Her roots to Boston run deep, from being discovered here to summering near seaside Westport. Now, Hollywood star Téa Leoni is running the world as the star of CBS’ Madam Secretary and ruling her private life—on her terms.
Talk to Téa Leoni for ten seconds, and you instantly comprehend that she is: 1. Smart 2. Hilarious 3. Your best friend. At least you want her to be. Leoni, née Elizabeth Téa Pantaleoni, was born in New York City, and educated in some of the East Coast’s finest prep schools (Brearley and Putney) and Sarah Lawrence College. The daughter of a nutritionist and corporate lawyer, Leoni was greatly influenced by the work of her grandmother, Helenka Pantaleoni, a Broadway and silent film star and co-founder/president of UNICEF. Leoni’s signature fashion accessory is her grandmother’s pearl necklace, and her career has honored many of Helenka’s choices. She’s starred in a hit TV series (The Naked Truth), many blockbuster films (Deep Impact, Jurassic Park III, Fun with Dick and Jane), and served as the Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. But when she became a mother (to Madelaine West and Kyd Miller with her ex-husband David Duchovny), she shifted her priority list to focus on her family. In 2014, after a 16-year hiatus from broadcast TV, Leoni reclaimed her star status in the leading role of US Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord, in the CBS drama, Madam Secretary, which was just picked up for a fourth season. Through it all, Leoni says she has found solace in the summers spent in a private family sanctuary near Westport (“I call it Wonk Wonk,” she laughs, “So it can remain private.”), and a devotion to all things East Coast.
You were discovered here in Boston.
Totally! I was in the line for a national casting call for a remake of Charlie’s Angels at the old Lafayette Place mall in Downtown Crossing. There was a guy from FOX walking through taking names, and I said look, you’re spending one or two minutes with each girl. There’s about twelve hundred people in front of me. I’m not going get in there ‘til Tuesday. And I turned to leave, and he says, ‘Wait a second. What’s your name?’. And he took a Polaroid of me and said, ‘Don’t go anywhere. Get back in line.’ So I guess that’s how I ended up in the tent where I got a call back, because I ended up not walking out.
Were you nervous at all?
Well, you know what it was? I didn’t know enough to have fear. I think everybody else there were scared of it. I was in the middle—as much as a 20-year-old can be—in the thick of life. I was taking a year off from college, I was traveling. I was working as a crew hand down in the Caribbean. I’d just gotten back from Japan and Milan. I just was loving life. And I didn’t care. I just didn’t have anything invested in it. It just seemed like a kicky thing to do. And at that point, I practically had foot rot for being on the boat so much. So I probably welcomed not going back to that gig right away. By the end of it, it had actually been sort of a beautiful process.
What were those early years in Hollywood like?
I had an amazing time getting to know Aaron Spelling. As it turns out—here’s my claim to fame—my great-uncle (my mother’s uncle) was Hank Patterson, who was Mr. Ziffel on Green Acres. He was the dude with the pig, right? So Hank Patterson and Aaron Spelling did films together. They were in these crazy old westerns together, and they’d even done theatre together. Aaron kind of took me under his wing. He was wonderful to me. I’ll never forget that guy because he was the real deal. He loved film, he loved television. He really wanted to do something different.
Besides being discovered here, you have serious history…
Yeah, I mean, it’s true! My grandmother was born in Boston. Through my grandmother, we ended up summering year after year in the Westport area… which I started to call Wonk Wonk. Because as time went on and there was more kind of an interest—I was getting more recognized and David [Duchovny] and I got married. I really didn’t want anyone to know about this special place—I never want to name it. The last thing I wanted was anyone from Hollywood ever ending up out there. And Hollywood tends to sort of—they follow each other. And this is a deeply private, quiet area. Nobody’s impressed. Nobody cares who you are. People are still wearing Tretorns down there, for God’s sake. So anyway, I always refer to it as Wonk Wonk.
