charlie’s Angels and was cast. Though the 1988 writer’s strike killed the series, Leoni opted to stay in Hollywood.
After several years of modelling and TV commercials, Leoni made her film debut as the “Dream Girl” in Blake Edwards’ farce Switch (1991). A small part in A League of Their Own (1992) and starring roles in the short-lived Fox sitcom Flying Blind (1992) and the TV movie The Counterfeit Contessa (1994) brought Leoni more attention. While she co-starred as the obligatory female-witness-in-peril in the blockbuster actioner Bad Boys (1995), Leoni’s gift for acid wit and goofy physical comedy turned her into a TV star that same year in the sitcom The Naked Truth. Despite a network change, The Naked Truth lasted three seasons; Leoni further bolstered her comic reputation with her performance as a high-strung psychology student in David O. Russell’s screwball comedy Flirting With Disaster (1996).
While The Naked Truth mined TV laughs out of tabloids, Leoni’s own personal life became paparazzi fodder when she married X-Files heartthrob David Duchovny in 1997. After taking a turn for the serious as a reporter in the first 1998 asteroid blockbuster Deep Impact, Leoni took a break from acting to have a daughter with Duchovny in 1999. Leoni returned to movies in 2000 with a charming performance as Nicolas Cage’s beloved in the syrupy dramedy The Family Man. Leoni was also seen in Jurassic Park III, and Hollywood Ending, and has wrapped House of D, directed by her husband. With sense of humour intact, Leoni talked Spanglish and orgasms to Paul Fischer.
Question: Could you relate to this character that you played in the movie? She’s such an emotional wreck.
Answer: What are you asking?
Question: Was it hard to get there or did you actually identify in some way?
Answer: I don’t think, there’s no possible way for me, anyway, to play a character that I haven’t found some sort of sublime compassion for and I related to Deborah on a way that almost, initially, almost in a way maybe someone in the audience might. I know as a mother, because I’m a mother of two, that there’s a question you doubt yourself, especially with the first one, by the time the second one comes, whatever. You wonder if you are being loving, are you listening, are appropriate, are you effective, are you the mother that you always dreamed you be, and I think the fun of playing Deborah is that she’s not appropriate and not effective. I actually usually I think, in talking about Deborah like a template, and say that she’s almost, almost loving and almost intelligent and almost effective. But I think that’s the beauty of Jim’s work and his body of work, in that he takes characters who at times can be almost tragic and yet you can relate to them because that discord is so familiar and then when you play Deborah, you just sort of take acid and make it a lot worse. And that’s what I did.
Question: Kids are so good at doing things like the scene, where your daughter says you’ve ruined my life, I hate you. How do you deal with that as a Mum? Have you been in that situation?
Answer: I did have an interesting situation with my daughter about a year and a half ago and she was four, and I think I said no dessert for some reason, I don’t know what it was. Really, it was that benign, and we were in the bathtub, and she said, “I hate you”, and I was like, oh my God. It was like she’d just kicked me in the face and then she asked me what book we were going to read. It was just “I hate you” and are we going to read that book. It was just this interesting, my first, the first time you hear your child in any way criticise you. It’s the worst review of your life and it’s really relieving to find out that they don’t know what they’re saying.
Question: Following up on that, do you still have those lingering doubts when they question your …
Answer: About motherhood? Sure. I think, I’m hoping that’s what might keep me being good because I don’t walk with an extreme confidence in that role. I’m always I think aware that I have to take their cues, I have to listen and they’re the ones I guess who will let me know how I’m doing.
Question: What about Spanish? Did you understand? How do you feel about that?
Answer: Well it’s funny. I started taking burlesque a couple of years ago because, actually probably before Spanglish even was a thought because I very much recognised that I live in a place that is a Hispanic community, 48% I think at this point and I felt like I was missing it. I was hating LA to be truthful. I was desperate to go back to New York and when 9/11 happened, I feared moving to the bulls-eye and that was very hard because I have a lot of family there and I really had to question what I didn’t like about this community. This is going to be a really long answer I guess for this question and I think I recognised that I was not actually living in Los Angeles. I wasn’t communicating with what LA is and I actually see LA, this is what LA is. LA is a Hispanic culture. If you don’t get into that, you miss it and there’s nothing else but pretty much poorly-designed buildings that are probably going to come down anyway. I can’t stand the weather and traffic’s hell so I started to take burlesque and I started to get into it and asked people around me if they spoke Spanish, to teach me or help me with it but with Paz because it was only Spanish and she didn’t have the Spanglish thing down yet, so I spoke Italian. She spoke Spanish and we did better that way. And as soon as I get a break, I want to go back to my burlesque, just to start there.
