International intrigue is a distant memory for Elizabeth McCord, or so she thought. The former CIA agent has traded in spook life for academia and a family, but when the sitting Secretary of State meets an untimely end and McCord’s tapped for the gig, she finds herself more deeply embedded in diplomatic skullduggery than ever.
Téa Leoni, who plays McCord on CBS’ sharp new series Madam Secretary, can relate. The actress made her name on network TV in the 1990s, but in recent years has focused on family, philanthropy and the occasional film. Like her character, though, Leoni recognized a good opportunity and jumped at the chance to return to the small screen for the right kind of role. Here, she discusses politics, party lines and her Washington style inspiration.
It’s been 16 years since you last had a series. What made Madam Secretary the one?
The moment I met my character I thought, this is my kind of gal. I like someone who’s not comfortable where she’s at; it was going to be hard and it was going to be awkward and it was going to be funny.
Washington’s often called Hollywood for ugly people. Do you see a parallel between politics and the entertainment business?
When I first read the script I said to my agent, there’s something familiar about this role for me, because her relationship to politics is very much like my relationship to Hollywood. This woman is coming into a new job saying, ‘I want to do this,’ and for me, this is also a job that’s everything I want.
What kind of research did you do to play the Secretary of State?
I hung out with members of the Tea Party, members of the Republican Party, members of the Democratic Party and got to hear everybody’s take. I had breakfast with Madeleine Albright and she’s awesome. She gave me a copy of her book and said, ‘Here’s your first script.’
Early in the show, your character’s tasked with polishing her look. Do you have a Washington style icon?
I don’t want to present a woman in a man’s suit, so I’ve been thinking about women who were unequivocally powerful and feminine at the same time, like Katherine Hepburn or Greta Garbo. These women could be wearing a silk blouse and you still wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley.
Can we expect you to turn up with Callista Gingrich hair?
I’m actually going for Newt.