on making DEEP IMPACT
interview by Douglas Eby
As someone caught up in the impending disastrous collision of an comet with Earth, Jenny Lerner (her character in DEEP IMPACT) is a "woman who is in need of the comet" says Téa Leoni. "There are other characters for whom the comet comes early, or comes as a simple tragedy. But for this particular character, I think she represents those of us who are not quite aware of what's important in our lives. Nothing like a comet to reorganize your priorities."
Leoni adds more description: "She's very ambitious, and not very connected with her fellow human beings, and perhaps most importantly, with her parents and her family, in a way. And the comet makes her rethink -- I've always said that I would like to live my life, not like I had two days, but like I had two years. So it was very interesting for me to hear of this story, because I thought, Wow, I've always wondered about that."
While there will be inevitable comparisons between DEEP IMPACT and a related asteroid disaster movie, Leoni emphasizes "We are not doing ARMAGEDDON. This is not, as I presume, straight special effects and testosterone. It's much more of a look at the human side of it. I was just speaking with a friend who saw TITANIC, and he had an interesting comment that, yes, there were the probably millions of dollars spent on special effects and the details, but what made it work was it was a good old-fashioned love story.
"And in a sense I've felt that about a lot of films recently. We've all been dazzled by great explosions, and great reality reconstructed, but without the human link and the great human story, or the romance or personal tragedy, who cares?"
She says it is always hard for her to talk about the quality of a film before she's actually seen it: "It's even more difficult for me to talk about any film I'm a part of, because I have a tendency not to see them ever." But given that, she thinks this film will be one of those which keeps attention on the human drama: "What I was aware of were the attempts -- though I don't know how successful they were yet, I haven't seen it -- to really spend time with, and elaborate on the human reaction.
"I absolutely had the sense that Mimi Leder really was concerned with that. And there are plenty of small scenes that I know about that regard the human reaction, and there are scenes I did with Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell where it was really nothing about a blue screen and a comet, it was everything about our relationship. And what would happen if you knew the end was coming, and once the doubt is gone -- I think it's very hard to accept that reality, but once you've accepted it, what do you do?"
That sort of question, What do you do if you know you are about to die, has been a kind of Zen koan to stimulate some thoughtful consideration for many people about what in their life has meaning. Leoni says "I would definitely start smoking a lot, and I'd probably want to love as much as I possibly could. And for Jenny Lerner, that's a challenge. Not the smoking part, she doesn't actually smoke, and I personally would have. She doesn't take up cigarettes, but she does take up interest in her relationships with her family, and getting things cleaned up."
Part of what drives the story of DEEP IMPACT is the increasing concern with millennial apocalypse and major Earth changes supposedly coming with a new era. All that is something Leoni says she thinks about "Not at all. In fact, I don't quite get all the hoopla about it.
"It's a little bit like if you study your history, and take a look at the fact there's not one Christian date, and not even a President's birthday celebration that lands on the actual date of any actual events, I start questioning any kind of anniversary, other than potentially my wedding anniversary, which I know did happen and on that date, and a year is a pretty good place to mark it.
"But the idea we're simply going from 1999 to the year 2000, and beginning a new millennium, other than thinking it's going to be very odd to write that on my checks, I don't find the significance in it. I just don't. It's very odd that everyone is talking about it. All I can think is how are we going to say it; do you say 'the year two aught aught one'? Or is it 'the year two thousand one'? Or do we say 'twenty..' I don't know. What do we say? I think that's interesting.
"And it's going to be odd to think that for all my life, and all my parents' life, and for that matter, all my grandparents' life, we've always put 'one nine' before anything; it's always been the twentieth century."
But there's still a twinge of wondering if there isn't something portentous to this change in dates, Leoni admits: "But watch; some great event's going to occur, and [we doubters] are going to feel very foolish for not respecting this turn of zeros."
As a convenient genre category for DEEP IMPACT, it can be considered a disaster movie, and Leoni notes she has not ever been in a project of this type: "It certainly was a new arena for me. And it is also because I haven't experienced it in my own personal life, it was something that was an all-new experience. Except for mud slides" she adds, referring to having a home in Malibu that she couldn't get to, except perhaps by helicopter, due to El Nino downpours lately.
"And we know mud slides will clean up with a couple of large Tonka Toy-like devices; that should get cleared up in a matter of days. But even facing like twister or tornado movies, or volcano movies, or earthquake movies, that's about the level of natural disaster that anyone has ever faced, and this is certainly upping the ante quite a bit."
Leoni became interested in acting at an early age, influenced by her grandmother, and got nicknamed Sarah Bernhardt. In addition to roles in WYATT EARP, BAD BOYS and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, she's been starring in the TV series THE NAKED TRUTH, originally playing a divorced photojournalist on a sleazy tabloid, and recently revamped to a role as an advice columnist.
Recently she helped produce and appeared in a film with the great title of THERE'S NO FISH FOOD IN HEAVEN. She says her interest in "so-called executive producing" and what she loved about the film was that it has "an almost reckless disregard for its audience. It's absolutely an idea, like a dream, of the director's, and she didn't alter it or rewrite it to match any kind of watchability standard, and I adored that.
"I loved that sense of integrity about it, that this film is not about being successful, this is about having a fascinating time with this. And I wanted to help her get it off its feet, so I said 'Lend my name out; let me try to explain my excitement for this to anyone who's willing to listen.' As far as producing, I don't think in the end, I'm even getting credit in it. I did a little like cameo thing in it, just for the hell of it."
