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Elle Magazine -- May 1998 When she was a little girl-before she dropped the first syllable of her last name and took her middle name for her first, before she became Mrs. David Duchovny-Téa Leoni used to play a game with her dad. It was called Artification. "I'd make up a word and drop it in a sentence and see if he could guess what it meant. Like awpathetic," she explains. "When you are so in awe of somebody it's pathetic." Her equally inventive husband flirts with this game too, during their cozy evening scrabble sessions. "He tried to get away with one the other night," Téa confides. The offending word: Uturd." The first time I meet her she is sitting in a plastic lawn chair on the patio of a Japanese-style house in Venice, California, during an El Nino drizzle. Inside, people are preparing for a fashion shoot. Outside, the reluctant model is puffing on a Camel Light, waiting for her toenails to dry. With her almost-natural brown hair in metal clips and her ten little piggies sea-parted with paper towels, Téa Leoni inspires me in the ways of neologism. She is I artificate, a "biglamess." big glamorous mess. "I'm running on fumes," the thirty-two-year-old Pisces says, "When I've had a few hours of sleep, I'm really delightful."
Not that she's had a chance lately. She spends weekends playing newlywed games with her husband in Vancouver, where he films The X-Files, or at their Malibu home. The other five days, she's filming the final episodes of her NBC series, The Naked Truth, a sitcom about a tabloid photographer created especially to showcase her coltish beauty and klutzy comedic chops. It's been on two networks in three years, a testament to the next-big-thing industry buzz surrounding her. "Women can laugh with her and men can lust after her," the pundits gushed. "She's the new Lucille Ball." But for various reasons-both political and artistic-The Naked Truth never outstripped those expectations.
Now it's over. She's certain the show will be canceled. "It's been frustrating and soul-depleting," she says forthrightly. "I'm finished with television. I don't mean to sound bitter. I thought we had something, and I have to take responsibility too. I have issues with being good enough. I would always go home at night and wander what might have happened if I'd been a little bit better."
Not that it matters. This month her film career revs into high gear with Deep Impact, the disaster-movie-with-a-heart in which Leoni squares off with heavyweights Vanessa Redgrave and Morgan Freeman. After a bit part in A League of Their Own and a seduction scene with Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp, Téa supplied a antic edge to the damsel -in-distress rolein the 1995 action-buddy film Bad Boys. The following year she led Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette on a wild goose chase in a sexy, neurotic scene-stealing performance in David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster.
In Deep Impact, Leoni plays Jennie Lerner, an ambitious TV anchorwoman who, in an only somewhat unlikely scenario, agrees to cover up a story of presidential hanky-panky in exchange for an exclusive on a comet that is on a deadly collision course with Earth. Director Mimi Leder cast Leoni without an audition.
"She was amazing in Flirting With Disaster," Leder explains. "There is an old saying, 'If you can do comedy, you can do anything,' which isn't always the case. With Téa, it was. She's the sweetest, most genuine person, but she's no bullshit. Her scenes with Vanessa Redgrave were electric."
Tonight, she has a subtler acting challenge: pretending she enjoys modeling. Being one of those enviable creatures on whom couture drapes as if it's on a showroom mannequin, Téa, naturally cares naught about fashion. She favors the chic, Yankee, man style pioneered by Katherine Hepburn: black suede loafers (with the backs squished down), wide-leg pants, oxford-cloth shirts with the cuffs turned back, pears, her dad's Rolex (its face dyed a whimsical pink), a thick gold wedding band (the same as David's), and a Tse cashmere cardigan with the ends crisscrossed and tucked into her trousers. At home, she has a framed clipping of herself in this signature style. "It was captioned 'Fashion Victim of the Week,'" she says laughing.
She examines the rack of clothing assembled for this shoot. "Think fabric," she tells the stylist. "I have very aggressive nipples. If it covers my nipples, I'll wear it." Back in the dressing room she declines nail polish. "I've got gnarly hands. You paint them and I just look like a cross-dresser." Kali and Ulli, her Viennese hair and makeup people of choice, attend to her. "I heard this great joke," Téa says. "Why didn't Hitler drink tequila?" She pouts and lowers her honey-and-battery-acid voice to a deadpan. "He said it made him mean."
All long legs, beautiful skin, blazing blue-green eyes, and perfect cheekbones, she strikes a pose. Her profile suggests both the chiseled features of an East Coast debutante and the smouldering sensuality of '40's star Gene Tierney. While her screen idols include comediennes Carole Lombard, Roslind Russell, Lucille Ball, Bernadette Peters, and Madeline Kahn, she is most reminiscent of men's women like Hepburn and Bacall. It's this devil-may-care quality that has enchanted the Hollywood power brokers. In many ways, Téa Leoni is one of the boys. A self described "motorhead" she drives a BMW 540i. She has a mutt named George, plays a mean game of golf, enjoys single-malt Scotch, smokes like a chimney and swears like a stevedore. She lets out a hearty burp. She does that all the time too. "I think my grandfather did, so maybe it's an inherited condition. I'd like to blame that more than I would admit that I am just absolutely classless." Her theatricality comes from her grandmother, Helenka Adamowski, a Broadway and silent-film star. Her great-uncle Hank Patterson played Mr. Ziffel, the father of Arnold the pig, on Green Acres. "Hollywood was in my blood," she says sighing, "There were no options."
Nevertheless, she explored a whole passel of them. Born to professionals-her father Anthony, is a corporate attorney; mother, Emily, a nutritionist-she was raised in comfort in Manhattan and suburban New Jersey. She was a tomboy who never seriously considered the actor's life. "You play around with the idea because the spotlight gets turned on you and the grown-ups stop talking." she says sarcastically. "Which is a very realistic interpretation of the art."
