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December 2004
Spanglish: An Interview with Tea Leoni

Spanglish: An Interview with Tea Leoni

By Todd Gilchrist

Tea Leoni may be one of the smartest women in Hollywood: She works only when she wants, and even then, only with the best in the business. She's jumped from drama to action, comedy to romance, and done so with remarkable versatility; and each of those experiences paved the way for her latest role, in James L. Brooks' upcoming film "Spanglish". In the film, she plays a frazzled mother whose family falls into disrepair until a resourceful and scrappy maid (played by Paz Vega) starts to work for her. Leoni recently sat down with Blackfilm.com to discuss her latest role, and described just how difficult it is to get crazy on screen, even for as talented a director as Brooks.

You have one of the most cathartic on screen breakdowns we've ever seen.

TL: I think the whole script, and therefore the whole character, was being driven to that scene. It was all about that scene or those scenes rather. In all of the exploration that I did with Jim on this character, from rehearsing for months before production, to just flat out going as low as I could go and as dark as I could go helped me, so that when we arrived at that scene, no matter what would happen up to that point, I was very loaded for it. Those scenes were a release.

With her being so hyper, when did you find time to breathe?

TL: Thank you. Um, this was an exhausting character. There's no doubt. We had the great advantage of not being slammed through a schedule. This was not a two and a half month shoot, this was more like a seven month shoot. And because of that, there were days in between, and sometimes, I'll tell you, it felt like I was holding my breath until the days in between. Deborah drove me crazy, you know, it's hard to kick around in those shoes.

You've played these high strung characters a few times. Are you drawn to them or do people perceive something about you?

TL: No, no, I'm drawn to them. There's no doubt. I think a healthy slathering of neurosis is always fun to work with, and it's mostly that it gives you this very, it's a loaded palette. You have something to start with, you have energy to start with, you have some horrible demon that will speak to you and keep your voice more interesting. A lot of its choices, I think you can choose to make your character. I think I've probably souped up a couple of mine beyond what was intended, because I find that energy, the inner conflict is what makes the spin so much fun, what makes it more colorful. I actually can't imagine playing someone who wasn't neurotic.

What is it like watching yourself play there characters?

TL: I'm not a huge fan of my work. (Laughs) I just mean it's very difficult for me to watch my work in some ways because I am critical of what I didn't get across or I thought I was making one point.

Do you cringe?

TL: Well yeah, no. I remember I saw Family Man at one point and I cringed over my teeth. It was the weirdest thing. I'd worked before, I'd seen my teeth before. I walked away cringing about my teeth. They looked huge to me. (Laughs) But that's the only real cringing. I get a kick out of some of these women. I get a kick out of the sort of nakedness of putting that turmoil on film. I think it's funny.

Do you think she's a bad mother?

TL: I think she's a deeply ineffectual mother. I couldn't have played her, I can't play anybody, I can't start unless I've found a very healthy dose of compassion for them. I will admit to you that, reading the script, I sort of wondered about that compassion, because I wanted to go to Jim and say, 'But she's wrong.' Duh. As I sort of tinkered in there, I started to feel the desperateness that this character feels. She's not, I could relate to her. In the oddest ways as a mother, I could actually relate to her, because I could relate to the self-doubt. I could relate to watching her on screen and that feeling that I think every mother has at some point, especially with the first child, am I doing this right? I qualify that, because by the second child it's like, whatever, you've just got to deal. (Laughs) That wanting so much for this perfect thing, for this perfect life joy in your life and you question whether or not you're doing it right, whether or not you're being as loving as you want to be. Was I too hard right there? Should I be harder, am I spoiling this child, am I ruining this child, what kind of adult am I raising or whatever? So I got a kick out of watching her, because on a very less amped level, I feel for her, I feel for that absolute heartbreak that comes with motherhood. There's some me here, I don't men to be presumptuous that men don't feel this, I don't mean this, but I found that when my child was born, my first child, it felt like my heart broke. It was so much, it was like more than, your heart can't really take it. And your heart kind of breaks in a wonderful, I don't know, mine did. So I imagine that for Deborah, I think all mothers who ever bond or care about their children. Deborah doesn't walk out, Deborah doesn't not see. She sees too much, she tries too hard, and she's almost everything and not anything perfectly.

What do you think is at the route of her neurosis?

