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New York Times April 28, 2002


A Habit of Lying Taught Téa Leoni the Truth of Acting
By SEAN MITCHELL

John Clifford/DreamWorks
Woody Allen plays a neurotic (what else?) director and Téa Leoni is his former wife, a studio executive trying to help him make a comeback, in "Hollywood Ending."

LOS ANGELES

EVEN in Hollywood, where mendacity springs eternal, a talent for lying is not something usually found on one's résumé. But Téa Leoni says that lying in one form or another has been responsible for all she has accomplished as an actress and has elevated her now to the enviable position of starring with Woody Allen in his latest comedy, "Hollywood Ending."

"I was one of the most brilliant liars as a child," Ms. Leoni says, remembering a privileged youth spent on Park Avenue in New York that led indirectly to a life in show business. "They were seamless, seamless lies. Not harmful but colorful. And I continued to lie all through high school and really polished that craft. And then a healthy dose of psychotherapy told me why I was doing it but couldn't tell me what to do with this talent."

The why remains private, but the what is now part of the public record, containing Ms. Leoni's memorable performances in the films "Flirting With Disaster," "Family Man," "Bad Boys" and "Deep Impact."

"I'm sure there are actors who might slam me off of their respect chart because they believe in this grand idea that, `No, it's the opposite — it's the truth, by God,' blah, blah, blah. Well, this is my approach, and it works just fine."

Ms. Leoni's saucy, irreverent personality, combined with her piercing blue eyes and athletic build, have made her a siren to be reckoned with — not necessarily a favored type in Hollywood. She remembers when she first went on auditions here ("hundreds of them"), she was told she was "too edgy, too tough, too tomboy, too strong, very New York." And proud of it. Even after 14 years in Los Angeles, she says, "I'm a New Yorker living in L.A."

In "Hollywood Ending," opening on Friday, Ms. Leoni plays a studio executive who, against everyone's better judgment, hires her ex-husband, a famously neurotic and unreliable Oscar-winning auteur (played by Mr. Allen), to direct a big budget gangster picture set in New York. After shooting begins, the director more than lives up to his reputation for dysfunction, and she must choose between protecting him or protecting the studio headed by her profit-hungry fiancée (Treat Williams).

"There are several things that happen to you on your way through this business that are like little notches on your bedpost," Ms. Leoni, 36, says over lunch at a small Italian restaurant in Santa Monica. "One of them was getting into the New York Times crossword puzzle, and another is to be able to say that I've been one of Woody Allen's leading ladies."

She first met Mr. Allen five years ago, while in New York on other business. She was invited to his office to discuss a script whose title she can't recall. What she does remember is that the meeting lasted about three minutes. "I had just enough time to ask him if he had ever made a soundtrack to 'Sleeper,' " she says, referring to Mr. Allen's 1973 futuristic comedy. "Which would appear to have been a kiss-up move, but I promise you it wasn't. The music in 'Sleeper' is brilliant. It's his clarinet." Mr. Allen replied, "'Oh, no, no, no," and she left thinking she'd never see him again.

Years passed, but when the call came from her agent about "Hollywood Ending," Ms. Leoni told him, " `If he's got something for me, say yes.' I didn't care what it was."

Mr. Allen remembered Ms. Leoni's performance in David O. Russell's offbeat 1996 comedy, "Flirting With Disaster," in which she played a wan and alluring adoption agency caseworker traipsing along with Ben Stiller and family in search of his character's birth parents. While it was this role, she says, that has made the most difference to her career, it was a "super-painful character."

"Everybody woke up and said, 'Who's this?' " Mr. Russell recalls. "All her kinetic energy was there to see. But she didn't want to audition for it because it was too similar to what she was going through in her own life then." (She was in the midst of a divorce, as was the character.)

"She was wonderful in that," says Mr. Allen, "and she was perfect for this role, a kind of wise-cracking ex-wife but intelligent enough to be working high up at a studio."

When filming started in New York last year, Ms. Leoni happily discovered that everything she had heard about Mr. Allen being remote and enigmatic with actors was not true. "I had been warned not to take it to heart if he doesn't talk to you, and I went in prepared for that and found it not to be the case at all. I saw someone else."

Treat Williams, who started work on the movie some weeks after Ms. Leoni, did find Mr. Allen a bit mysterious. "I think everybody's first day with Woody, the feeling is, `I'm going to be fired,' " he says. "She kept saying to me, `You're really going to like this, it's going to be fun,' " he says. "If Carole Lombard could come back as anyone, she'd come back as Téa Leoni."

Ms. Leoni, who is expecting her second child next month with her husband, David Duchovny, the "X Files" star, has a bronzed complexion that gives her the appearance of having just come off the slopes at Vail. She has always liked sports and is an avid golfer. Blond now after starting out her career as a brunette, she has a quietly forceful way of speaking, words marching out of her mouth in husky cadences that bring Katharine Hepburn to mind.

The name Téa is a variation of a Tahitian name belonging to a friend of her parents at the University of Virginia, where they met. Her mother is from Texas, her father is a New Yorker of Polish-Italian lineage who practiced law. The family name was Pantaleoni.

Her grandmother on her father's side was a Broadway actress in the 1920's, who quit "because the business was so ugly," Ms. Leoni says. But sensing a flair for the dramatic in her granddaughter, she often called her Sarah Bernhardt. "I didn't know who Sarah Bernhardt was," Ms. Leoni says." "I had to look it up."

She attended the Brearley School on the Upper East Side and says she was "very precocious" in her early teens, sneaking out of her house with a skateboard to catch the midnight "Rocky Horror Picture Show" across the park. "I was, in my mother's own phrase, at 13, `a wretch.' "

She went on to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., where she studied anthropology and psychology for two years but dropped out to "go out and get into the world." After spending time in Europe, Japan and the Virgin Islands, she made her way to Hollywood in the late 80's. She changed her surname after auditioning for the television producer Aaron Spelling, who was reviving his hit series "Charlie's Angels." "I think it was Spelling," Ms. Leoni says, "who said, `I don't see Pantaleoni as a success-starting name.' "

She got the part, but "Angels '88" never made it on the air. Eventually she landed a starring role in the short-lived 1992 sitcom "Flying Blind," and then another one in "The Naked Truth," cast as a television tabloid reporter. But what she calls the "inherent mediocrity" of television did not agree with her: "I went kicking and screaming. I was as ugly as I've ever been to other people — or even to myself in the mirror — by the third year."

Mr. Russell says, "She's made some odd choices." As he recalls it, she took on "The Naked Truth" right after her success in "Flirting With Disaster." "I think she's a total natural, but, like a lot of actors, I don't think she knows what is most exciting about her work."

When Ms. Leoni talks about her work, she sounds ambivalent at best. "Acting is funny," she says. "Acting doesn't feel good. It's not comfortable to feel all this stuff, it's not. It's probably why I started lying in the first place. And you have to feel it all day long. I love when it's over."

The satisfaction, she says, comes from the sense that she pulled it off: "It's knowing that I lived that story. I'm not going to go to a focus group to find out. I know that I've spun a really good tale. And sometimes it really hurts. But once it's wrapped, I don't want to see the film afterward." she says.

Mr. Allen says: "Téa fits into that category of people who are intelligently self-effacing. She's too bright to be boastful. Diane Keaton used to be like that, always thinking she wasn't good enough."

For Ms. Leoni, acting has seemed a bit more enjoyable since the birth of her 3-year-old daughter, Madelaine West Duchovny: "It's more playful, my work, maybe not in the result, but for me doing it. Probably because I'm more grounded. I come home to something more magnificent than any lie I'm telling on the set."
Article courtesy of The New York Times