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Leoni Online: The Articles — New Idea Magazine


Good enough to eatTéa Leoni is that rare thing: a dishy blonde with perfect comic timing. Now the star of Jurassic Park III just needs a role she can sink her teeth into, says David EimerIn Hollywood, talent counts, but often it’s pure luck that separates the A list from the also-rans. And for actresses, the odds against making it are even steeper, just because there are fewer decent roles on offer for women than there are for men. Which is perhaps why Téa Leoni, who broke the news that a giant meteorite was about to hit earth in 1998’s Deep Impact, is now running for her life from a raging T rex in Jurassic Park III. Leoni is probably best known for being married to David Duchovny, but she’s been looking for the right role to establish herself in the top rank of actresses since she made her film debut in 1992’s A League of Their Own, as a female baseball player alongside Geena Davis and Madonna. There have been more than a few false starts along the way, such as 1994’s Wyatt Earp and last year’s feeble The Family Man, in which she co-starred with Nicolas Cage. But the problem has been the material rather than her, and Jurassic Park III is no exception. “When I got the call to do this, I thought: ‘Well, let me just get over the fact that I’m such a loser that I wasn’t in the first or second one,'” laughs Leoni, who’s sitting in one of Universal Studios’ vast sound stages in LA, surrounded by some incongruous fake jungle foliage. “Then they said, ‘Sam Neill is coming back and William H Macy will be playing your husband,’ and I recognised that we weren’t just going to make the third one, we were going to make the best one.” That’s fighting talk, especially as Steven Spielberg, who directed the first two instalments, chose to hand over the directing duties on this one to Joe “Jumanji” Johnston. Surely Leoni must have been a little disappointed not to be working with Spielberg? “No, and I don’t mean that I didn’t like the first two,” she responds. “In a way, it’s more exciting, because I knew we’d be putting our own spin on it. We had a better shot at making a different film, and quite possibly a better one.” Set on an island adjacent to the one that was home to the genetically engineered dinosaurs of the first two films, Jurassic Park III is a huge leap in terms of special effects, and none of the classy cast can avoid being overshadowed by the array of beasties on show. Leoni’s role as a mother searching for her son, who’s been improbably stranded on the island, requires her to do little more than scream and run away. But Leoni was not designed to be a shrieker and screamer. She has a delicious, low and husky voice that complements her dry sense of humour. “I was born with this voice,” she insists. “I was a freak of nature – as a six-year-old, I was like something out of The Exorcist. I always wanted to scream like Doris Day – you know, something whimsical and sharp – but I ended up sounding like a wounded animal most of the time. The screams were difficult.” The Doris Day reference seems appropriate, because Leoni, 35, is very much from the old school of American comediennes. Her idols are Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball, and, like them, she had her own television show, The Naked Truth, a screwball sitcom in which she played a dizzy socialite turned tabloid photographer. It ran for three years from 1995 and was a great showcase for her gift for physical comedy. Tall and thin, with seemingly uncontrollable arms and legs and blessed with delicate, pretty features, Leoni was soon being hailed as a cross between Ball and Sharon Stone. Now, she’s rather cynical about the experience. “I think the bane of TV is just constantly battling mediocrity. It can’t help but have that problem, because you have to write a script a week and, frankly, that’s insane. I hated that; I hated feeling like: ‘God, we’re so close, if we just had another couple of weeks we could really nail this.’ I’m not a perfectionist, but I do have a low tolerance for mediocrity. It’s a waste of everybody’s time, whether you’re doing it or watching it.” Comedy remains her first love. “Nothing gets me more excited than when I think I can score in the funny field,” she says. Certainly, her best performance in a film was in 1996’s wicked Flirting With Disaster, where she played a po-faced psychologist struggling to help wayward parents Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette. But that was an indie project. Leoni’s problem is that you can count the number of decent comedies that have come out of Hollywood in the past couple of years on one hand. Which is why her highest-profile role has been Deep Impact, a disaster movie that was more mawkish than moving. She will be seen in Woody Allen’s untitled 2002 project – a dream job, perhaps, but again, not a part designed to let her comedic sensibility run rampant. “I think I’m more of the straight guy in that, which took me aback a bit. I thought: ‘I don’t know why you want me in here.’ Then I get there and Woody goes, ‘Oh, I wrote it a year ago, let me take a look,’ and he’ll go off the page, he’s nowhere near where you think you should be.” In keeping with Allen’s penchant for secrecy, that’s all she’s prepared to say. “I’m scared. He’s very well connected in New York, much more so than any of my Italian family.” Named after a Tahitian friend of her parents, Leoni had an upper-middle-class upbringing in New York and went on to read anthropology and philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College. She has a distinctly East Coast sensibility, but Malibu has been her home since her 1998 marriage to Duchovny. She was briefly married before, in the early 1990s, but seems to have met her match in the former X Files star, whose reputation for being smart and funny equals hers. Their relationship started on the phone. “I give really good phone,” she purrs, believably. “Actually, it was funny, because my accountant called me one day and said: ‘I don’t want to pry, but are you seeing someone in Vancouver?’ I said: ‘Good Lord, what do you mean, you don’t want to pry?’ And he said: ‘It’s because your phone bill is $1,000 over the past couple of weeks.’ We were on the phone for four or five hours a day before our first date, which made it a lot of pressure, because maybe he was going to smell weird or something, and we’d already exchanged all these intimacies.” Luckily, he didn’t, and they now have a two-year-old daughter. That’s meant that Leoni has stayed at home while Duchovny has been off trying to kick-start his film career. He, though, appears more comfortable on the small screen, and there’s a sneaking suspicion that Leoni is the better long-term bet to make it in the movies. But she’s a fierce defender of her husband, as well as his biggest advocate. “This is an extreme talent,” she claims. “David is hands down the funniest man I’ve ever met. That hasn’t really been explored yet. I think that was one of the reasons I was glad when The X Files came to an end for him, so he could go on and have more opportunities to do funny roles.” Indeed, the one time they’ve worked together was when Duchovny directed a spoof X Files episode, with Leoni as Scully and their best friend, Garry “Larry Sanders” Shandling, as Mulder. Although Leoni says she comes from a long line of strong, independent women – her grandmother was one of the founders of Unicef – motherhood seems to have taken the edge off her ambition. “I think before my baby there was a great self- absorption that you can look back on and laugh about,” she admits. “You know: ‘How big is my ass? How am I going to pay my rent?’ It becomes humorous in hindsight, because you have a whole new interest and a whole new set of worries.” It was her response to becoming a mum that ultimately convinced her to take Jurassic Park III. “Everybody’s first reaction is: ‘Oh, it’s a dinosaur movie.’ But I’m playing a mother who’s been unwillingly separated from her child and, as a new mother, I can tell you, that’s a new nightmare. That doesn’t mean I think my child is going to be left on an island with dinosaurs, but I do think that I’ll come out of Starbucks and drive off with her in her car seat on top of the roof.” Then there’s the fact that she has, by her own admission, “a small macho nerve”. “I was such a tomboy growing up that nobody ever messed with me,” she says proudly, and she seems to have enjoyed running through the forests of Hawaii while making the movie. “You get so caught up in the excitement of it. But my ass felt like a snapped noodle, I couldn’t walk, and David would remind me that they have people to help with that. Not a masseuse, but stunt people.”

Her next film, the drama People I Know, which sees her playing opposite Al Pacino, was less strenuous, and maybe it will be the breakthrough part she deserves. But Leoni doesn’t seem too bothered either way. “Now I go up for a role and think: ‘What’s the worst thing they can do: kick me out and tell me I suck?’ That sounds cavalier and macho, but I used to worry – ‘I don’t know if I can do this well,’ yack, yack, yack. Now I feel untouchable. I don’t feel less ambitious or more ambitious, it’s just that I feel safer heading out of the door. It just doesn’t matter.”

Courtesy of The Sunday Times