Just give her a banana peel

Tea Leoni loves physical comedy -- and acting with Jim Carrey was icing on the cake

Spotlight

December 18, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

NEW YORK -- Tea Leoni isn't one of those actors who becomes whatever she is playing. But roles tend to rub off on her a bit. "It does affect you," she says, her sky blue eyes widening for emphasis.

That residual effect is one of the reasons she was so happy to act opposite Jim Carrey in Fun With Dick and Jane. In the comedy, opening Wednesday, they play an upper-middle-class couple who, after Dick's sleazy boss absconds with all the company's funds, resort to robbery to maintain their lavish lifestyle.

Not that she needed laughs in her life; on that front, she has no complaints. Nine years of marriage to actor David Duchovny has produced two kids (daughter Madelaine, 6, and son Kyd, 3) and what she insists is a pretty happy and stable domestic life in Malibu, Calif. "We've been very lucky," she says.

But Leoni, 39, had just come from playing Deborah Clasky, the obsessive, overbearing wife and mother at the center of James L. Brooks' Spanglish. She needed a break.

"That was really tricky," she explains of a character as hard to embrace as any to appear onscreen in the past decade. "Waking up every morning, and knowing I was going to climb into those shoes was just ... I remember turning to David and saying, 'I don't know how to do this. I've never been challenged like this.'

"I was in this experience of playing terrified and attacked and unloved and misunderstood and unsure and neurotic and all of that. ... You experience it. I had to be that woman, and I am not ready to do it again. Time for a pack of bananas."

Fun With Dick and Jane, a remake of the 1977 film starring Jane Fonda and George Segal, proved just the relief she needed. Not only did it fulfill her longtime desire to work alongside Carrey, but it also played to her strengths. Ever since her three-season stint as a tabloid photographer on the TV comedy series The Naked Truth, she's been known for her willingness to take a fall.

"I really enjoy physical comedy," she says. "I like watching it, and I like doing it, both. Sometimes, I even like watching me do it, which is really, I could say, the only thing that I like watching me do. And Jim, being one of the kings [of physical comedy] ... I had been requesting to work with Jim for quite a while, through my manager."

Likes director Parisot

Given the New York native's start in Hollywood -- she was hired to star in a new series version of Charlie's Angels, but a writer's strike caused its cancellation -- it's surprising that Leoni can be choosy at all. But The Naked Truth, although it was shuttled between two networks (ABC and NBC) and was never a ratings success, earned her uniformly good reviews. And roles in such movies as Flirting with Disaster (1996, with Ben Stiller), The Family Man (2000, with Nicolas Cage) and Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending (2002), honed her reputation as a comic actress able to cross over into more dramatic roles. She even held her own against marauding dinosaurs in Jurassic Park III (2001).

When Leoni was offered the part of Jane Harper (after original choice Cameron Diaz had to drop out, she says), she jumped at the chance. Her role was substantial, offering plenty of opportunities to work side-by-side with Carrey. And the film was to be directed by Dean Parisot, whose last film, Galaxy Quest, a sci-fi parody starring Tim Allen as a TV starship captain who's mistaken for the real thing by an alien race in need of a hero, proved an unexpected delight.

"I so, so, so, so, so love Dean's movie, it's one of my all-time favorites," Leoni says, with a breathlessness that suggests she's not exaggerating.

What did cause Leoni some reluctance with regard to Dick and Jane was the thought of signing on for a remake. Fortunately, she had never seen the original.

"I saw one scene of it a long time before, maybe even around the time it came out," Leoni recalls. "And then I didn't want to see it, because I would start to emulate Jane Fonda, whether I wanted to or not. That's part of the actor's bane, that you're going to lean that way."

Humanitarian nature

But Leoni is confident the new movie will hold its own against the original, carve out its own territory. It even plays to her humanitarian nature -- she's helped raise money for AIDS research and served as a roving ambassador for UNICEF -- by shedding a light on the kind of corporate greed she believes runs way too rampant in today's America.

"Corporations have a lot of blood on their hands," she says. "I think more and more corporations honestly are beginning to say, 'Wow, are we up to that?' Because I think some people don't even know they're up to it, and they are beginning to question it."

Now, with Dick and Jane behind her and her emotional equilibrium once more established, Leoni thinks she is ready to tackle the dark side again. Her next role will be as Sir Ben Kingsley's wife in You Kill Me, a drama directed by John Dahl (The Last Seduction, Rounders).

Of course, "thinks" is the operative word.

"I'm about to embark on something very dangerous again, and I'm nervous about it," she says. "I think the only way that I would agree to do this is because I have spoken at length with Ben Kingsley about this, and told him that I'm scared. And he was beyond a gentleman. For me, in a one-hour meeting, he's like a knight in shining armor."

And if Kingsley's help isn't enough to keep her grounded? Surely, other comedies will come along.

"I had a really good time slipping around with Jim Carrey," Leoni says with a deep laugh. "Maybe after the one with Sir Ben, I can find another flight of stairs."

.......................

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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