Is it hard not to fall into the Hollywood trap?
It’s not that hard. I think from the outside people think that Hollywood is all pomp and circumstance and glamour. But the reality of it is that it’s a very competitive, kind of a hard place to call home. It’s all very transient. Hollywood is sort of like a Banana Republic. People run in and try their hand at it. And most of them leave kind of beaten. There’s a depressing side to the Hollywood allure. It was never really home. I’m really tight with my family and I’m really tight with the East Coast.
Your career is quite spectacular. You’ve worked in extremes: comedy, drama, science fiction… you name it.
I’ve had a very spicy career. I’ve had it exactly the way that I wanted it. I’ve had a chance to do some big productions. I’ve had so much fun every step of the way. I’ve done some difficult work; I’ve done some small things. I’ve done some failed things. I’ve done a lot of shit. And in between, I’ve had a more brilliant life. And I’m really okay with my life being more brilliant than my career.
And you were deliberate about stepping away from your career to dive into motherhood.
I took 16 years off from television. David was all in with The X Files when we got married. I was doing The Naked Truth. I really wanted to get into motherhood. I was doing films about once every two years. And that was great, because that was a three to six-month gig. I would put the kids in backpacks and bring them to the trailer on the set. I have a whole portfolio of my daughter in bloody makeup from Jurassic Park. She loved that one. I don’t think any other working mother has it as good as a working actor. It’s been great.
I’d love to talk about your work with UNICEF. I know you have huge roots with that; you are an ambassador and a national board member, and your grandmother co-founded it.
Yes, I never thought I could be handed a legacy of the likes that my grandmother handed me. When I was very young, I started having conversations with my grandmother about it, and I started understanding why she was travelling—why India, and why South America. We got into conversations when I was very young about the iodine deficiency, and how this affected kids [iodine deficiency is regarded as the most easily preventable cause of impaired cognitive development in children]. She told me this was the way UNICEF was going to be involved, we were going to figure out a way to help. Twenty some-odd years later, my father and I traveled down to Honduras the day that they opened up the iodine plant that UNICEF had built that would service all the farmers. And that was the beginning of eradicating iodine deficiency there. I feel like it’s part of my life, like a family member. I’m very aware that it’s a gift and responsibility.
What’s in store for season four? Leoni’s lips are sealed. However, fans can expect more international intrigue, political maneuvering, romance, and always, Leoni’s sense of style.
So Madam Secretary just got signed for a fourth season—congratulations!
I have to say, the timing of this series is genius. We worked on being relevant the first season. But the things that we focused on in the plot would then happen in the real world! We used to laugh about how we needed to make bumper stickers that said, “Who Is [show creator] Barbara Hall?” We couldn’t figure out exactly how she knew these storylines would end up becoming true life. Madeleine Albright gave me the greatest compliment to the show. She said, “The show is making foreign policy less foreign.” And I thought, my God. You know, you don’t really run into television thinking, ‘I’m going to do some good.’ And I have to say, it feels good when I get, especially young women, saying, ‘Hey! I’m going do that!’. I’m like, yes you are!
Part of that must be that the way you play this role feels attainable for young women.
Well, I think it could happen and I have to say, I think it has. There have been women in the job—Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright were both mothers at the time. It’s not fantasy by any means. It is aspirational; we came into a field that was very crowded with the opposite. Barbara Hall consciously thought, are we not ready for some different angle on this? Because the truth is, in the State Department alone, there are 75,000 people who are working in service to this government. They’re not in it for the money, they’re not in it for the fame. They’re in service. The fun of the show of course, now especially, is how it pokes fun at some of the outrageousness that’s happening around the world. It’s an exciting time because I think we’re not the only country that’s reevaluating who we are in the world, and who we want to be in the world.
And we know where you want to be: The East Coast.
Exactly. I gave LA the college try, you know. There were things that I learned out there. But this is home.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FREDERIC AUERBACH/CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES