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Leoni Online: The Articles — Talk Magazine

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Two for Tea

With roles this year opposite a passel of dinos in Jurassic Park III and Al Pacino in People I Know – and a role opposite David Duchovny and daughter West at home – it’s Tea Leoni’s time. By George Kalogerakis

p. 20 Contributors George Kalogerakis is a Talk contributing writer and a contributing editor at New York magazine. Previously for Talk he has written pieces on Laura Dern, Strauss Zelnick, the talent agency Endeavor, and Jerry Bruckheimer. For this issue Kalogerakis talked to actress Tea Leoni about acting, her husband David Duchovny, and her role in this summer’s megarelease Jurassic Park III. “Leoni is as smart and funny as you’d expect, but also – especially for that Hollywood world – charmingly candid.”

p. 76-81 TEA TIME

She was a Manhattan private school kid who went to her first audition on a dare. Bingo. Now Tea Leoni faces a dinosaur of a summer, with a leading role in Jurassic Park III and a turn opposite Al Pacino in People I Know. Megastardom awaits.

By George Kalogerakis

Photos by Pamela Hanson [2 page spread of TL lying in bed; 1 full page b&w photo of TL dining; 1 full page color photo of TL singing in the bathroom]

“AAAUGGGGHHH!!!” bellows Tea Leoni, cupping her hands to her mouth, shattering the afternoon hush in the sedate Mark Hotel bar on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Then again, “AAAAUGGGGHHHH!!!” Followed by “WHAAAAAATTT??? NOOOOOO!!!! SSSTOPPP!!!!” Generally speaking, actors fall into two categories: those who will reenact scenes from their forthcoming dinosaur action movies, and those who will not. Leoni falls… “RRRUUUUUNNNN!!! DUUUUUCKKK!!! FIIIRRRRE!!! JUMMMPPP!!!!” …into the… “WAAAAAAHHHHH!!! WHEEERE…AAARRRRE…YOOOOOUUUU???”…first category.

She is wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, a slightly rumpled white shirt, and her father’s old Rolex – the face of which she has painted, to his horror, pink. But the lanky 35-year-actress has bestowed her sneak preview of Jurassic Park III upon an indifferent audience. The patrons at the Mark barely look up – just another Hollywood movie star having a Mesozoic moment. Or maybe it’s just that Leoni is in low-visibility mode this day, despite her inclusion in People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People issue. (She describes the People photograph as “a mug shot” and concludes that, based on the published evidence, “I was being hailed for my inner beauty.”)

Now she furrows her brow and summons up a bit more of that screenplay. “THAT’S.BIG.” And then, very demurely, she returns to her cup of tea. “Sorry, ” she says. “I could do that all day. Actually I did that all day for five months.”

The question is why.

“The three most seducing aspects were Sam Neill, Bill Macy, and Joe Johnston,” she says. “I thought, With those actors and that director I can act the hell out of this.”

Jurassic Park III, which opens July 18, is set four years after The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Leoni and Macy are parents searching for their son. Johnston describes the theme as “let’s find our kid and get the hell out of here.” Leoni was on the director’s short list; Johnston says that once he met her, “we sort of quit looking.” He praises Leoni’s athleticism – in addition to the yelling, she does a lot of running – and her talent for underplaying. “She doesn’t push it,” says Johnston. “She knows how to be in a scene and be real without doing anything. Consequently she often steals the scene – your eye just goes to her.”

It always has, over the course of an unusual career she can very neatly sum up: “I feel that when I did The Family Man it was in order to re-arrive in Hollywood. The Naked Truth was, well, show ’em you can do TV. Flirting with Disaster: Show ’em you can do some comedy. Deep Impact: Show ’em you can be a little bit more serious. This time I wanted to do something where the result wouldn’t put me at stake. So if this doesn’t go well, I’m just going to blame the dinosaurs. You know? I just am.”

In 1988, having studied anthropology for two years at Sarah Lawrence, Leoni was kicking around the world – “I lived in St. Croix for a while as a boathand and transient. I lived in Japan for a little bit. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life” – when, on a friend’s dare, she joined a cattle-call audition for a revival of the Charlie’s Angels television series. Leoni, who had never really acted, won a starring role, and though a writers’ strike scuttled the show before it started, she had found her calling. The short-lived Fox sitcom Flying Blind, in which she played Corey Parker’s nymphomaniac girlfriend, followed, in 1992. That’s the year Leoni and her future husband, David Duchovny, first met – briefly – two unknowns summoned simultaneously to a “barbaric” pre-interview audition for The Tonight Show. “I don’t even remember him,” she says. “I was so nervous I didn’t stop talking, I’m sure he couldn’t even introduce himself.” She also began landing parts in movies: Switch, A League of Their Own, Wyatt Earp, Bad Boys. Audiences remember her as the wisecracking Nora from the sitcom The Naked Truth in 1995 and, especially, from the way she kept wrapping her mile-long legs around Ben Stiller in Flirting with Disaster, a film in which her character, a touchingly incompetent adoption agent, smoked to memorable effect. “Yes, I’ve been told,” she says, “and that wasn’t even my best smoking work.”

