It took surprisingly little for Tea Leoni to take on a lead role in a network television show — which she did for the freshman political drama "Madam Secretary" — just word from her kids that they'd rather not have her around the house that much. "I'd been struggling for a while with this idea of committing to something that could be — potentially, we hope — a long endeavor," she remembers. "I was walking across the street with my son, who's 12, and I said, 'I'm thinking about doing this thing. If I do this, I could be very busy for a while.' He looks up at me and is like, 'Mom, it's totally fine.' I was like, 'Really?' And he says, 'Yeah. We were really getting sick of you anyway.' So it was great to have that blessing, honestly."
On the series, Leoni plays U.S. Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, and she admits that a lot of people have jumped to a pretty obvious conclusion when it comes to her model for the character — former Secretary of State and presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. But she insists they're completely off-base. "I've certainly been asked if I met with Hillary. And obviously it's the blonde hair, right off the bat. I swore, I said, 'No, it's Kissinger,' but whatever," Leoni jokes. "The truth is the first place in my mind that I went was not toward a particular political figure or in particular a female Secretary of State, since we've had three. I thought more about my grandmother — who founded the U.S. fund for UNICEF, who was the volunteer president for almost 30 years and raised five kids and 27 grandchildren — and what it was for her to be traveling around the world and coming home and being a mother. I think about my friends who are up to it, who are working mothers and what that's about."
Her lack of research has a lot to do with how her character is suddenly promoted to the role at the beginning to the show from the ranks of the CIA. "If they had asked me — and let's face it, they wouldn't have — to play a seated Secretary of State or a lifelong politician who eases into that role — again, they never would've cast me — I think I would've done a hell of a lot more research," Leoni admits. "I've sort of enjoyed embracing coming in without that experience and without that mind set. I did have coffee with Madeleine Albright, though. That was one of the hottest coffees I've ever had. I don't mean literally hot coffee, I mean a really fabulous experience. She's a pistol, she's amazing. And she told me some funny stories."
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Leoni, for her part, finds Secretary McCord incredibly easy to relate to. "I certainly do when I think about the heels that I'm wearing and the hours that I keep and my children at home. Those three things are very much the same," she says. "The shoes, God damn it, can we just talk about the shoes? I tell you, that's the hardest part of my job. I am in high heels for sometimes 17 hours in a day. My feet are killing me. I don't know how we do it. I can't even imagine how John Kerry's handling it."
Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter: @nedrick