Tea Leoni on the trials of Madam Secretary

Actress Tea Leoni (above) on taking on the lead role in Madam Secretary. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Actress Tea Leoni (above) on taking on the lead role in Madam Secretary. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSEPHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Tea Leoni starred in blockbusters such as Bad Boys (1995), Deep Impact (1998) and Jurassic Park III (2001) before cutting back on her career to focus on being a mother to 15-year-old Madelaine and 12-year-old Kyd, her children with actor and ex-husband David Duchovny.

Now, her kids are ready for her to go back to work. "I turned to my 12-year-old son and said, 'This is going to be a little tricky. I'm not going to be around as much to take you to school and all that kind of thing. Are you cool with it?'

"He said, 'Yeah. I was getting kind of sick of you.' So I'm back," says the 48-year-old, whose film career has been confined to supporting roles in recent years, in movies such as Tower Heist (2011). She was speaking to Life! and other media at a press event in Beverly Hills earlier this year.

With the new political drama Madam Secretary, she joins the growing ranks of movie stars making a move to the small screen and is also jumping onto another trend with her comeback: the increasing number of television shows centred on strong female characters with thriving careers.

Madam Secretary, which debuts in Singapore on Sony Channel (SingTel mio TV Channel 320) on Oct 16, will see her play Elizabeth McCord, an intelligence analyst-turned-academic who finds herself becoming the unlikely new Secretary of State of the United States. The star and producers of the show reveal that the character was inspired by Mrs Hillary Clinton, who held the position between 2009 and last year, and the pressure she faced over the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The series will borrow from real-life political and diplomatic dilemmas, with early episodes dealing with an armed mob threatening a US embassy and two American boys arrested in Syria and accused of spying.

In doing so, it had the help of another real-life Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who became the first woman to hold the office in 1997. A friend of Tim Daly's, who plays McCord's husband, she agreed to discuss the show with executive producer and writer Barbara Hall and director David Semel.

"She was very eager to weigh in and help us, she's very excited about the show," says Hall.

A lot of the interpersonal drama will come from the fact that McCord is still wet behind the ears when it comes to her new role, which is thrust on her after her predecessor dies in a plane crash, and now has to jostle with White House Chief of Staff (played by Zeljko Ivanek) for the President's ear.

"I've always really enjoyed a fish out of water (story)," says Leoni, who adds that she knew she would love it "by about page two of the script".

"Barbara's writing is just spectacular. I called after my first read-through and they said I was in."

Viewers accustomed to racy political dramas such as Scandal starring Kerry Washington or Homeland with Claire Danes - in which the heroines' personal lives are typically falling apart even as they excel professionally - should not expect the same here. Nor will they get those series' over-the-top approach to sexual and political intrigue, says Hall, who was a writer and producer on Homeland.

Madam Secretary will have "less heightened reality" than Scandal and other shows set in the nation's capital, she says. "We're trying to pull back the curtain on how the state department works."

And in contrast to the disastrous romances of Scandal's Olivia Pope and Homeland's Carrie Mathison, it will not depict its protagonist's life as "being broken elsewhere". Instead, McCord's husband (Daly) will be a handsome and stable theology professor who is utterly devoted to her.

"I think the challenge of trying to create a woman in a strong position of leadership is to not show her life being broken everywhere else. That is sort of the common theme and it is something that we, as women, have to overcome, that image," says Hall.

"So to depict someone who can manage a home life, who has a successful active and realistic marriage and is able to do the job is the real challenge."

Leoni believes the show's executive producers - who include actor Morgan Freeman - will resist attempts to change this to improve ratings. "I knew Morgan was going to protect this character," she told Parade magazine recently. "He was never going to let it become Madam Sexetary."

Madam Secretary debuts in Singapore on Sony Channel (SingTel mio TV Channel 320) on Oct 16.