Leoni agrees the distinction between 'independent' and 'studio' movies seems to be breaking down a lot, and when asked if she pursues doing indie film work as some kind of balance to larger films, or her series, she replies "There is no balance to my TV series, other than quitting, which has come up quite often.
"But I'm not willing to say that you will find integrity in independent film, and you won't find artistic integrity in a studio film. I think there is a tendency, especially in television, to be very conscious of what you think your audience wants. And, ultimately, searching out that result is like telling an actor 'I don't care how you get there, but I want tears in your eyes at the end of this scene.'
"That kind of 'glycerine attack' is so unsuccessful. I would rather be working on a film or in a place where I don't know what the result is going to be. Just please focus as best as you can, and trusting your intellectual mind to make a pretty good decision, and then follow through with absolute commitment, and let's see where it goes."
Born and raised in New York, Leoni attended Brearley, a highly regarded private girls' school, and studied anthropology and psychology at Sarah Lawrence College. She was part of the predominantly female cast of the film A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN about women baseball players. She was quoted elsewhere "My thinking was, I want to see how this works - working with a whole cast of actresses.
The experience was worth it, even if the role wasn't." She confirms, "I definitely may have said that" and says she isinterested in doing another women's ensemble project: "Absolutely. Not because of any feminist ideal, but because I'm fascinated by women. I think we are very complicated. I'm glad that I'm heterosexual, and don't have to be romantically involved with women; I think it would drive me nuts.
"Women's stories -- sometimes the gross idea is that they don't sell as well. That may be true. I don't think that's anything to get your panties in a knot over. Okay, so they don't sell. Well maybe we can tell one better."
Her "favorite film of all time" says Leoni is THE WOMEN, the 1939 George Cukor drama starring Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine and a number of other powerhouse actresses of that era. "I think that was a brilliant film" Leoni exclaims.
"And there's a lot of that film that transcends time, that continues to hold true, about women's characters, and the psychology of women in a group, and women in a clique. Women when they feel like their home is threatened. However, there have been talks of remaking that film.
"I wouldn't touch it, because I think it was perfect as it was made, and it should just maybe be recirculated, but it should be reshot. I think there's a tendency in women's films to try to make a statement, and not let the glory of women together speak for itself."
Emphasizing again her thought that "women together are just fascinating", Leoni says she "would not be looking to do a film that had any statement about women. I'd rather make it so you just watch. I know from attending an all-girls school, it is women uninterrupted, as obvious as that may seem. I'm not sure we've celebrated how fantastic that can be.
"It's interesting about that comment about A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN; for me, it was to see what does it take to be an actress. And not seeing so much women playing off of men, and reacting to or bettering their co-star, but simply being in the thick of it and performing. And somewhere I'd imagined you must need a third nipple, because I couldn't figure out why some people were successful and others weren't. I remember walking away from that thinking You don't need a third nipple, there is no black magic."
She affirms the value of her choice to be an actress: "It's simply if you feel compelled to tell a story, acting is a pretty good way to do it. And it's challenging because it may not be, and in fact almost never is, your story, so you're taking someone else's words, and their reality and their truth, and their ending. They will tell you right there in the story where you're going to end up.
"And from that you have to elaborate, and lie a little, and own it a little bit more. And that's what attracts me to the process. I don't know that I could write my own story, sit down and come up with the beginning, middle and end and have a pretty good arc in there, and have people want to see it."
And what about directing, the old stereotypical "real" desire of all actors? Leoni acknowledges "A lot of actors, or some of us anyway, are hesitant to say that. To say it's a cliche is just the tip of the iceberg. At the bottom is that it always appears somewhat desperate. But absolutely, I would love to direct.
"Because I love the idea of watching, knowing that I have an idea of what I want this mural, this movie, to look like when it's finished, but what's going to surprise me and delight me is what the actors and the set designer and costume designer and all the other artists involved, what special tint they're going to bring to it. And potentially, colors and hues that I've not even imagined. That can be very exciting."
Being married to David Duchovny, Leoni has been able to see some of the X-FILES MOVIE as it is being produced. "I saw a lot of dailies this summer that David would bring home, and we would talk about" she notes. "Again to be even one more step removed -- I mean, David himself is removed from the picture. He does his work, and how they edit it, what speed they give to it, he won't know either.
"In a way I wonder if this film will be treated like the end of chapter five, which is the end of their fifth year shooting the television show, all those questions -- will they answer those, and then begin new questions and new secrets and new possibilities in the following season. On the one hand, it appears that some of that will be true. I think that for the diehard fans, they're going to learn, What are those bees after all."
Leoni personally enjoys THE X-FILES, especially seeing one notable actor: "I totally enjoy watching David. He's an actor you never see enough of. He's captivating. He's the kind of actor I would not want to stand on stage with, because I think the moment he left the stage, people would just be concerned with missing him. And I find that for me that's true, and obviously yes, I'm his wife, but when he's not on screen, I miss him. At the end of THE X-FILES, I want to see him a little bit more. And I think that's a great accolade for David's talents. And he's a wonderful being."
Although there were some potential new projects for her, Leoni says she has recently decided, she says, "to wipe my slate. My television show has been just, for lack of wanting to be more precise, has been an enormous experience. And I'm pulling away from the industry right now, and I'm looking to be inspired."
She has four more episodes to shoot and thinks "that will be the end of it. On the one hand very much look forward to that, and on the other hand, I know I'll cry at its demise." But she's hopeful that something new and inspiring will develop to engage her talents.
[originally published in Cinefantastique magazine]
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