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Leoni Online: The Articles — Biography Magazine

Tèa Leoni: Tough Enough to Take on a T-Rex
By John GriffithsTèa Leoni is changing her ways. Despite an impressive pedigree–including an intellectual upbringing in one of New York City’s finer neighborhoods, posh private schools mixed with sojourns to St. Croix, and chiseled features that conjure images of white linen dinners–the actress hasn’t always exactly qualified as Miss Manners material. For starters, anyone who knows the 35-year-old Leoni or has even hung out with her for a few minutes appreciates her propensity for–shall we say–colorful language. But now that her daughter Madelaine West, at 2, is old enough to mimic mommy, the new Tèa swears she’s cut back on swearing.

The impetus? “I spilled some coffee while I was driving the other day, and I said, uh, well, you know” Tèa confides, checking to make sure little West (her nickname) is asleep before she finishes her story. (Leoni and her daughter are temporarily living in a New York City hotel suite while the actress films an untitled Woody Allen project. Husband David Duchovny–star of The X-Files–is back in Los Angeles.) Okay–coast clear. “And then my daughter said ‘shit’ and kept saying it,” she continues. “I thought, ‘Now that’s gonna be stunning conversation in her little playgroup.’ So I’m curbing it–but it’s tough! Dirty words are so to-the-point!”

It’s also fairly common knowledge that she also likes to chow down on steaks, swig scotch, and burp a lot. (She’s working on stifling that, too.) “Tèa’s a well-bred smart-ass,” kids actress Holland Taylor (The Practice), a pal since they both starred in the 1994 TV movie The Counterfeit Contessa and later the TV series The Naked Truth. “With her, it’s total banana peel time. She’ll really do anything to make you laugh–she has a way of disarming people who might be distracted by her beauty.”

Indeed, few actresses today boast her edgy mix of macho bravado and sexiness: think Katharine Hepburn, whom she counts among her idols. “Hepburn was always unkempt and unladylike,” she marvels. “She never conformed.” Tèa’s similar rebellious streak off-screen has gotten her reprimanded in Hollywood on occasion. She seems to take pride in thumbing her nose at the showbiz status quo. “I am not addicted to, attracted to, or neurotically pursuing stardom,” she once asserted. She’s claimed over and over to “not care” what people in the industry think, and has even threatened to dump it all if the fame game gets too silly to play. But there’s a new Tèa in this department too. “Hollywood means work and getting yourself out there, and for a while I pooh-poohed that idea,” (of increasing her profile), she admits. “My ego still doesn’t get stroked by fame. But I’ve been guided by people who have told me if you aren’t out there, then studios and producers are less likely to pull you in to the projects you might want to do.”

After taking a two-year break to give birth and nurture her daughter, she marked her return to acting by snaring the lead opposite Nicolas Cage in last Christmas’ Family Man, and leapt into Jurassic Park III which opens next month. She plays Amanda Kirby, a recent divorcée whose child is missing and who is ready to kick butt to get her back. “That’s all I knew of the role, and I took it,” she says. “But that’s just me”

Elizabeth Tèa Pantleoni was born on February 25, 1966, and credits her seize-the-day approach to life to her parents. While it’s true that Anthony, a corporate lawyer, and Emily, a nutritionist, raised Téa and her brother Tom (now an antiques dealer) on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side and sent her to the area’s exclusive all-girls Brearley School, her life wasn’t all upper crust. She also attended The Putney School, a progressive boarding school in Vermont where “everyone was barefoot and we’d go skinny dipping in the pond in the middle of the campus. We’d milk cows and shovel manure.” After graduating from Putney in 1984, she was intent on studying anthropology and psychology at Sarah Lawrence College, but–with mom and dad’s approval–dropped out after her freshman year to travel through Italy and Japan. She even crewed on a sailboat in the Caribbean. “David tells me I’m one of the most daring women he knows,” relays Tèa. “He said, ‘It’s not that you’re not cautious, it’s just that you really have done so many things and you don’t seem scared.'” She doesn’t disagree. “That’s not to say that fear is absent in my life, but I think my parents gave me the confidence to go outside and travel and be a lunatic for a few years. They weren’t hippie eccentric; just supportive. I guess that gave me a secure ground to jump from.”

Eventually she landed in Boston, where on a friend’s dare she entered a local casting call for a new TV series, Angels ’88 (a campy take on Charlie’s Angels). Without a single acting class, Tèa snared one of the leads and found herself in a hurry to come up with a stage name. “My dad thought if I was ‘going public,’ there was no need to drag the family into it,” she says. “We’re pretty private, and I respected that.” A couple bottles of wine over dinner with the family yielded a few clunkers (“My brother suggested Pea Tanta,” she chortles. “NOOOOO!”), and the next morning, “feeling grim,” she opted for a mere tweak of her name. “I’m not particularly happy with it,” she says. “It sounds made-up to me.”

