Tea Leoni interview: Tower Heist, Brett Ratner, Deep Impact and Jurassic Park III

What’s it like to work with Brett Ratner? Why is Alan Alda scary? And why was Jurassic Park III quite so special for her? Tea Leoni has been giving us some answers…

It was very early in the morning, US time, when I was connected to Tea Leoni to have a natter about the DVD and Blu-ray release of Tower Heist. It was mid-afternoon in the UK, and I’d had the benefit of many coffees. Tea Leoni, I suspect, had not, as she reminded me several times during our chat that it was very early.

But it didn’t affect, or didn’t seem to, what she was talking about. And it turned out to be a really interesting chat, not least when we got around to her thoughts on Jurassic Park III. Here’s how it went…

I’ve just been watching the deleted scenes from Tower Heist, and I’ve got to ask: do you get vertigo? You’re umpteen stories up, leaning on a pane of glass…

You know what, I’ll tell you, we shot that on a stage.

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Ah, cheating! I should have guessed…

But wait. We were standing by that window, and I think it was at the end of another Brett Ratner 17 hour day. We’re standing on this incredible set – it was just extraordinary, I’ve tried to steal all the cabinets for my living room – and there’s this huge glass window that the car has blown out, so wasn’t there.

So we’re leaning out, doing this scene, and Alan Alda and I just started howling laughing. I think we were a little punch drunk by this point. And Brett was like, what are you doing? What are you guys doing?

I said, I don’t know, but we’re 50 floors up, there’s no glass there, shouldn’t there be a little wind?! It’s supposed to be this exciting moment, and nobody’s even turned on a wind machine? There’s not even a breeze!

I watched some of the interviews from when the film came out theatrically, and you were paired with Alan Alda. It sounded like you two had a blast.

I know. Honestly, I think Alan and I, we had done Flirting With Disaster together, and we just get along really well. When we were doing the interviews, we wanted to be paired together. The whole time on the set, it was like a reunion.

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I’ve just finished watching The West Wing, so my most recent view of Alan Alda is of a deathly serious politician, too.

Right! Listen, let me tell you something, if you’re watching old Alan Alda stuff, you should watch the film where he plays the psychiatrist, Whispers In The Dark.

Spoilers for the film Whispers In The Dark

People asked me when we were doing these interviews, you know Alan seems like such a nice guy. And clearly the two of you are being goofballs. Why would anybody cast Alan Alda to be this dark guy?

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I’m telling you, that movie is one of the scariest and most profound turns that a character has made in the history of film! He’s the shrink, the one the damsel in distress runs to. Towards the end of the movie, she’s finally come out to the country house, and she’s safe, and she’s having dinner with Alan’s character and his wife, and all of a sudden, he grabs the wine bottle, and lunges across the table, and hits his wife over the head and kills her. Then we realise he’s the bad guy. What ensues is this crazy fight scene. It’s one of the scariest moments in films ever.

Did he just have one flicker of a moment when you were stuck doing interviews with him?

Seriously? I was like, while we’re doing this, I don’t want any bottles in his reach! Anything that’s not nailed down.

Whisper Of The Dark spoilers end.

Every interview I’ve read to do with Tower Heist tends to mention Brett Ratner’s incredibly long working days. And the interviews start off very polite, and they get wearier as they go along!

[Laughs] Yeah!

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But you were pre-warned! You worked with Brett before on The Family Man! Did you just forget the working days?

It’s a little bit like when you’re in labour, and the hormones kick in, and they make you forget, so that you will have another child. Working with Brett Ratner is a little bit like that. Something must kick in and make you forget. I did not remember!

I remember the second day on Tower Heist, it was one of these incredibly long days. I must have had a stunned look on my face. And then James [Freitag] the first AD, who was also the first AD on The Family Man, came up to me and said “what, you don’t remember?!” And I lost it. I was laughing so hard and went oh my God, it’s coming back to me, and I’ve signed the contract, and I’m already in the gate, and I can’t get out of it!

