On a summer morning in Manhattan, Téa Leoni is reveling in her last few days of mom time.
Soon she will start shooting season two of her CBS hit, Madam Secretary. But for now, she admits over tea at an Upper West Side café, “I am just staring at my children all the time.”
That’s 16-year-old daughter West and 13-year-old son Miller (by family tradition, they go by their middle names), her kids with ex-husband David Duchovny. And being teens, they’re not so thrilled with the maternal attention.
“The other day,” Leoni relates, “they said, ‘Mom, it’s creepy.’ I’m like, ‘I just want to watch you watch TV — I’m desperate for this time.’ And they’re like, ‘Seriously, knock it off.’”
You can hardly blame her, considering how little she gets to see them when she’s spending 12 to 18 hours a day on the set while Madam Secretary is in production. With such a demanding schedule, you’d think she really was the U.S. secretary of state, instead of just playing one on TV.
“I actually believe my job and John Kerry’s job are comparable in terms of the hours,” Leoni says. “I’m sure he spends more time on a plane, but I’d kill for a plane ride right about now. I would love for somebody to say, ‘It’s a 13-hour flight, and all you have to do is sit back in a reclining seat with a cell phone that can’t ring.’ Hallelujah!”
Of course, it’s not Secretary Kerry to whom Leoni’s character, Elizabeth McCord, is most often likened. It’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After all, they’re both strong, determined women, unafraid to speak their minds.
“At first I thought the comparisons were funny,” Leoni says. “Now I feel like saying, ‘For God’s sake, I’m not her!’”
Still, playing this part has given her “an appreciation for some of the guff secretaries of state take,” she notes. “That’s a tough role. Your own country is going to weigh in on your actions, and so is the world. In some ways, you’re under more pressure than the president.”
As the lead on an hour-long network drama, Leoni is under considerable pressure herself, but her colleagues marvel at the grace with which she handles it.
“Téa gets the least amount of sleep of anyone on the show and has the most amount of work to do at night in terms of memorizing lines,” raves Lori McCreary, an executive producer of the show along with creator Barbara Hall and Morgan Freeman.
“She’s very smart,” notes Kevin Rahm, a late addition to the cast last season as hard-charging adviser Michael “Mike B” Barrow.
“She’s the best number-one you can have on the call sheet for a show. She sets the tone, and she’s willing to take what you bring to the table and play with it. She’s been around long enough to know that the better you are, the better she is.”
“She’s like the captain of the lacrosse team,” adds Bebe Neuwirth, who costars as McCord’s chief of staff. “She’s looking out for everybody, and she sees and hears everything. She’s got pure gut stamina, strength and kindness, and she’s a cheerleader, all wrapped into one. I have no idea how she does it.”
Sometimes Leoni has no idea, either. “We’re in a physical and emotional Las Vegas,” she says of her shooting days. “We don’t see the sun, we don’t see anybody else and we are huffing on each other’s ideas and air. And it’s a blast.”
Not that it’s always fun trying to balance work and the needs of her kids.
“It was easier when I could fit them into a backpack,” she says, laughing. “Now, around 10:15 at night, I wonder just how much they’re destroying the kitchen. What kind of slick goo am I going to walk into when I get home? But I’m lucky I have two extremely rational, fair, hilarious children who don’t seem to need to inflict a lot of pain on me, as I did to my mom.”
“Téa’s an amazing mom,” McCreary offers. “She’s very committed to making sure she’s at her kids’ events, and we oftentimes adjust the schedule so she can do that. Her role now seems to be perfectly suited to where she is in her life. Her career and this role came together at the perfect time.”
Leoni put her career on the back burner for years to focus on parenting — “She’s notorious for having turned down a lot of projects in the past,” McCreary confirms — and she consulted her children before signing on for Madam Secretary.
“I said, ‘I’m thinking about doing this, but I’d be gone a lot,’” she recalls. “And my son said, ‘Mom, we’re ready. We’re kind of getting sick of you.’ I thought, ‘If he’s got that sense of humor, he’s going to be fine.’”
The producers of Madam Secretary spent the show’s first season trying to achieve a similar balance between stories of McCord’s far-flung foreign adventures and her life on the home front, with husband Henry, a religion professor (Tim Daly), and three children.
“I’ve always been fascinated by what it is to make potentially catastrophic decisions,” Leoni says, “and what happens when you go home afterwards. I’m looking forward to the family stuff becoming the A storylines and letting the political turmoil be the B stories — to show the wear-and-tear of being a public figure and what it does to a family.”
Leoni’s especially fond — and protective — of her on-screen union.
“Before the ink was dry on my deal to do this show,” she recounts, “I said to Barbara [Hall]: ‘I want this to be a solid marriage. If you intend on having him screwing one of his students by episode three because you’re bored, I’m going to have a real problem with that.’ And Barbara was totally on the same page.”
Daly was, too. “I told him, ‘This is the breakout role, because we don’t have a guy like this on TV.’ It takes a very strong actor to play a man who’s comfortable with his wife’s schedule as secretary of state and doesn’t whine about it. He’s not emasculated in any way. I love watching Henry don the apron and make the pancakes, because that’s what it means to be a man.”
The result is a relative TV rarity: a portrait of a happily modern marriage. “Tim was married for 25 years, and I was married for 17,” Leoni relates, “so we both have a pretty good idea of what derails a marriage and what keeps it strong.”
Leoni puts it in TV terms to show how evolved the McCords are, say, in comparison to the Ricardos: “It’s like, ‘Ricky! It’s Lucy’s lifelong dream to be on stage — you can’t give her one night?”...
Read the full story in this month's emmy magazine, on newsstands August 12, or here.