Question: Have you learned a lot of City of Angels or do you still hate it?
Answer: No, I actually have. I think, honestly, embracing this total aspect of this city. I’m really beginning to enjoy it here.
Question: Are you bi-coastal?
Answer: Yes, I guess I am bi-coastal. I like that.
Question: I don’t know how you can go on about the traffic here.
Answer: Yeah, but I don’t get into a cab in New York. The subway, you can walk. You don’t have that option. If I run out of toilet paper, without a car, it’s like four days until I can get … it’s so.
Question: I’m just curious. Do you have a housekeeper?
Question: Is she Hispanic?
Question: Is she as beautiful as Paz?
Answer: In her own way, she very much is.
Question: But you must have brought some of that to this?
Answer: Yeah, it’s very interesting because when I would speak to Chechez, we call her Chechez, well, Cello, but my kids can’t say that so it’s Chechez, anyway, and I would ask Chechez about it and say the movie’s about this and I play this horrible woman who she works for and I look at her, like it’s this really different thing and I don’t really know what that would be like, right? There was a little bit of, I wonder what our relationship is.
Question: I’m just wondering if you suddenly were coming home and being extra specially nice.
Answer: I wondered if I was doing that too. I did, because I thought I had this paranoia. Plus Chechez knew what the story was, but I have a different level of let’s say being awake than Deborah does.
Question: What surprised you most about working with Adam Sandler? And did you have any preconceptions about working with him before you started this?
Answer: No I didn’t really have preconceptions. I would say that the reference to Punch Drunk Love. I was extremely impressed with him in that film. I thought he showed certainly a different side of his, the depth of his work. I wasn’t surprised working with him. He is as delightful and boyishly charming as you might imagine but I was also greatly impressed, he is a classically-trained actor. He was in NYU Film School, he was very committed to that, he is classically trained. And when we did get into some of these more severe and troubled scenes, I was extremely impressed with how he approached the work.
Question: Talking about severe scenes, the sex scene, I dread them in most movies because they’re so fake, and then everyone sits around afterwards, there’s a hundred take missions, it’s not fun, we all know that. Was that scripted exactly that way. That was a pretty wild scene.
Answer: Yeah, no-one’s going to be saying, I’ll have what she’s having.
Question: You never know, you never know.
Answer: That’s the ugliest orgasm I’ve ever seen, on or off film.
Question: It’s very funny too.
Answer: Well, good, good. What was scripted about it was that Jim said I want the pay off to be the smallest orgasm, that moment of orgasm I want it to be worth nothing, and leading up to it, go get ’em. My only thing that I really brought to it that I felt very adamant about was that my shoes stay on.
Answer: There was something, certainly the comedic aspect of that, I said there is something about not getting her shoes off and I was very into it. I wanted to be able to rip his pants off with the bottoms of these shoes and I know I can make this work, and Jesus, Jim is very, he’s so intense and he wanted me to practice getting Adam’s pants down with the bottoms of these running shoes and I said, it’s fine, I know I can do it. I rehearsed in my loafers and it didn’t work once, and I said, no, no, when I get those running shoes, I know it will work. But there was also that I said to Jim, because the running shoes, it’s going to hurt the hair on his legs, it’s awful. Can you imagine riding somebody with running shoes, scraping the sides of their legs, and then I didn’t bother to get them off and there’s no comfort and there’s no possibility that we’re going to sleep afterwards or that we’re going to cuddle. I don’t know, I was really adamant about those damn shoes being on, and Jim allowed me that. But beyond that.
Question: How many takes did that take you then?
Answer: Well, getting into the bed was really fun and not as many takes because it was really, I really knew what I wanted from the choreography of that, how I wanted to slam him onto the bed and ride him.
Question: You’re like the dominant male and he’s like the cringing female type left unsatisfied. You keep the boots on.
Answer: Right exactly. We did a lot of orgasm takes which is exhausting and what is in the film is actually, I always expected a cut at some point when I was doing that.
