‘Madam Secretary’s’ Téa Leoni on Her Character’s Real-Life Inspiration and 6 Other Emmy Contender Quickies

“He’s the most even-keeled, diplomatic, fair person,” CBS star tells TheWrap about the man who taught her the art of diplomacy


Hollywood has taken notice of Téa Leoni’s powerful portrayal of a fictional secretary of state in the CBS breakout drama “Madam Secretary.”

Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA operative pulled into politics by her former boss, now president of the United States.

While she is one of the most powerful women in Washington, McCord faces the delicate challenge of balancing a demanding career and family life.

An Emmy contender for Best Actress in a Drama, Leoni spoke to TheWrap about her character’s real-life inspiration [it’s not who you think], her costar Tim Daly and Los Angeles traffic.

What was the toughest thing you had to do this season?
Not laugh. We have a cast of comedians. After every very serious take, there was always some sort of tomfoolery so we’ve got a huge, huge blooper reel from the first season.

What was the most fun thing you got to do this season?
Getting to work with some of the great — Oh! Sorry, I’m driving and almost got rear-ended. Excuse me. That was not a fun thing from the first season — Having these amazing guest stars. Hanging out with Bob Schieffer and pretending like I was on “Face the Nation,” that’s as close as I was ever going to get to him.

Let’s say someone has been living under a rock and has never heard of “Madam Secretary.” What would you say to convince them to watch it?
Honestly, it was [the real] Madam Secretary who put it best. Madeleine Albright told me that what she loved about the show was that it was making foreign policy acceptable, real and fascinating. I’m paraphrasing, slightly. And enthusiastic.


Who else on the show deserves an Emmy and why?
I would really have to push for Tim [Daly] in that one. It’s a bit of a groundbreaking role, but he’s managed to make it work. I wonder if people would be willing, in a way, to accept and be able to rally behind this character, the man alongside a very powerful woman. This is the most modern man we’ve seen. In the wrong hands, it could be rejected and that would be tragic. Tim has made Henry [McCord] graceful and hot.

Are you a binge-watcher or a once-a-weeker?
I’m a binge-watcher. I don’t have a once-a-week available. I couldn’t have every Monday at 8 p.m., or Friday at 10. When I can, I just grab it like potato chips. I sit down and eat the whole bag. The last thing I binge-watched was “Orange Is the New Black” with my daughter, who is transfixed by the show. And “Psych,” because my kids are really into it. I basically binge-watch what my children want to watch. It’s not quality time, but it’s quantity time with the kids.

If you could add a new category to the Emmys, whether serious or silly, what would it be and why?
Hmm… Hard to do while I’m driving… Boy, I wish that was a category. Best Driver. I’ve got to tell you — I’m an excellent driver. I’m probably a better driver than I am an actor. I’m talking to you from the 101-South [freeway in Los Angeles]. I’m a New Yorker, I don’t drive [as much] and I drive better. I want an award for that… Honestly, the entire problem are the guys in the left lane. It’s for passing only. I know this. I could get an Emmy for that.

You previously said your father inspired your portrayal of Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord. What qualities do you see in him that you tried to convey as Elizabeth?
My father [prominent New York corporate lawyer Anthony Pantaleoni] is one of the greatest diplomats I’ve ever met. He’s the most even-keeled, diplomatic, fair person. He’s very reliable that way. Women take a lot of flack in politics when they are so-called passionate about something. When a man in politics is passionate about something, he’s committed. When a woman is passionate in politics, she’s emotional. In a lot of ways, I’ve looked to both of my parents, who are both great diplomats and very passionate people. I’ve watched my dad, through his passion and through his emotion, he’s always done a beautiful job of making the deal work. I want that from Elizabeth. I want it to be believable that this woman can care very deeply and yet can be one of the greatest diplomats of our time.

CBS renewed “Madam Secretary” for a second season of 24 episodes.