Q&A with Téa Leoni

The actress talks about 'House of D,' her fear of co-starring in the film, and what she thinks is 'funny'

Téa Leoni plays mother in 'House of D'
Téa Leoni plays mother in ‘House

Sometimes interviews can surprise you. When I arrived at the hotel in Manhattan to participate in the series of roundtables designed to promote House of D, the film written and directed by David Duchovny, I wasn’t sure which person was going to come in first.

I have to be honest and say I was very much looking forward to meeting Robin Williams. But when Téa Leoni entered, I was pleasantly surprised. A lovely a woman in person as she is on screen, she speaks with a deep, sultry voice. That, accompanied by her dry wit and piercing eyes, and suddenly I was thinking, “wait, who? We have other people to talk with today?”

And Téa Leoni thankfully had some interesting things to say about House of D and her experience working on it, so it all worked out well for everyone. Now, enough with this drivel, on with the questions.

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Question: How did you prepare for this role?

Téa Leoni: I had the work to prepare as an actor, and then I had the work to prepare as the wife of the director. Being in his movie, what a dumb choice that was. That’s all I could think about as I was flying in, I was like, ‘I’m such an idiot’. I didn’t want to be in this movie before I read it, because I thought, ‘I don’t want to be his wife who clearly slept with him to get the role’. And I didn’t want to read those headlines later on when it comes out. And then I read it, and it was irresistible for me. I think it’s exquisitely written. If it wasn’t my husband I would take all the credit for it, but it was written just pitch perfectly. But as to how I prepared for the role: I have experienced the loss of intimate people in my life, who were really a great part of my life, and I kind of played around in that arena. But what made the role so perfect, and why I wanted to play it so bad, was the Nerf basketball scene. It’s that moment in life, where you’re in the throws of tremendous grief, and you think you’ll never laugh again. You know you’ll survive and live, but you’re not going to laugh anymore. But then life does that thing where it slips you that fifteen, twenty minutes where you have no grief. All of a sudden you’re in the presence of the life you remember or the joy you had. Then when that moment ends, the grief comes back and settles back on you like a hat waiting on a stand by the door, and I loved how he wrote that. It was just exquisite, and I had to do it. I had to risk being that wife in the film.

Q: How do you think people will react to that scene where Anton pulls the plug on his mother?

TL: I think that it’s a powerful scene, and I think that while people have referenced the Schiavo publicity in the last several weeks, I think what makes this impactful is that none of us would want that decision to fall on a twelve year old. I think that’s more of what you look at in this moment… Here’s a kid who makes one decision, a very extraordinary decision and it changes his life forever. I can’t marry the news of today with what happens in the film, because it’s so specific about a child making that decision.

Q: What was it like working with David, and having him direct you?

TL: Well, thinking about it sucked, but when I got there it was actually pretty cool. It was all right. I don’t know, I never thought he was going to put on this beret and become an asshole. But, in fact, he was just as calm and rational and articulate and brilliant as a director as he is in the kitchen. And it’s not that I was surprised by that, but I gotta tell ya I was relieved by it. I just didn’t know what to expect, and whatever he would throw at me I wanted to be accepting of it and supportive. Oh, I was a wreck. It was just… I was so anxious that whole week. I thought I would screw it up. I had a hard time with that scene where I’ve taken the sedatives, and that’s always difficult — I find — when you play a character who’s just altered their state with some substance. You need to know what the substance can do, you should have some experience of it or some way you can exaggerate on a smaller experience to know what it might be like. But you still have a story to tell, which is presumably why you’re still in it and not immediately passed out. And how to marry all that, and instead of going up to David and calmly saying, ‘I’m having a tough time finding this’; I just went, ‘I’m gone, I’m out, I don’t know, I don’t know where to go, I don’t get it, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m lost, I’m drowning, I’m dying, I’m suffocating!’ He took me around this corner and gave me a very good tip about acting under a substance, and then he said, ‘But I love you anyway’. And then I was like, ‘Ahh, okay, I can do this, thank God’. It was just so stupid, it was like I just needed that reassurance. Normally on set I don’t need to be stroked or padded on the back by a director, but I really needed to be stroked and padded on the back by David.

Q: What was the tip?

Téa Leoni in 'House of D'
Téa Leoni in ‘House of D’

TL: I can’t remember exactly. I think it was something like, how when you’re drunk, this idea that you’re on a Ferris wheel. And someone asks you a question and you have to wait until the seat comes back around until you can get the answer. So, even though you want to answer, you have to wait. And if you ever watch someone who’s drunk, it’s like they’re on a Ferris wheel, and their little car hasn’t come around to let them off yet.

Q: Did David Duchovny involve you at all when he wrote the script?

TL: You know, it’s really cute. He wrote it, and he’ll tell you six days and I’ll tell you four, and his office is above the garage. And he’d write ten or twenty pages in a few hours, and he’d run them over to me, then run back and write some more. That was so much fun to read the script that way. And, no, he didn’t involve me. Because when you’re writing a script in four days, you’re on a role. I fed him, I didn’t talk to him, and I didn’t want to interrupt him for a moment. But it was really fun, because these pages just kept flying in and I was just dying to know what happens next. And at that point, I thought it was perfect, and I don’t know that he made that many changes to it. So there wasn’t much for me to do. You know, except feed him.

