On Sunday night, Clinton's star turns continue, as she will join fellow former time for Hillary Clinton to rack up so much screen time, as audiences in turn attempt to what we had just done until we shut the door, when I think it was General Powell “He looked at me and said, 'Yeah, I think I could do that.
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.
Tags: coverscover starscelebritiescover story_featuresummer 2017tea leoni
Categories: People Feature
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FREDERIC AUERBACH/CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
It's time to leave 'Dear Sir or Madam' behind and breathe new life into your email introductions. You've seen it done countless times! So Are you able to provide me with that person's name and email address or connect us.
It’s 11PM in a low-key Marylebone hotel and, in the bar, a small cabal of journalists wait for an audience with an icon, each one slightly sick with nerves, some drinking to steady them, others silently reading through their notes.
Down a corridor and inside a large suite, a quite-perfect figure sits on the couch. Dressed in a polka-dot, flamenco-style dress, fitted black military jacket and – most notably – wearing an elaborate eyepatch which we now know to be synonymous with the latest era of her career, there, right there, is Madonna.
“Je suis fatigué,” she says, with movie-star drama. It’s been a long day.
Now, if there’s one way for a major music icon to disarm an already-flustered journalist, it’s by dressing like a pirate. Do I mention the eyepatch? Do I not? I decide it’s unwise and spend the 30 minutes that follow trying desperately not to stare. Turns out, the eyewear is the signature garb of Madame X, a multi-faceted persona the world will become familiar with in the coming weeks, thanks not least to a controversial appearance at Eurovision in Tel Aviv, but, at the time of our meeting, is having her first semi-public outing. I should have guessed there was more to it – Madonna doesn’t get pink eye.
Earlier that day, NME is summoned to Universal’s offices in London to hear Madonna’s very-very-strictly-under-lock-and-key 14th studio album, ‘Madame X’. The record, out today (June 14), is not a one-listen beast: a brilliant, surprising and, at points, utterly baffling collection of songs inspired by Madonna’s move to Lisbon to become a “soccer mom” in 2017, and the eclectic music scene she found herself immersed in after upping sticks.
Madonna’s third child (of six), 13-year-old David Banda, has aspirations of being a professional footballer, and with Lisbon home to some of the best football academies in the world, and Madonna taking a liking to the “charming” city, they decided to move the family out there. When we meet, Madame X, the mother, is feeling homesick: “David has a week off from school right now but he has a tournament so he couldn’t be here. I call him up, like: ‘I’m really sorry, I miss you so much, I love you so much’ and he’s like, ‘Mom! I love it, stop apologising, it’s great.’”
But David is not the only one to benefit from the move to Portugal. The culture has been key in shaping this phase of Madonna’s sound, with Latinate flavours accenting a broadly political record (with some epic Madge party bangers on there too in the shape of ‘Faz Gostoso’, ‘Medellin’ and ‘Bitch, I’m Loca’).
“I didn’t make a Latin record intentionally” Madonna explains. “It just sort of happened because I was living there. The first group of friends I met were all musicians but they were from all over the world, not just Portugal. It was a melting point of so many different cultures and musical genres which started percolating in my brain. I wanted to take the folk music I was listening to but make it more modern sounding, something you could dance to. I was first inspired by it, then I turned it into a challenge.”
Challenging herself is something Madonna has done at every point of her career. Whether it was her days hustling for fame in New York, the game-changing Blond Ambition tour 30 years ago, which set the bar for pop performers with its ambitious (and hella raunchy) stage show, or simply every time she’s reinvented herself, Madonna’s boundary-pushing approach to her art is just one of the things that has helped her outsell Whitney, Beyoncé,Mariah and Rihanna to be the biggest solo female recording artist of all time.
Alongside peers such as Michael Jackson and Prince, Madonna was – and is still – one of the most famous people on the planet. In a world obsessed with fame, how does a person begin to handle that?