So which are the directors that you’ve worked with that are the opposite of that? Woody Allen, presumably?

It’s Woody Allen. With Woody, I remember I had a set call at about 9am, the first shot. We wrapped at 1.30pm. No tragedy, no cold sore, it was just a wrap. He’s got everything he wanted.

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For lots of reasons, then, Woody Allen is an ideal director to work with! Him and Clint Eastwood, perhaps?

I know, I’ve heard that about Clint as well. But actually, it’s more like apples and oranges.

I give Brett a heap of stuff, because he’s the first director that I’ve worked with who’s younger than me. And so, in a weird way, I think of him, occasionally, as my obnoxious, bothersome younger brother. And so every now and then, I’ll flick him on the head, or tell him to pull his pants up.

I have to tell you that I can appreciate the fact that he is like this enthusiastic child. He has enthusiasm that is contagious. You get on set with him, and it’s not that he’s lost, and that he doesn’t have a very clear idea of what he wants. He does know. It’s the enthusiasm, though. He loves it. In a way, you can’t knock that.

I have had an experience in film before with a director like Brett, Mimi Leder. She is the same way. She will shoot thousands of feet of film. And I remembered [on Deep Impact] at one point, I have to say the word ‘tissue’. On about the 125th take, all of a sudden I started laughing.

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In that film, Deep Impact, you gave the world’s finest moment of looking scared in the face of a big pretend tidal wave.

[Laughs] I have to say, it’s one of my finest moments! The truth is that it was the real fear, I knew I was going to have the words as they were scripted: “Oh daddy”.

125 times, I hope.

125 times over! I didn’t even want to say “Oh daddy” once. I had such fear of it, and that’s what you were seeing! Because what I was looking at was a grip, holding a sound boom with a plastic bag taped to the end of it. And he was just raising it, so that our eyelines would match.

So you’re looking at a carrier bag, and saying “daddy” basically?

Yeah! I’ve had such fun…

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A few years later you appeared in Jurassic Park III, though.

Right, running from a bag this time!

Actually, I will tell you in all seriousness, Jurassic Park was therapeutic for me. I took that film because Steven Spielberg called. And when Steven Spielberg calls you and says jump, you just say how high.

But the truth is that I’d been through a very traumatic illness with my daughter. And I hadn’t actually processed it. I went into mother bear mode, and I’d been by her, in her bed with her, for ten days in the hospital. And you never break, you never cry – you can’t. You have to be there to make these decisions. I had kind of buried it. It was so terrifying and so painful, so once she was breathing again and going to survive, I just wanted to move forward.

And then Spielberg called with this script. He said, I want you do this. I said “how high”. And then I remember when I read it, it was a woman who had lost her child, albeit in a jungle with dinosaurs.

But for me, I wanted to play it out. I know this sounds totally weird, and I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this, but it was a huge thing for me. Really. I was in there. I tell you, it was some of the best work I ever got through. It was so incredibly close to my heart that when that weird skeletal frame, the guy in the parachute, pops out of the trees, I had a blast with that. It was such a relief for me, because I was so caught in the drama.

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Have you watched the film since with your daughter?

You know, no.

That’s going to be something when you do.

It’s interesting. I haven’t watched the movie with her. To be honest, I’ve never told her that story. It’d be the right time now, she’s 13 almost.

I have to say that she’s a knockout kid, a phenomenal child.

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[At this point we’re told we only have time for one more question]

Shall we end on something just a little lighter then, but still relating to Jurassic Park III? I remember there was a point with the film where we were told that the ending was cut back for budgetary reasons. That it was supposed to end on a big shoot out between the military and the dinosaurs. Can you shed any truth on that?

Listen, I have no idea! [Laughs] They don’t tell me anything!

Tea Leoni, thank you very, very much.

Tower Heist is on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from March 19th 2012.

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