Q: Were you around the set more often for that level of a part then you normally would have been on any other movie?

TL: Sure, yeah, because it was fun. And the kids were there, and when is that ever going to happen. We’re both on location on the same spot, right on the same block. And I often felt like I was there because I had him in bed. So I knew what was going on on set even when I wasn’t there.

Q: How did you feel about your co-star, Anton Yelchin, who you did the majority of your scenes with?

TL: You know, they say don’t work with animals or children, and I’ve been very lucky. Or beware of working with animals and children. Or whatever it is. Some caution about animals and children, can’t remember exactly what they say, avoid it, steer left, whatever. I’ve been lucky so far, but this was beyond a stroke of luck. Anton, I think he’s a genius, literally a genius. And he’s extremely sensitive, and I can’t say that this is the recipe for the most joyful life, but he has all the makings of an incredible artist. If he wants this, he can do this, if he can stay in it, he’ll be the most brilliant actor of his generation. And it’s devastating, ironically, to see that kind of talent because that kind of talent is quite painful, I think. He’s amazing. I liken acting with someone to a tennis match. If they suck, so likely will you. You’re game comes down. If you play with someone that is better than you, you’re game comes up. And I think acting is very much that way. And I was really very happy to be working opposite Anton, because my game came up working with him.

Q: Who else do you think brings your game up?

TL: Nicolas Cage, we had something going on. Jim Carrey brought the comedy bone out, and just made it so accessible and easy. Really specifically and unforgettably, Al Pacino. We rehearsed for fourteen days, and were on set for like eleven. And working with him is extraordinary, it’s just such a treat, because anything you hit at him he’ll give. And he doesn’t want to know what’s coming, and he doesn’t need to know what’s coming, and you can change it up and he’ll keep playing. I don’t know, I don’t think I’m a very good player, so there are a lot of people out there bringing my game up.

Q: What does that feel like when that’s happening? When you’re game is being brought up?

TL: Well it makes you forget the terrible place that you’re at. I don’t know, I find it a terrible place, this thing about acting. You’re very rarely comfortable, because not many people write you comfortable, because how interesting is that? So usually you’re playing somebody who’s in some kind of pain. Or at least that’s what I keep doing to all my characters. They’re always in pain, they’re always more neurotic than they need to be, more worried. There is much more at stake for them than I ever truly experience in my own life. I always do that. So when you work with somebody that is so great and so talented, you can forget. It becomes joyful, it becomes the most fun you can have outside of bed.

Q: Now that you’ve worked with Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, can you tell us what makes you laugh?

TL: In film, the thing that makes me laugh is when someone is not winking. If I feel like someone is winking, I am so far out of that theater I’m gone. If I see it coming, if I see them not putting at stake what needs to be at stake, that’ll ruin the whole film for me. And I just need one wink, and I’m gone. So what I think is funny, in particular, about guys like Adam and Jim, is that they are so fully committed at times. They have their entire body and spirit at stake at times, and it’s very funny. They can play complete losers, with no hope, and I find that funny. In my family, the way that we do it, all the horrible things that I did to my parents, or my brother did, all the dramatic things we went through as kids we laugh about. I think tragedy is funny. Like when people tell me stories about when someone fell down and they didn’t really get hurt, I find that funny. I don’t know, survival is funny.

Téa Leoni in 'House of D'
Téa Leoni in ‘House of D’

Q: How did you enjoy shooting in New York?

TL: You know, I could live, shoot and do characters only in New York and I would die happy. I would be artistically satisfied. I love New York, I love playing a New Yorker. You know in California, and no offense to anyone who’s going to read this, but really, there’s nothing there. I’ve never been into that state. I don’t get it. I don’t get the weather. I don’t get the traffic. I don’t get the hair. I don’t get any of it. I just don’t get it. But I come back here, it’s just, New York is a character. But out there, the lighting is shit. It’s just all this… anyway, I’m getting on a role.

Q: But your kids are out there?

TL: I know, I gotta get them out of there. We are talking about it a lot, David will tell you about it. I keep pushing places on them, and he’s really starting to lose his sense of humor about it. I need to get the kids out of there. They cannot grow up out there. I’ll go to Miami before I stay in Los Angeles, and that says something about me.

Q: Have you finished shooting Fun with Dick and Jane yet?

TL: Yes, I just wrapped on that. That was really fun, that was crazy. This guy Dean Parisot who directed it, he did Galaxy Quest. That was a really wonderful experience with him. He’s very funny, and he too hates winking. We really pulled something off there. It’s a lot of funny, but it’s going to be a really socially relevant film. It’s a period piece, it takes place in the year 2000. I really like period work, there were a few less Prius’ on the road. But I had a lot of fun, I had a great time on that.

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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