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INT: Tea Leoni

Téa Leoni sets a new standard for basket cases with her performance in SPANGLISH, James L. Brooks’s tale of cross-cultural family dysfunction, opening this Friday. As Adam Sandler’s neurotic, self-obsessed wife, the woman literally quakes throughout the entire film as she attempts to deal with the many challenges that affluent Beverly Hills housewives face. She also has a pretty memorable sex scene, featuring an orgasm that rivals that of Meg Ryan’s in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. Téa, looking great as she nears forty, stopped by the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills last week to talk about her experience making SPANGLISH. Check it out. Your character is hyperactive throughout the entire film. When did you find time to breathe? 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? 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 it is 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. Do you think she’s a bad mother? 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. 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, (thought) “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? 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. 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. What is it that you think initially drew these two characters, you and your husband, together? What’s the backstory? 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 backstory 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? 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? 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 vain; 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 actors say, “Oh, they’re really generous,” but unfortunately it’s a very good expression for it.

Were you trying to top Meg Ryan in the orgasm scene? (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. There’s a thin line between drama and comedy. When it’s difficult to decide which way to go, is that when you rely on a guy like Brooks? 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. Your makeup really goes awry in one scene. Jim was very supportive of the makeup 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. 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. Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at [email protected].
Source: JoBlo.com

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