“It has its pluses and minuses,” she says. “The great thing about being famous is that you have a voice and you can spread messages and fight for people who don’t have the ability to fight for themselves, and share your wealth with people who need help.”
Along with a back catalogue including many of the world’s most brilliant pop songs, Madonna’s legacy – and a core trait of the Madame X alter-ego – is about fighting for change. Being an early advocate of the LGBTQ community, Madonna’s support for equal rights dates back decades, but gained particular notoriety when highlighting the plight of the gay community during the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York. Madonna lost two close friends to the syndrome: ballet teacher and mentor Christopher Flynn and her friend Keith Haring, the celebrated artist. The backlash to fighting for equality at that time was harsh.
“During the AIDS epidemic, I was getting involved with a lot of groups and speaking up and I was enraged by how I saw people being treated. I came to the LGBTQ community and put my arms around them. While everyone else was running away from them, I was running towards them.”
But Madonna’s association with the community, combined with an ignorance about the disease, led to rumours in the press that she herself had been diagnosed with HIV. She remembers this as a particularly upsetting time.
“It was so crazy. For months I was going around saying I wasn’t HIV positive but then I thought, What if I was? Does that make me a bad person? And are you going to treat me differently? It was a crazy time and it really hurt me a lot. That’s just one circumstance where people – ‘scuse me for swearing – really tried to fuck with me.”
Do people still try and fuck with you?
“Yes. People pick on me. That’s just the way it is. People like to pick on me. I don’t take it as personally as I used to, or it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. But if you have an opinion in this day and age, you have to be prepared to take a beating.”
Madonna and the press have had a long, tumultuous relationship. In the weeks since our meeting, an article is published which focuses heavily on her most recent milestone. Now 60, the star is battling ageism as well as sexism, and it rightly infuriates her. She called out the journalist’s focus, saying it “wouldn’t happen if she was a man.” A valid objection, and likely true, but it’s the turn of phrase – Madonna says she feels “raped” by the piece (“and yes I’m allowed to use that analogy having been raped at the age of 19”) which fuels even more controversy. The media fires are stoked. Twitter is offended. The cycle continues.
But true to form, Madonna carries on regardless, never silenced, always outspoken. On ‘Madame X’ the album, produced largely by French producer Mirwais (with whom she co-produced the whole of ‘American Life’ – the pair last worked together on ‘Confessions On A Dancefloor’) she tackles issues of sexism, gun control, freedom of speech, racism and gay rights.
“A lot of the music I make with Mirwais ends up being political because we have very similar minds and we think about what’s going on in the world a lot,” Madonna says. “He’s very philosophical. We get into debates about what’s right and what’s wrong and somehow, it just sparks things inside of us.”
Controversy does seem to follow Madge around, and by no coincidence, but on the track ‘Killers Who Are Partying’ she reels off a list of persecuted minorities, suggesting an affinity with each and every one. The intention is good – Madame X in freedom fighter mode – but as a white woman of privilege, can she really claim to know what it’s like to be African, Palestinian, a gay man or Native American?
“But I’m a human being,” she responds sharply. “And they’re human beings. And I’ve always fought for the rights of marginalised people so it’s not like I woke up one day and decided I was going to be the voice of a certain minority. I consider myself a marginalised person, I feel like I’ve been discriminated against my whole life because of the fact that I’m a female and now I am discriminated against because of my age. I am saying ‘no, we belong together’ and it’s a song about unifying the soul of all humans. And I have the right to say that I want to do that.”
There’s no denying the sentiment is one of love and unity, which is more than can be said for a lot of people in the world today; namely, one Donald Trump who is reverting on LGBTQ rights at an alarming rate.
“I’m horrified, for all the things we fought for and won and now it does seem like everything is turning back to where we were in the ‘50s. It’s quite disturbing but we haven’t lost the war yet. We do need a new president, though.”