Tèa headed to L.A., preceded in spirit by her Grandmother Helenka, a Broadway and silent film star (who later helped found UNICEF), and great-uncle Hank Patterson, better known as Mr. Ziffel–Arnold the Pig’s “pop”–on Green Acres. “How could I not follow in his footsteps?” she quips sweetly. But Angels never got off the ground, and all she could muster was a bit part in the soap Santa Barbara. So Téa turned to, of all things, a stint lining up metals for dipping at a chrome-plating factory. “It was a great job for an actor,” she insists. “I couldn’t wait tables. People are demonic when they eat and I couldn’t stand the actor-waiter cliché.”

Soon enough, though, she was a working actress. After small parts in movies like Switch and A League of Their Own, in 1992 she nabbed a starring role as a globe-trotting vixen who romances a mild-mannered guy in the short-lived sitcom Flying Blind. “Tèa would drive on the lot in this white Cadillac with these big bull horns on the hood,” recalls co-star Corey Parker. “She’d just wear sweat pants and a shirt and hang out with the guys.” Camera on, it was a different story: “She’d take a sexy, languid breath and create a whole character with it. She wasn’t sure if she was comfortable playing that, but she turned it around and made it work like no one else could.”

Critics loved her too, hailing her as a genuine comic find. From there, it was a landslide: She smooched Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp, played the kidnapped girl in 1995’s Bad Boys, and inspired ABC execs that year to fashion a show just for her. The sitcom, initially titled Wilde Again, in which Tèa played sultry tabloid journalist Nora Wilde, arrived with fanfare befitting the second coming of Lucille Ball. Tèa’s aspirations were high, too. “I want to make people laugh so hard that they never get cancer,” she told TV Guide at the time.

But quickly, problems arose. All the pressure “was an incredible burden,” says Taylor, who played Tèa’s boss on the show. “She had a lot of cases of nervous stomach before tapings.” Things got worse. Though the ratings were good enough, ABC was hesitant to commit to a full season, so the show’s producers took it to NBC, which softened the format and thrust the fledgling show into its sacred Thursday night lineup as The Naked Truth. It didn’t quite hold up to Seinfeld and Friends. Finally, in 1998, after three seasons, the series was canceled.

Though the failure was cushioned by her tart turn in that year’s offbeat sleeper Flirting with Disaster and a starring role in the doomsday hit Deep Impact, the series’ failure left Tèa shaken and aggravated. “We had a lot of fun [on the series], but it became dysfunctional and it really wore on me and everyone around me,” she says. “I existed as someone I didn’t like; I wasn’t very clear in my requests, and I didn’t have solutions. I just had complaints. I’m sorry for that.”

Yet even in the thick of things in 1997, Téa’s light was bright enough to warm the heart of Duchovny, 39, after the two were set up on a date by their mutual agent (they had actually met in 1992 over a business lunch). With two fizzled relationships behind her–her marriage to commercial director Neil Tardio ended in 1995 after three years (“He’s a lovely fellow, but we were both too young”), and a live-in romance with Naked Truth creator Chris Thompson perhaps inevitably soured–Tèa wondered if she would ever find true love. But in Duchovny, she says she found “someone so much better and more than what I thought was available and deserved. He was the fantasy man I never had.”

And like any fantasy man would, within two months of meeting, Duchovny popped the question, and successfully pushed The X-Files production from Vancouver to L.A. to be close to his new bride and cheer her up (“In my most chaotic, dramatic, even sad moments, he always gets a smile”). He also inspired her to rethink her desires. “After I finished The Naked Truth, I was ready to quit acting,” she says. “I wasn’t being fulfilled. I wanted to be a mother.”

Juggling motherhood with a double-whammy of stardom is no easy feat, as the Hollywood divorce rate attests. She and Duchovny are “very careful about the amount of time we spend apart,” she says. “It is hard to be away, but [the marriage] is working quite well. We realize there’s a great prize, and we know it deserves to be respected and not be taken for granted.” Therapy helps. “Our lives are spattered with chaos, so it’s nice to go in and talk about it. Sometimes we go in together. It’s like a date. We go over things to make sure we’re on the same page, clean up some silly issues. And then we have lunch.”

But what most keeps them superglued is their slew of things in common: New York roots, a love of golf and Scrabble, and endless bantering. For a time, the two talked about starring in a sort of TV update of I Love Lucy, but so far they’ve only performed together when she played herself in an X-Files episode last year. The private pair, who kept their small Manhattan wedding a secret even from many close friends, live in a $3 million, four-bedroom, antique-dotted home near Malibu.

And of course they dote on West, who gave them a scare last year when she was struck with severe pneumonia and had to be hospitalized for 10 days while Leoni was on location filming Family Man. “My family means more than anything to me,” she says. “I wouldn’t risk it or trade it for anything in the world.”

And having it gives her all the peace she needs. “I used to wear tennis shoes to bed,” she says. “I guess I felt like I might want to get up and leave in the middle of the night. Not anymore–now I’m perfectly fine where I am.”