TL: It's interesting about her hiring Flor, you know, because she sees that, makes that, she didn't hire her on the phone. And so I thought that was brilliant of Jim that she sees her and sees how gorgeous she is and brings that into her life. And I think Deborah's life is a whole series of those decisions. Where she can actually sense the chaos that she's going to make with this decision and with this opportunity. Flor doesn't create it, Deborah in a way is actually creating this fate. What's at the bottom of it? I don't know. You should spend the first six months with me on this. It was, I think Jim loaded it very well. This isn't the story of every working woman's guilt. It's not that way. I think she did not have an ideal mother to learn from, she doesn't have that reference point, she had children, according to the years in this, she went almost immediately into working full time. At the time that she gets fired, which is a huge issue for Deborah. She's the daughter of an alcoholic, she goes into being a full time mother and her mother's just moved in. Where as, Jim talked about this morning how you're not picking up in John Clasky, a man who's just had an epiphany about how important his kids are. And Jim very carefully avoided the redundancy of that. This is a man who knows exactly how much his kids mean and maybe he always has. And Deborah on the other hand, he put her, just laid at the foot of this crisis. We start in on her life and she's got a whole flurry of things, but I can promise you, the day after Flor leaves that house, Deborah will begin to design another one.

How do you ensure good communication with your family?

TL: Ah, geez. It's funny, I mean, I think the one thing that Deborah can't do is listen. The one thing I think you must do is, as painful as it is as a parent is listen. And it is actually painful, there are things that you want to not have heard or not have seen. I suddenly get the whole drug campaign. I get it. I didn't when they used to do the things on NBC, the more you know. I just thought, 'What?' And then when I had kids, wow, staying awake is the hardest job, the hardest part of this. Not just because of the mere exhaustion factor, that's not what it's about. It's like, literally, staying awake for your children and for every need that they might have and having the courage to be available to meet it, to put yourself in a position where you might just fail. I don't know, that's what we do around our house.

What is it that you think initially drew these two together?

TL: We toyed, we had fun with it. We never married one scenario, because then that could have gotten flat. We wanted to be able to get out of any corner that we might have painted earlier on, which I think is why Jim didn't reference our back-story so much. Adam and I, when we were playing around in Jim's office, and we would play scenes from college, and his decision to leave college to go work at a restaurant, we made up all these little things. It's funny, even now having seen it, I think they're a perfect couple. I get what they saw each other and I get what that looks like 16 years later. You know, what can happen about that and the things that you were drawn to in somebody initially is exactly that thing that will drive you mad later, especially if you're not vigilant about it, about the relationship.

How'd you get your six pack abs?

TL: Well, again, I really wanted to be in incredible shape for this movie. I felt that it was very important, more so then when you see those films about the athlete and then you see the scene and, no way, I mean there was that. But there is, Deborah's athleticism and her obsession with strength and control, independence, which I think a lot of athletes can relate to, was so much a part of her, I couldn't let that go, I couldn't not do that, not just for the appearance of it on film, but it very much helped me to walk around in her body. I've never been in that kind of shape and I'm not in it now. (Laughs) What did I do, I live by a hill. I began walking it and then I began jogging it and then I began sprinting it. I swear to God, I drive by that hill now, even now, and I want to vomit. I can't even walk it any more. It's a real treacherous hill. And then I did Pilates partly because I have found that that's maybe the most genius, therapeutic exercise, whatever, but also I thought perfect for that Beverly Hills, Bel Air white lady. Pilates. Isn't that what they're all, you know. And I knew that I wanted that Yoga pose, I knew that I wanted some move, and I really had to find that one. I kept saying to Jim, 'I'm going to find it, I'm going to find the perfect thing,' and I guess that was born out of, Deborah's the most unbalanced person I've ever met, so I thought, 'How funny to put her in a pose that's all about balance?' And watch her really struggle with it.

What was it like to work with Adam?

TL: I think there are misconceptions about him because I think nobody feels that they know him yet, and that makes people sometimes, bygolly, even angry. He is as boyishly charming as he appears to be. More so, because once he throws in a little intimacy with you, you're completely, you're gone. Working with him, I knew, you know, you have a sense about somebody through the breath of their work, what they're capable of or the right pool that they can spend in. He was very, you know, he's classicly trained. He approaches his work, it's very odd listening to Adam when he talks at panels or things like this. He's very not specific, he's not really willing to stand up and say, 'But I'm,' you know he's not desperate for anyone to think anything of him. He is a classically trained actor who approaches acting with absolute seriousness. He's willing to get hurt. I don't just mean kneading him on the chest, which did hurt, I know it did, but I swear he said, 'Do it!' Anyway, so working with him, I think what was sort of the fun of this is that when he works he gets very focused and is willing to do anything. It's like playing against a great tennis pro. You can hit them anything and it's coming back and I love that about him. He was never vein, he was never concerned about, that I was moving him this way, or if I went that way, something that he did wouldn't be on camera. Trust me, there are those out there who are like that. So it was exciting because he was available to me, and I felt that way about Cloris. It was an amazing cast this way, and Sarah Steel and Shelby Bruce as well, and certainly Paz. It's interesting how Jim found everybody, because on a very human level, these were people willing to be available, willing to be completely, you know that stupid thing that actor's say when they go, 'Oh, they're really generous,' but unfortunately it's a very good expression for it.

