Téa Leoni made her name in television on sitcoms like The Naked Truth, but it wasn't long before she hit the big screen in films such as Bad Boys, Flirting With Disaster, Deep Impact, The Family Man, Jurassic Park III, Hollywood Ending, People I Know, Spanglish, Fun With Dick and Jane, and the feature directorial debut of her husband David Duchovny: House of D. John Dahl's credentials are in neo-noir (The Last Seduction, Red Rock West), action thrillers (Joyride), and drama (Rounders, The Great Raid). I sat down with Leoni and Dahl at San Francisco's Ritz Carlton Hotel, where we discussed their new film You Kill Me, why Ben Kingsley's a sexy beast, and how watermelons can be disturbing.
Groucho: Speaking as someone who spends a lot of time in San Francisco, I'm not sure that it's necessarily practical to walk down a hill backwards, but—
Téa Leoni: You should try it. Don't knock it until you try it.
G: I'll try it today—when I head out.
TL: All right.
G: Is it really easier on the shins?
John Dahl: Well, you know when we were staying at the Fairmont, and there's that really steep hill that comes down, we got here for—we were doing a couple of days of pre-production—and I actually saw—because I thought it was just an absurdity from our movie—but I actually saw people walking down the hill backwards.
TL: No, it does. I live on a hill back in L.A. I'm telling you—occasionally you can get sort of that shin-splint thing going if you're walking forward. And I will turn around and walk backward.
TL: It's real, man.
G: We've got the tough questions out of the way.
G: Thanks in no small part to CGI, you only spent a day shooting in San Francisco. So what did you shoot here, and what was that whirlwind like?
JD: Well, you know, we wanted to keep it to the Bay Area. Steve McFeely, who's from the Bay area, wrote the script for here. But also it had the Golden Gate Bridge, which was an important part of story. But it was also it was also being able to walk down a hill backwards. We just thought that—it was just sort of unique and sort of weird about the script. And one of the things I think we always liked about the script is that the were certain absurdities that were just on paper and you'd sort of—I mean, you could change it, but it's more interesting to try to make it work. So all of the scenes that we just could do were walking down the hill, and, of course, it was the—I think it's called Alum Square, where the large houses are—which, we really didn't have those in Winnipeg. So it's really those and the ones of his apartment, and some establishing shots.
G: Sir Ben Kingsley has a high-beam intensity. What would people be surprised to learn about him?
TL: I actually was surprised when I met him, at how boyish he is. He's got a glint in his eye. You know—mischievous. There's something, you know, about age seven in him. And I find that wildly attractive, you know, in somebody who is so powerful and such an almost intimidating presence. But then you sit down with him and he's delightful.
G: Were you privy to his method in developing his character? He claims not to have a method.
TL: No, I don't think he does. Actually, we talked about that in our moments awaiting a new lighting set-up. And I think he approaches everything very individually—each project, I think, he approaches differently. He's aware that if it's—he actually said to me at one point, before we started: "You know, I think that this—I may sort of go under a little bit, because this character is such a lone gunman, in fact." And then when we got up there, and we started to sense the tone of the film, and the way that Laurel and Frank—these two characters—how they played together, he sort of adjusted his non-methodology to fit the circumstance. But, I'll tell you, he is impressive to watch. Occasionally, I just found myself kind of sitting there watching him and then remembering, "Oh, God, I'm in the scene. 'Hold on a second. What?'" You just sort of—your jaw can drop!
G: I loved too, that he had the generosity to ask you what your character needed to see in his character.
TL: Yeah. That was great. In fact, when he asked me that, it was over the phone, and I was so surprised by the interest (laughs) that I said, "Oh. Wow. I gotta call you back." I think he recognized that individually we could only go so far with these characters, ultimately. It would be getting them in the room together that would sort of complete the transformation—the making of Frank and Laurel.
G: Yeah. What about your approach? I know one aspect of preparing the role was coming up with this costume scheme. And I wonder if you sort of begin exterior and work interior or vice-versa?