David O. Russell, the writer and director of Flirting with Disaster, says, “I don’t think there’s anybody else like her in terms of the mix of intelligence, neurosis, sexiness, and goofiness.” Brett Ratner, who directed The Family Man, describes her as “every guy’s dream girl: She’s beautiful, she’s smart, she’s sexy, she’s talented, and, unfortunately, she’s taken.” Johnston says simply, “She’s one of the most beautiful women – ever.”

Others, noting Leoni’s gift for banter and slapstick, have compared her to Carole Lombard. “I like it!” she says. “I mean, it hasn’t been, ‘Oh, you remind me so much of Karl Malden.’ I don’t know what I would do with that. A fine actor, no doubt.”

After an early marriage to a commercial director in L.A. and, later, a tabloid fodder affair with the married producer of The Naked Truth, Leoni’s real life began to fall into place with the more discreet merger with Duchovny, and a baby. But her screen life did not, at least not in the way her admirers thought it should. Apart from last Christmas’s costarring role as Nicolas Cage’s wife in the sentimental Family Man, Leoni hasn’t been seen or heard from much in several years. But now there’s Jurassic Park III and a role in Daniel Algrant’s forthcoming People I Know, which features a screenplay by Jon Robin Baitz and stars Al Pacino. “I’m an extremely troubled, vulnerable actress – that’s the part – and I played the role mostly with Al,” she says. “The work was very intimate and intense. If I had Al Pacino for my leading man for the rest of my life as an actor I’d die fulfilled.” Plus there’s a gig with the one director no actor can refurse: Woody Allen, whose spring project – “about which I can say nothing,” Leoni says, unnecessarily – has brought her back to New York for several months.

Leoni’s two-year-old daughter, Madelaine West, is in tow, and Duchovny has been flying in during breaks from The X Files. Although they live in Malibu now, the couple “grew up 60 blocks apart,” as she puts it, in Manhattan (she on Park Avenue, he in the East Village). She went to the tony all-girls Brearley School on the Upper East Side, then to boarding school at Putney, and, finally, to Sarah Lawrence; Duchovny went to the equally tony Collegiate, then to Princeton. “David and I both have romantic notions of returning to the city of our birth,” she says, “but I don’t know. The other day I had one of those epiphanies that happen on the john or as you roll over in the middle of the night: I realized that I don’t actually have to hate one – L.A. or New York.I think for kids, when they get older and more conscious, New York might be the better spot.I want my kid to know about weather.”

But children inevitably make a mockery of their parents’ plans for them. “I provide the classical music and the classic rock; David provides the new stuff and the funk and disco,” says Leoni. “And you know what my daughter has really grabbed onto? Hawaiian music. When we got to Hawaii” – where part of Jurassic Park II was shot – “every restaurant was playing it. Her face lit up. She is crazy for it; she dances to it. It’s the music that turns her on – that and, for some reason, Al Green.”

Leoni and Duchovny call their daughter by her middle name, West. “My mother’s grandmother’s name,” Leoni explains. “She was a real Texas pioneer woman – smoked cigars and told dirty jokes with all the men. And yet she could smock anything.” Leoni’s paternal grandmother, Helenka Adamowska, was a silent film actress who later headed up the U.S. committee for UNICEF, serving as its volunteer president for 27 years. (Leoni also does behind-the-scenes work and, more recently, public service announcements for UNICEF, “so the generations stay involved.”) Last year she went through the UCLA film archives and tracked down her grandmother’s movies. “At one point she even had billing above Clara Bow,” she says. “David and I put in the tape and I immediately started crying. I was very close to her, but I didn’t know *this* woman. Suddenly here was this beautiful moving bird, with these arms emoting this way and that, swinging them around, very, very dramatic. And I kept thinking, My God, that’s where I get my arms, that’s where I get my hands.”