In the run-up to the release of the record, mysterious social media trailers have teased Madonna’s enigmatic eye-patched alter-ego, somewhere between Eva Peron, a Romany gypsy and a radical general. In the run-up to the album, fans heard five songs, among them the cha-cha-cha-ing ‘Medellin’, the Stanley Kubrick and Joan of Arc-inspired ‘Dark Ballet’ and the trap-heavy ‘Crave’ and ‘Future’.”
Madame X has set out her stall from the off: she is described as a “secret agent, travelling around the world, changing identities, fighting for freedom, bringing light to dark places. She is a dancer, a professor, a head of state, a housekeeper, an equestrian, a prisoner, a student, a mother, a child, a teacher, a nun, a singer, a saint, a whore.” Sounds exhausting, but perhaps being the most famous woman in the world does leave you with quite a lot to do.
We talk about what it was like for Madonna starting out, as the kid from Michigan, moving to New York with no money but a lot of determination and a dream of being a star. It was her dance teacher who first gave her the name Madame X, for she looked different every time she came to class – an ’80s Madge, often not living up to the school’s ideas of how their students should present themselves.
‘Madame X’ the record is reflective, almost nostalgic at points, for that time when all of this was still ahead of her, when she wasn’t constantly fighting to dispel that “other version” of Madonna: the one “that’s out in the world that has nothing to do with who you are.” The Madonna with a naivety that manifests itself as fearlessness. For all the talk about how the music industry is yet to catch up with #MeToo, it’s come a long way since the ’80s when things were impossibly tough for young female artists.
“I would say there were plenty of situations where men were wanting to abuse their power. I was the starting-out artist begging for help and I would go to people who ran labels or influential DJs saying: ‘Can you help me out? Can you listen to this song? Can you hook me up?’ Can you sign me to your record label?’ and, a lot of people said: ‘Yeah, if you’ll do this,’ and usually it was a sexual favour.”
“Oh yeah, for sure. And there was one time where I was so broke and I was so sick of being broke I thought, ‘Wait, could I do it?’ But I didn’t do it in the end. I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I knew I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I did, so I just kept going on as I had, being a starving artist and waiting for my ship to come in and – ironically – I was signed by a gay man who didn’t want anything to do with me in that way and he just really appreciated my music.”
Madonna, then. Nothing if not principled. On that birthday milestone that we won’t dwell on, earlier in the year, which she spent in Morocco with those closest to her, she gave a speech: “Women have a life span and at a certain age they’re expected to go away. I’m not interested in that.”
Observing the resilient, intimidating, brilliantly-talented woman who sits on the fancy sofa in front of me – one eye looking right at me – I consider how easy it would have been for her to bow out, having already achieved more in one fraction of her career than anyone could hope to in a lifetime, but how incredibly dull a world without Madonna would be.
“The pressure to be silenced comes and goes,” she muses. “Let’s see what happens when my record comes out.”
And with that, it’s nearly midnight and our time is up. It’s hard to imagine what the rest of Madonna’s evening involves, all dressed up for our benefit, but tired – or fatigué, as she had it – and missing her boy. Bed and a cup of camomile? A night cha-cha-ing her way around London?
Earlier, Madonna spoke about the preconceived notions about her. This latest incarnation seems, perhaps, more intentionally unknowable than any version of the original superstar we’ve seen before. The eyepatch is armour, the name a defence. I leave feeling as flustered as when I arrived, but clearer on Madame X’s message: empowerment, righteousness, multiculturalism, voicing the voiceless. Madonna’s always been fearless. Madame X is fearsome, too. Long live the queen.