Her first performance was at four. Her older brother Tom taught her the days of the week in French, and then she went into her parents room and recited them. And then he schooled her in the finest filth a seven-year-old boy can muster and had her go and reel it off. "Two very different responses came from my parents," she recalls, "In that evening I learned the difference between comedy and tragedy."
She went to the prestigious Upper East Side Brearly School, then on to Putney, which she loved. "It was a progressive school with all these teachers walking around barefoot who anted you to call them by their first names." At Sarah Lawrence she studied anthropology and psychology. It hasn't been of much use until now.
"If you were Margaret Mead," I ask her, "how would you describe Hollywood as a social entity?"
"I would say that this is a tribe we should not assist," she replies. "We should let them live their life interrupted and unobstructed by our presence and let them burn themselves out."
"And if you were writing a psychological profile?"
"I think that the four or five people who are not in therapy in L.A. should definitely go there. I go once a week, and it's more important than a new couch or a personal trainer...it's more important than even a facial."
One day during her freshman year, Téa woke up in a panic: she decided that just being a student wasn't what she wanted to do. So she dropped out, traveling to Saint Croix, Italy, and Tokyo. She learned to windsurf. Eventually she landed in Boston, where she modeled for Puma and Reebok. On a dare, she auditioned at a local mall for Aaron Spelling's Charlie's Angels '88. (Her favorite Angel: Kate Jackson.)
She moved to L.A. after landing the pilot, which was never filmed. For a while she waited tables and worked in a chrome-plating factory. Then in 1992, she landed a Fox sitcom: Flying Blind lived up to its name, crashing and burning after one short season.
Around that time Téa ended her first marriage. "I thought I had failed. My parents are mad for each other. They are absolutely mad for each other. After getting divorced, I thought I'd never have that, and it broke my heart." Work kept her occupied. In 1995, The Naked Truth debuted on ABC. Plagued by nerves, she tossed her cookies five times while filming the pilot. When Téa began dating the show's creator, Chris Thompson, who was married at the time, she got her first taste of the tabloid treatment. Home wrecker. It left her feeling helpless; the relationship foundered.
The following year, her managers moved the show to NBC. Thompson left; without him the writing grew tamer. For a while, The Naked Truth won good ratings in the comfortable "hammock" slot between Seinfeld and ER. But last year, the show was incorporated into NBC's Must-She-TV lineup, following shows starring Sharon Lawrence, Brooke Shields and Lea Thompson. "Muff Monday." Téa calls it. Thirty something white women all wrestling with the same problems."
If her job was difficult, at least Téa's personal life had an upside: David Duchovny. She had met America's Most Wanted FBI agent six years ago when they both had lunch with a producer for The Tonight Show. Téa talked too much. "Poor David," she recalls, "I think he was made ill by my presence." Last year, their mutual agent reintroduced them. "Boy, do we wish we had a better love story than that," Téa groans.
They courted long-distance during marathon telephone conversations.
"Ooh, such a sexy voice." Téa remembers. Even so, she had first-date freakout. "God, I thought, What happens of he's this wrong-pheromoned brute? But the moment he got in the car, he smelled like home." For Valentine's Day he bought her black French Tulips and chocolate. She's an expert on the latter: "Milk Duds in a box of hot popcorn at the movies is the best thing you can put in your mouth." She reconsiders. "Let me change that...it's delicious."
They were wed in Manhattan last May. He wore a fake mustache to City Hall to get their marriage license. It was an immediate-family-affair. She wore a pink Lily et Cie gown, and they exchanged vows at Grace Church School, David's grade school, where his mom now works. For the media it was the romance of the year-TV's king of enigmatic drama hooking up with the queen of deadpan comedy. They were impossibly beautiful and sexy, perfect for each other.
The tabloids had another angle: Having missed out on the secret ceremony, they hinted the marriage might be rocky. "David was accused of being a sex addict," Téa says. "Which I always found very exciting. And then I found out it wasn't true." Even if it were, who cares? "Men are like bulls, they gotta get the new cow. Maybe you've gotta get the bull after he's had a lot of cows, so you might be the last new one. I think David got a pretty good cow." No bull. No complaints either. "Monogamy is a powerful thing," Téa affirms. "I think the intimacy grants you greater screaming O's." Recently they tried making love in a sauna. "I was shaking and dehydrated afterward. We were ill for about twenty-four hours. How stupid is that?" Téa phones me from her Naked Truth dressing room. As she describes it, aside from the sofa with sheets and a blanket, it doesn't sound particularly homey. There's a Mr. Coffee machine that has never been turned on and a remote control that doesn't go to anything. On her dressing table is a pack of cards, some Garcia y Vega cigarillos, a lemon, a bottle opener, and a wind up monkey. "The moment it's over I just want to be able to pick up my purse and walk out that door." shetells me.
For the time being she has decided that no plans are the best ones. The other night for her birthday, David rented a recording studio and she sang for seven hours. She wants to go hang gliding and get a goat and go windsurfing in Hawaii. She hasn't had a proper honeymoon; maybe she'll go to Paris, where David's father lives, and finally meet him. There'll be more movies, maybe motherhood. All in due time. And if that gets boring, she's got ten years' worth of notes in the third left hand drawer of her desk she's been thinking of doing something with.
They'd make quite a story.
Courtesy of Elle Magazine, transcribed by Nat.
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