For this prolonged stay in town, the extended family has been thrown together. Leoni’s parents, Anthony and Emily Pantaleoni (he’s an attorney; she’s a nutritionist), are renovating the Park Avenue apartment they’ve lived in for a quarter century and have taken up residence in a hotel alongside Leoni, Duchovny, and West. “It’s been great,” says Leoni. “I would list my mother as my best girlfriend, and my brother and father as my two best boyfriends. Then I get into the details of growing up and realize just how strange we all were..I have parents who, on paper, are the most normal, unastonishing people.but I’m the daughter of eccentrics. We ate dinner every night in bed. With trays. Thought it was weird then, still think it’s weird. But my mother, being a Texas belle, always kept me well mannered, so I knew how to eat at a table. I knew how to tilt the soup bowl away from me, which you couldn’t really do on the bed because the trays were all tilted toward you and it would have been redundant to then turn the bowl *away*.

“Having my own daughter, I find that I’m so much more dependent on my mother, knowing that if I do this exactly as she did, I would be a triumphant mother. There are complaints,” she continues, with a wave of her hand. “I’ll say, ‘Remember Genya, the insane Polish dictator that you left me with for four days? She cut all my hair off and made me wear wool underwear?’ And they don’t even remember. But I know I’ve already screwed up. I think leaving the child on the hood of the car as you drive out of the parking lot is probably a big no-no. I’ve only left my coffee there, but in a mother’s mind you then have nightmares that the coffee could be the baby one day.”

Leoni and Duchovny were reintroduced on the telephone through an agent they shared. “My first impression was that he was incredibly quick-witted; I remember a quick click during that phone conversation,” she says. “Later I asked, through the agent, ‘Is he single?’ Yes.’ ‘Does he play golf?’ ‘He can learn.’ ‘Tell him to call me when he breaks 100.'” Duchovny didn’t wait quite that long, and when she got into his car for their first date, she remembers, “I thought he had really nice thighs. Oh, by the dashboard light did that thigh look great!”

The couple had been going out for just four months when they married in the garden of the Grace Church School in lower Manhattan, in 1997. Although PEOPLE ended up reporting on the wedding (under the inevitable ALTARED STATE headline), the couple had managed to date secretly and were married before fewer than a dozen guests, all family members. Duchovny even wore a fake mustache when he picked up the marriage license at City Hall. The espionage seems to have left Leoni unsure of what happened, and when.

“I just got really flustered on this,” she reports. “I said to David, ‘God, it’s our anniversary on April 6! And he was like, ‘*What?’* And I said, ‘I know, can you believe it?’ And he goes, ‘Tea, what are you talking about? We were married on May 6.’ ‘No, remember that freaky snow thing that happened? That never would have happened in May.’ David says, ‘It didn’t’ snow. It rained at one point. You didn’t even have a sweater on.'”

Leoni says she had always found it odd when actors married each other, attributing it to “some confused-identity thing – they got into their roles or into their situation in a film and noticed five years later, ‘My God, this isn’t reality.'” But surprise: “Then I found, being married to David, that there are things that only another working actor could be tolerant of, supportive in, could understand. But I think it might just be David.”

Although most Hollywood stars present themselves as stat-at-homes, Leoni’s plea of virtual monasticism has the ring of truth. “We don’t do much,” she says. “But I’m never bored in and around David’s mind. And body. We have a great time together.We love – or *I* love: David’s learning to love – golf. And that’s a five hour date in the middle of the day. We like the water a lot: sit on the beach, go swimming, run the dogs.” Another wave of her hand. “That’s all! I don’t enjoy large parties. The awards shows that I’ve attended on David’s behalf have been torturous in a way, just being around all of that pomp and circumstance and business and publicity.”

Leoni acknowledges a “terrible fear of public speaking,” and while she misses the kick of live TV and would love to try theater someday, she says, “I have to figure out how to get over the nerves. A camera up my nostril is not unnerving to me at all. But any kind of public speaking.I mean, I’m the shit friend who doesn’t toast at weddings. I have to give my praise quietly, beforehand.”

If Leoni hasn’t let go completely of the self-criticism that’s part of her personality, she nevertheless sounds utterly comfortable with who and where she is these days.

“She’s a bona fide movie star; it’s just about whether she *wants* to be that or not,” says Brett Ratner. “But she’s selective. I think she just loves doing what she does.”

“I hear about actors who are working all the time, who’ve got one thing lined up after another,” Leoni says, rising to go phone her mother and arrange to collect West. I can’t imagine doing that. A painter might run out of paint; I run out of *me*. This year’s been incredibly difficult that way. I’ve been rinsing one project out while trying to create for something else.

“I’m just about sick of me now,” she concludes with a laugh. “And after these three films come out, everyone else will be too.”

Not a chance. We’ll blame the dinosaurs.