TL: Well, you know, I have a quirky start, which is, I always have to figure out the underwear. That's the first thing. And it sounds ridiculous, but it's really important to me because when I get up in the morning, before I go on set, I put on that character's underwear. And it just really helps me. It's like a prosthetic nose for my thespian baloney. And, you know, Laurel didn't take long. I knew she was a Hanes girl. Never worn them, but I just knew it right away. And then, after that, yes I do—I think physically I want to be able to look in the mirror and not be shocked or surprised. I want to be able to see this person. We talked about the Darth Vader hair. We just emulate that helmet. I really wanted that sort of military helmet-head hairdo. Which I think I got. (Laughs.) And then, from there, then the fun starts. Then I started thinking about—what was so great in this movie for me is that there was no monologue splashed in the middle of the script where I was going to explain why Laurel was so damaged—why she was the way she was. And with the absence of that, I really got to sort of do my own little acid trip and imagine all the injustices and why she ever got where she was—and also to make up the hope that I really wanted her to have.
G: In the press notes, Sir Ben describes you as "very uncluttered," which I thought was very perceptive. I think that is part of your appeal in cutting through characters without any kind of tics and straight through to the audience. John, how do you see Téa's appeal as an actress?
TL: This better be good because I'm sitting right next to you with a big thick bottle of water in my hand. (Chuckles.)
JD: You know, I think she is—there's something about her that's very genuine. She brings a lot of her own personality to the roles that she plays. And I think what's appealing to her on film is pretty much who she is in person. You know, it's just scripted dialogue and different wardrobe basically. I don't know if—(to Téa:)—is that a—?
TL: I'm just gonna wait--
JD: Give me enough rope, okay. I really think that people—I think the secret is to get people to not act. To just really sort of be themselves and be comfortable in front of the camera. Which sounds incredibly simple, but it's extremely difficult. If you can walk in and do something that's scripted and make it feel like an accident, eighty times a day, it's—try it some time!
G: When you choose roles, are you consciously looking for roles that resonate with your personality? Or is it "Is the script good?"?
TL: Well, I really like damaged women, you know? And I don't actually feel damaged. My parents were very fair and rational.
G: So that's kind of an emotional vacation for you to play—
TL: It is a little bit. I mean, I think it's interesting. I just—more than that—it's just that when I read a script, and it's just some chick waiting to hand a guy a briefcase in the morning, I'm not gonna stand around on set for twelve hours a day and be away from two really beautiful kids and a pretty beautiful husband and work with UNICEF and all these other things that I do. The script has to really turn me on. And I think there are a lot of—oftentimes in film, I think for women, you're asked to play a part in the plot.
G: Or an appendage to somebody.
TL: Yeah. Exactly. And it just doesn't—it's just not interesting enough. Although sometimes they pay you really well. (Chuckles.)
JD: There's something about that.
TL: (to John:) You didn't.
G: You know, the two of you seem to me, in some sense, as having kind of a—not to give this to you the wrong way, but an old-fashioned appeal. It seems to me that (to Téa:) Howard Hawks would have loved you, and —(to John:)—that the kinds of films that you make would have played well in the '40's. Do you have a kind of sense that maybe you were born at the wrong time?
JD: Well, then I wouldn't know how to make movies. No, obviously I love the '40's and the '50's, and I think some of the great films were made then. I just think there's sort of classic stamps were created at that time. Throughout drama, we keep kind of doing the same thing. But there's something very classic that I like about some of those older—you know, it was maybe a simpler time, and drama was fresh and it was exciting and films were brand new. I mean, I think that's what Téa brings to her parts—just this sort of strong, tough, charismatic, you know, Barbara Stanwyck kind of, I don't know—tough. That's what I like about her.
TL: I would have loved to work with Mr. Hawks, but instead I've got John. So I'm happy to be here now.
G: Lastly, I just have to ask, is it cathartic to practice murder on a watermelon?
TL: (Laughs.) You know what's funny? That day, it was sort of a sweet idea. And it got sort of sick. I mean, we were really wrecking watermelon after watermelon—because that, we could afford. And actually, (to John:) do you remember we had that technical advisor? We had a guy who was—he teaches killing. He told us that he actually runs some sort of—what are these, sort of little conferences that teach people?
JD: When he started showing you how to hold the knives so that you could cut somebody without cutting yourself, the look on your face was priceless.
TL: But also it was that—see, if you cut him this way, then the head falls forward, and the spray doesn't go all over you.
JD: The blood goes this way.
TL: And he's telling us this. And then he said, "Well it's good"—actually I don't know who called for the watermenlon, but he said, "It's a good call, because it's about the same." We're like, "God, the same?!" So then, of course, the second I stick the knife in the watermelon, I almost vomited. It was just disgusting.
G: Well, I think we've all learned something here today. Thank you very much, and enjoy your stay.
TL: Thank you.
JD: Thanks, Peter.
[For Groucho's review of You Kill Me, click here.]