This morning he had trouble articulating, so that's not the whole Adam.

TL: No, and it's certainly not, I mean this is, however he feels comfortable or not in public. But when he works it's the kind of specificity and intention that you would need to pull off the performance that he's pulled off. I think he's shy. I mean, it took a while to get to know him in a way. He was always delightful, but it just took a while to feel like I was secure in our intimacies and that he would walk away and maybe have a thought about our conversation or our time together beyond the moment. He's a wonderful human being. This all just sounds so blaaaahhhh when you say it, but I wish you could know him, but don't hate him if you don't.

Were you trying to top Meg Ryan in the orgasm scene?

TL: (Laughs) No. That is truly, I feel, having seen it, one of the ugliest orgasms on or off film of all time. It's a great depiction of Deborah. Other movies have montages where they change clothes and stuff to music. This was the montage that was best appropriate for this character.

Thin line between drama and comedy, is that when you rely on a guy like Brooks?

TL: I was just gonna say, that's exactly when youŠ But I think that was true through the whole film. Jim graciously never asked me to find the tone. He never made it my responsibility to remember it was a comedy. And whether I knew it or not, I need that. I don't go out into something and say this is a comedy. I need them to do that. They have to fiddle with the dial, because I don't like winking. I don't want to wink in anything, and I think that's a big part of our rehearsal, that he was really willing, let's take it on like the hustler, in fact we did rehearse the hustler.

Comedy while getting across moments that are serious?

TL: Jim was very supportive of the make up not working against what I was trying to do. Letting me go to shit physically. Did I just say that, I did. Can I try another one? Letting me be somewhat naked on my face, I think, really helped. Then there's less to balance. There's the realism and the truth of how painful that moment is. And then, on the other hand, there's something very funny to that, to see someone that raw and that desperate.

She struck me as a person who tends to make a production out of everything.

TL: I think that Deborah lives in a place where she believes that her life and the lives of those that she loves are at stake everyday. Survival is at stake. I always loved, and I think I drew from this, when Bernice says, 'It's great for me to worry about this stuff instead of what I normally worry about' and John asks her, 'What's that,' and she says, 'Surviving.' I stole from that for Deborah because I think that was a great sort of ornament to hang in the back of my mind to remember this character every morning. This is somebody who is worried about their survival. You need the genius of Jim to make that funny, to make it watchable to where it's relatable, because we've all got bits of it. And then to see it exaggerated and yet grounded, Jesus he's good.

What work do you do with Unicef?

TL: Well, right now, my father's on the US fund, my grandmother was one of the founders, so we've always been working with Unicef. Mostly my father's been my liaison through the US fund. I suppose I'm an ambassador of sorts. I don't know what it is, what the title is? My father and I have set up, within the US fund, an AIDS action committee and we're now, Unicef has always been working against the AIDS pandemic, but now were specifically raising funds and really targeting this disease in countries where we've been potentially solely as an educational or clean water source. My work for Unicef, I hope and suspect that it will be what I will be doing more of in the future. It's now fitting and I'm ready and Hollywood's going to kick me out any day soon, so I think I'll go over there. But I have a real personal history with Unicef obviously and it's always been a really strong presence in my life.

Do you work more than David now?

TL: No, I don't. We're both sort of fair with each other about, you know, he'll go away or work and then I have my time. Sometimes it doesn't work out as perfectly as we'd like. David's been doing a lot of writing and then there was, he wrote and directed and starred in a film called the House of D, it's just coming out in March. He's just written another script that he'll start preproduction on this summer. Unfortunately he's in New York now working with [sounds like Bark Foinlic] doing Trust the Man. It's hard, like, we work differently. I think there are times where it's less about schedules where we try and balance, is who's doing the more intense stuff. Like, if one of us in the bowels of some very difficult job, then the other could maybe take a lighter fare. I think this is all for the sake of our relationship and the children.

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