Téa Leoni is shvitzing under the lights.
She is several takes into a complicated scene on the Brooklyn set of Madam Secretary, the hit CBS series she produces and anchors, and she’s perspiring so much, her eyebrows are starting to swim.
“It’s hot, right?” she says to no one in particular, fanning her cheeks with her hands. “I can feel the sweat dripping on my face.” Instead of waiting for a makeup artist’s touch-up, Leoni, 49, apologizes for her dampness, then balletically pulls a lean leg to her brow and pats her forehead with the cuff of her tailored dress pants. A handful of crew members break into laughter. Leoni mugs, does a goofy little hip waggle, drops her leg and falls right back into the scene, delivering her lines with captivating political gravitas.
A few minutes later, Leoni is in her dressing room. Pilates equipment rests in one corner (“It’s basically a coffee table—I think I’ve used it once”), along with potted plants, an inviting gold velvet couch with cozy blankets and a full-length mirror propped against the wall, with a floral cotton bra tossed over the upper left corner. Overripe bananas brown on the makeup table where Leoni is getting her face properly repowdered, something she clearly doesn’t relish.
A tomboy and sports lover from an early age (on a perfect day, she is waist deep in a cold river, fly fishing, barefaced and alone), Leoni loathes vanity, embracing every opportunity to puncture the myth of female perfection by belching loudly into her microphone or shamelessly admitting when she’s passed gas into her Burberry trench coat. “Flying Blind was the first time I’d ever heard the words it girl,” she says, remembering her well-reviewed though short-lived 1992 sitcom. “They built me some amazing bustiers for that show. I looked like a D cup.” She recalls being 17 and gazing into a mirror with her best friend when the friend’s mother walked by and proclaimed, “Girls, today is as good as it is ever going to get.” Leoni chuckles. “I didn’t understand back then, but I appreciate her comment now.”
As the set stylist curls her wig—“anything to reduce my time in the makeup chair”—Leoni tells a story about Brett Ratner, her director on The Family Man, the 2000 film in which Leoni’s considerable organic warmth managed to humanize professional eccentric Nicolas Cage. “Ratner—whom I really like, by the way—was going around telling people that despite my age, I was ‘still doable,’ ” she says. “I think I was 34 then. And he was something like 28.”
What upset Leoni was not the reductive misogyny of the comment—something every actress (OK, woman) develops an immunity to—but her own reaction to the assessment. “I asked myself, Do I still care about that? And at that time, I did. I felt that pressure to be ‘doable.’ It was the meanest thought I’d had for myself in a long time.”
The more she contemplated the angles, and the futility, the more she realized she needed to let that instinct go. “Thankfully, I’ve moved past all that. Chasing youth is a war I’m not going to win,” Leoni says, playfully narrowing her striking blue eyes. “It’s not like I’m thrilled to turn around and catch my can in the mirror, but I can see now how much of my happiness could be a victim of trying to stay young and desirable. And it feels like peace and victory to be relieved of that burden.”
Leoni is, of course, still an arresting beauty (and doable). She looks much as she did as a younger woman, unaltered except for a trail of thin wrinkles etched across her forehead and the rogue hairs she happily discusses. Her lived-in attractiveness is the very thing that makes her so convincing as secretary of state. Much like Leoni, Elizabeth McCord, the character she plays on Madam Secretary, is a woman whose priorities extend beyond the mirror. Who focuses outward, on others. Who laughs at herself hourly. A woman we can unreservedly aspire to be.