Madonna’s ‘Madame X’ is out now
“Call Me Madam” at New York City Center (Photo: Stephanie Berger)
In a pre-show curtain speech, artistic director Jack Viertel said one of the reasons Encores! brought back Call Me Madam, the first hit for the company in 1995, was to see how a political satire written in 1950 would play in 2019. From an early comedy number where the titular madam, Sally Adams, bridges the partisan divide through, I kid you not, a square dance, it became clear that the lighthearted goofiness of Call Me Madam’s political climate would have nothing to do with ours and that whatever politics it satirized would be unrecognizable in our present day borderline dystopia.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Sally Adams, whose only qualifications are that she has an oil fortune and can throw a mean party, is appointed ambassador to the fictional duchy of Lichtenburg. In being woefully under-qualified, Adams does bear some resemblance to appointees in the current president’s cabinet. The difference is that Sally Adams is harmless and well-intentioned.
For better or worse, Call Me Madam is intrinsically linked to Ethel Merman. The show was written for her, she won a Tony for it, and she reprised her role in the film adaptation three years later. As is often the case with Merman’s material, her heavyweight voice becomes as much a part of the orchestration as the trombones and clarinets; even when she’s not singing it, it echoes through the vocal lines. You can hear how the composer, in this case Irving Berlin, structures the melodies to pay off with the kind of muscular, reverberating notes that defined Merman’s style. Berlin and Cole Porter in other shows have these money notes repeated over and over in Merman’s signature numbers, sometimes modulating, but often just staying where they are, offering the listener a chance to hear that pulse-stopping tone as much as possible.
This happens everywhere in the score of Call Me Madam and though Carmen Cusack is one of the most talented actors currently working in the musical theatre, her voice is not suited to the Merman style. The shades of Cusack’s distinctive soul-baring tone are at odds with the squawking brass of Berlin’s music. The broadness of her voice, employed so effectively in Bright Star, here seems constantly outside the world of the orchestra, like she is in another room trying to get in. If the voice doesn’t have the requisite quality to bring the songs fully to life, she compensates for it with a charismatic performance that finds an effortless humor in the dialogue. Where Cusack succeeds is in painting Sally Adams as a woman who does not accept obstacles as insurmountable – there’s always a way to get around them. Adams’ ingenuity burns bright in Cusack’s eyes and her physicality. Even when she goes exaggeratedly weak in the knees upon meeting Lictenburg’s foreign minister, Cosmo Constantine (Ben Davis), for the first time, she does not seem to have lost control of the situation. She’s just recalibrating.
Davis sings beautifully, but the character is mostly unremarkable. There is little conflict between Cosmo and Sally, and even when some minor problems arise, they are immediately dissipated by dialogue in which one or both of them reveal that it’s not going to be an issue after all. The stakes are basement-level-low, but Davis still creates a warmth that makes Sally’s attraction to Cosmo believable. Lauren Worsham plays a sheltered Lichtenburg princess and utilizes the daffiness of the writing to achieve a character that is so disconnected by virtue of her privilege that it is a detriment to her well-being and growth. Worsham and her love interest, an American attaché played by Jason Gotay, lack the spark of chemistry, but they individually bring a great amount of charm to their roles. Gotay’s counterpoint duet with Cusack, “You’re Just in Love” is the production’s stand-out moment.
Encores! often presents musicals that have very little substance and that’s fine when they conjure up a wave of joy through spectacular choreography, a delightful score, or unforgettable comedy. With this revival of Call Me Madam, the thinness of plot added to the lack of contemporary relevance added to a central performance that doesn’t quite reach its goal results in a production that passes without offense, but doesn’t whip up enthusiasm beyond that. Carmen Cusack needs material that plays to her strengths and Call Me Madam needs a star that plays to its. When neither happens, both come off empty-handed.
Her latest reincarnation, Madame X, is an eye-patch-wearing alter-ego bent on I should have guessed there was more to it – Madonna doesn't get pink eye. I call him up, like: 'I'm really sorry, I miss you so much, I love you so much' and Challenging herself is something Madonna has done at every point of her career.
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In the Oct. 7 season premiere of “Madam Secretary,” Téa Leoni is Now it seems we're doing sci-fi against the backdrop of what is actually happening. have given so much and performed so powerfully and eloquently in that service. The first person to call me when I got named secretary was Henry.