She plays Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord on the CBS drama “Madam Secretary,” and you get the feeling Téa Leoni could probably do the job in real life. Her grandmother, Helenka Pantaleoni, helped found UNICEF and served for more than a quarter century as president of its American arm. Her great-great uncle, Maffeo Pantaleoni, was an Italian finance minister and a League of Nations representative. Her father is a Harvard Law-educated attorney, and she herself is a UN goodwill ambassador.
Diplomacy’s loss is the screen’s gain. Elizabeth Téa Pantaleoni, who’s just turned 51 but looks at least 15 years younger, earned great notices for the well-reviewed yet single-season sitcom “Flying Blind” (Fox, 1992-93), in which she played a libidinous free spirit in love with an ordinary guy. She’d made her movie debut in “Switch” (1991) and went on to films including “A League of Their Own” (1992), “Bad Boys” (1995), “Deep Impact” (1998), “Jurassic Park III” (2001) and “Tower Heist” (2011), plus the sitcom “The Naked Truth” (ABC/NBC, 1995-98). She pulled back on her career while raising daughter Madelaine, 18, and son Kyd, 14, from her 1997-2014 marriage to second husband David Duchovny.
Leoni sat down for coffee at a Manhattan café with frequent Newsday contributor Frank Lovece.
Hillary Clinton had stepped down as secretary of state about a year before “Madam Secretary” debuted. Have you ever spoken with her?
No, but I’m such an admirer of hers, obviously. And I’m also heartbroken [about her not being elected president] . . . Who I did meet with for this part was [1997-2001 Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright. We met down in D.C. and I knew I only had a limited time so I was firing questions at her. And then she came and was on the show, as Secretary Albright, and it was very interesting because she said, “You must stay involved in politics. You must stay involved in politics.” And I remember other things, like a bulletproof raincoat she once had. I was fascinated with that.
A bulletproof raincoat — she was James Bond!
[Chuckles.] Right about the same time she made a statement saying that she loved the show because it made foreign policy less foreign. I think that’s certainly our greatest compliment.
You and Tim Daly [who plays Elizabeth McCord’s husband, Henry McCord, and is Leoni’s real-life partner] attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner together in 2015.
It’s funny, that was [CBS newsman] Bob Schieffer and Madeleine Albright inviting us, so we went as a foursome. I was Bob’s date and Tim was Madeleine’s and we had a great time. I’ll get out for that, you betcha. But I don’t go out — you don’t see me at fashion shows. They had to put it in my contract to get me to go to my own premieres.
“Madam Secretary” debuted in 2014. Has the feeling on set changed since the results of the presidential election?
Honestly, we’re all still just wrapping our heads around it. I think we all are. My biggest worry is — and [series creator] Barbara [Hall] and I have talked about this — what does this do to the show? How can we compete with what has now become the most fantastical news?
Tim broke both legs skiing in January. How’s that affecting the show?
He’s impacted for the whole run of this season. It’s a broken ankle on his right leg and on the left he crushed his tibial plateau. He’s had surgery, two or three pins, and it’s hard, but it’s interesting. There’s not a lot you can do until that surgery heals, until the bone really takes to the screws. God bless, he’s got an amazing attitude — he’s a fighter. At first he was like, “Well, we’ll just say Henry broke his ankle.” But one broken leg is very different than two, because you’re not on crutches with two. You’re in a wheelchair. So you’ve gotta mess up both [of the character’s] legs in the writing.
He’s still going to be on the show, though?
We wrote it in: Henry’s busted up both of his legs. Tim was desperate to get back to work. I think it was five days after surgery that he was pretty much back. The good news is that a full recovery is expected soon, maybe another month or so.
You were born Pantaleoni. Do you know [actor] Joe Pantoliano?
[Laughs.] I said to Joey when I first met him, I said, “Pantoliano? That’s not even Italian! It means nothing!” He goes, “What are you telling me?” I said, “Pantaleoni — it means ‘lion at bay.’ I don’t know what happened to you coming through Ellis Island, but that ain’t a name!” [Laughs.] Then I say, “This is actually getting creepy because you kind of look like my dad in a way.” And he says, “We’re probably cousins — they screwed up your name coming in!”