Question: It must be tough for an actor to do something like an orgasm and to practice and rehearse.
Answer: Honestly, yes, it is difficult.
Question: Because it’s a lot of internalising and a lot of
Answer: It’s very scary. You also, you have to leave yourself behind, it’s something that you might not have expected way back when you were studying theatre that you
Question: Were you doing orgasm scenes when you were doing?
Answer: It is unnerving and I think you just have to, this is your job, is to be able to, it’s your job period. It’s your job, it’s my job. I mean really I had to go in there with this, this is my job today, I am going to ride this guy,
Question: And I’m going to have an orgasm.
Answer: And I’m going to have an orgasm. But also it’s not just having an orgasm because may I just say, my orgasms, and you can ask David, look nothing like that. Really, so there was something about really divorcing myself from my own sexuality. I don’t know. I just mean that there was really something, that ultimately in an orgasm, what comes out is a really primal indication of who you are, and I really wanted this to be certainly in the right tone of the film.
Question: And defining her.
Answer: Yes, and I think she’s, it’s frightening and it’s very sad what happens on top of that. Anyway, that’s enough about that. Let’s move onto
Question: How close to the exercise fitness fan are you to Deborah?
Answer: I have always loathed working out. If you can’t make a sport out of it, I don’t want to be there. I’ve been in a gym probably nine days of my life. I can’t stand that whole thing. I don’t even get it. You’re running, and you don’t go anywhere and there’s like a wall and this TV, I can’t do that.
Question: You don’t go jogging in your neighbourhood?
Answer: Well what I will tell you is for this movie, I got into probably the best shape of my life. I worked out really hard to do this and I felt that this was really important and I knew that comedically it would pay off. There’s, I wanted the running. It would not work for me if I didn’t look as angry and desperate and driven as Deborah. You couldn’t see sinewy muscle on me, I wouldn’t buy it. That was very important to me. I can’t stand that in a movie when it’s a movie about an Olympic athlete and you, please.
Question: What about the yoga stuff?
Answer: That yoga pose I worked very hard to find what would be a bizarre pose that’s potentially, maybe looks more difficult than it is but what I liked about it, that pose, as much about strength, it’s a lot about balance and I thought perfect, because this is the most unbalanced women I’ve ever met so I wanted to try and make her teeter slightly in this pose. The way that Jim shoots, we do several takes, more than several, and it can go on all day and I knew I would have to hold that thing for 2-3 days so I really, I was really hot back then, I was really in shape.
Question: How selective are you in choosing the roles you do because
Question: Selective. We don’t see as much of you as I’d like to.
Answer: Thank you.
Question: Is it motherhood that kind of precludes you from doing certain things, are you more interested in being home with your family than working as much as you might have done?
Answer: Yes, I think motherhood has almost everything to do with it, but when I was pregnant with my daughter, I thought I’ll never work again. I was so literally filled with this joy and I thought there’s no reason, I’ll never leave home. I can’t even imagine a cocktail party, whatever, I want to be right with this bundle of love. And after she was born, she was about six months old, and I could feel I had poured so much into her and I could feel that I was getting sort of depleted, that I was being less for her. Really it was the first time in my life that I recognised that acting is, I’m just going to say it, I am an artist, I have to do this, I have to do this. It fills me up, it makes me a more spectacular person to be with and a mother. It’s ironic but it’s the darn truth. Why I don’t do as much is certainly because I need to have time with the kids and how selective I am about my work, I like that there’s a variety of work I think I have to be, Spanglish was very difficult at times because it is a very difficult character and that was hard sometimes to have my kids on set. There were plenty of days where I did not want them to be around me.
Question: Are you doing anything at the moment?
Answer: Yeah, I’m doing, right now I’m doing something that the kids can come every day. It’s a remake of Fun with Dick and Jane with Jim Carey.
Question: How’s that going?
Answer: It’s going great.
Question: And how close to the Jane Fonda version is this?
Answer: You know, I watched the first ten minutes and then I had to turn it off because I’m not immune that I might ape her or question myself that I wasn’t. I don’t know why, but not necessarily because she would be brilliant or not. It was just, I couldn’t …
Question: So Sandler and then Carrey.
Answer: Yes, I’m methodically nailing them all.