Press tour: Tea Leoni's 'Madam Secretary' is more 'Good Wife,' less 'Scandal'
"Madam Secretary" shares a Washington D.C. setting with one of TV's hottest dramas, "Scandal," but the similarities will end there. "Secretary," a new CBS drama starring Tea Leoni as a one-time CIA analyst who steps into the role of Secretary of State, airs on Sunday nights beginning this fall, serving as a natural bridge between the in-depth current events reporting of "60 Minutes" and the high class drama of "The Good Wife."
So don't expect to see Leoni sleeping with the President or facing off with a mother who's an international terrorist. As executive producer Barbara Hall ("Joan of Arcadia") explained during a panel discussion at the TCA 2014 summer press tour, she's aiming for something more, shall we say, realistic.
"From what I understand about 'Scandal' and [NBC's] 'State of Affairs,' [our show] is a little less heightened reality than that," Hall explained. "We're really trying to pull back the curtain on how the State Department works and surprise people with what really goes on. We heighten it a little, to condense time more than anything."
For one, the show is soliciting advice from people in the know. "Recently the director, David Semel, and I had the good fortune to have lunch with and talk to Madeleine Albright," Hall said. "She's very very eager to weigh in and help us, she's very excited about the show."
Hall said the meeting came about through series stars Leoni and Tim Daly, who plays Leoni's college professor husband. "Madeleine Albright is my White House Correspondents Dinner girlfriend," Daly joked. "We meet there every year and we've become very close. She gives the best restaurant recommendations worldwide of anyone I've ever known."
Although the show has already generated comparisons between Leoni's character, Elizabeth, and Hillary Clinton, the topic barely came up during the TCA panel. Hall nevertheless subtly stressed the distinct qualities of Elizabeth as a character, pointing out that she never had the ambitions of a career politician and still has "a recognizable home life, a successful marriage and two children still at home."
Hall also confessed that her stint on season three of "Homeland" may have influenced one of the pilot's less expected subplots -- a conspiracy involving the death of the previous Secretary of State. "One of the elements of her stepping into this job is she's coming into the position of someone who's died," Hall said. "She's inheriting this role. She's inheriting the staff and everything he put into place before her. I thought it would be an extra challenge for that the person she's replacing to may have been involved in something untoward and the tentacles of that may affect her for a long time."
As to whether the show will reflect current events, Hall said she thinks of the show as being set roughly five years in the future, "without being futuristic." That will give the characters a chance to respond to fictional events with lessons that are still being learned in present day. "If we do tell a story like Benghazi it's not Benghazi it's another Benghazi -- a situation that mirrors something we might be familiar with," Hall said. "We [want] to use everybody's awareness of those events ... There's no way to do another Benghazi without saying, 'Here's how it happened last time and what we learned.'"
And, ideally, avoid criticisms of political bias (good luck with that these days). "One of the things that's interesting about doing issues of global politics is in the immediate need of addressing the problem you don't have a right or wrong yet, a Democrat or Republican response," Hall said, perhaps a bit naively. "We're able to be non-partisan which is nice."
Luring Leoni back to TV after years devoted to film work and raising a family was pretty straightforward, at least according to Leoni. "I've always really enjoyed a fish out of water [story]," Leoni said about what attracted her to the material. "By about page two of the script I knew that was what this was going to be. Barbara's writing is just spectacular. I called [CBS President] Nina [Tassler] after my first read through of the script and said I was in."
But why now, after years of networks courting her for various pilots? "My kids -- at 15 and 12 -- are ready," she explained. "I turned to my 12-year-old son and said, 'This is going to be tricky. I'm not going to be around as much, are you cool with it?' And he said, 'Yeah, I'm getting kind of sick of you.' So, I'm back."
One major trope Hall hopes to avoid: a powerful woman whose husband is unfaithful. "Right now [we want to] steer away from [that]. What I really wanted to do was create a successful marriage," she explained about the relationship between Elizabeth and her husband, Henry. "I believe they exist, I've seen them. I believe the challenge of creating a woman in leadership is to not show her life broken in every other respect."
"One of the things I loved about this project when I read it was the potential for this relationship and this marriage," Daly said later, returning to the topic. "It's dynamic, it's difficult and it is, as Barbara said, highly functional in a very realistic way. I think there's lots of room for this character to grow. Without saying too much I think there's more there than meets the eye."
"The idea of having him be a professor of religion is fascinating," Daly added. "You may have noticed that religion has played a significant role in ideological and violent conflict around the world. His knowledge in that field will be pertinent to whatever Elizabeth is dealing with."
Although the panel didn't include any members of the cast beyond Leoni and Daly -- despite an ensemble that includes Emmy winners Bebe Neuwirth and Zeljko Ivanek, Tony winner Patina Miller and Mr. Christina Hendricks, Geoffrey Arend -- it did include Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, an executive producer on the show. That led to the inevitable question: Might Freeman ever appear on the show?
"One never knows, do one," he joked, in a way only Morgan Freeman can. "Whether or not I show up [on screen] is going to depend on Barbara and the kind of ideas she comes up with in that smart head of hers."
But he did offer up one intriguing possibility: "We've got Tim here whose character is a religious professor. There may be some place in that for me because I have a little experience playing God."