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Tea Leoni returns

In her first film since facing motherhood, the luminous star brings her maternal instincts to ”The Family Man,” opposite Nicolas Cage

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Those who say Hollywood lacks family values clearly haven’t met Tea Leoni. After the release of the disaster epic Deep Impact in 1998, she embarked on a nearly two-year hiatus to have a baby with husband David Duchovny. Now the 34-year-old actress is returning to the big screen as a New Jersey mother of two in director Brett Ratner’s The Family Man. The what-if comedy-drama (written by David Diamond and David Weissman) finds the onetime sitcom star playing the college sweetheart of a callous Manhattan executive (Nicolas Cage), who awakens on Christmas morning in an alternate dimension where he has married said sweetheart and moved to the burbs.

Right now, preparing to dodge dinosaurs on the Los Angeles set of Jurassic Park III, Leoni is back to playing mom for real. In fact, the actress is so at home goofing around with 18-month-old daughter Madelaine in her trailer/playpen that she doesn’t even need a question to start the interview.

TEA LEONI: So, I’ve decided I like irony.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m sorry?
I was thinking that I’d love to see a couple of these Jurassic Park chase sequences [scored] to the Partridge Family’s ”I Woke Up in Love This Morning.” I guess because it turns it into more of an amorous dinosaur attack.

So it’s an all-they-need-is-love kind of thing?
Yeah! It’s just a big misunderstanding. They woke up in love, and with their size and sexuality they have physical problems expressing it. There’s no outlet for their love. It’s a sexual challenge, really. And that’s the reason for our fear and screaming when we’re running away from them.

Your executive producer Steven Spielberg will be fascinated to hear this.
[Laughs] Look, these are my lines today [flips through script]. Well, um, I don’t have any.

None?
Well, there’s running and screaming. But no lines. I’m beginning to wonder if when I return to films with lots of dialogue I’ll be out of practice.

So what do you actually see while you’re screaming? Hand puppets?
Occasionally a big hairy grip holding on to a something-asaur or a whatever-adon. That is some of the funniest footage I’ve ever seen in my life. And you throw in the Partridge Family and… magic.

We’ll have to wait for the DVD, I guess. So have you completely forgotten about The Family Man?
It’s creeping back up on me. I’m excited to see Nic [Cage] and Brett [Ratner] again. I can’t even believe I’m saying this: I might even be looking forward to the press junket.

One of the film’s biggest laughs comes when Cage wakes up — suddenly a father of two in New Jersey — and sees you belting out a tune in the shower.
Cool! What am I singing? ”Beast of Burden”? There was an issue with whether the producers could afford that song. The other options were ”Brick House” and ”Shining Star.” Classics, really. But ”Beast of Burden” is perfect for the movie. ”Brick House” resonates differently, if you know what I mean.

So you took some time off to have a baby. What made you choose The Family Man for your first movie back?
Well, Nic. And the script. It did scare me to play a mother when I’d just had a baby… but this reeked of something you’d want to show your kid. [Madelaine, near tears, tugs on her khakis.] Well, honey, we’re not shooting owies today. Oh, you want an owie? Well, you go get one, and then come show me.

Huh?
I was really concerned about having blood all over my face in front of her for Jurassic Park. Then we figured it out. We told her [these wounds] were fake owies, that they don’t hurt. And she sat there and looked at it. Then we gave her one and boom! She became a fake-owie addict. Let me tell you, we have more Band-Aids all over the house…. [Sighs] But anyway, she was only 7 months old when we started The Family Man and I didn’t feel I was up to the physical and emotional task of taking on something more complex.

Like running from fake dinosaurs?
Like running from fake dinosaurs. And Brett was such an enthusiastic director. That he got this movie surprised me, because my first reaction was, What? He’s like a 26-year-old twerp! There’s no way this guy…

…who did Rush Hour
…well, Rush Hour was extremely well directed, in my opinion. Still, how did this punk get it? But he proved himself. He’s got it all figured out. You know how I was saying that I’ve decided that I like irony? Brett has irony, but he also has soul. I could see reading the script and saying, Okay, it’s just about whether or not to be an a–hole. And if not for Brett, that’s what it would have been. [Madelaine returns, hands covered with fake cuts.] Oh, you did get owies! Whoa! Did a helicopter go down or something? You’re a wreck! Look at that.

Hollywood seems fascinated with the idea of somebody — usually a corporate guy — who has made wrong choices and then has to learn serious life lessons.
Well, it’s a fantasy, right? All of us do it. You look through an old address book, or think, How on earth did I get here? What if I’d only done this? And I love Nic doing that. I think he’s great at being put-upon. I always remember Raising Arizona and Moonstruck. This was clearly a return to that — and I wasn’t going to miss it.

You’re usually characterized as more of a Carole Lombard screwball type. The Family Man seems much more straight-ahead sweet.
You’re right. But you have to understand I’ve been gone for a while. It’s not so easy to return and say: ”Here I am! I’m ready, Mr. DeMille.” I had to reintroduce myself. When you leave Hollywood to have a baby, it becomes very mysterious. People are like: [Whispers] She went and had a baby. Omigod. Well, where is she? Where did it happen? Does she live here now? Where did they go? And remember, I hadn’t done very much before this — just Deep Impact, Flirting With Disaster, and Bad Boys.

And in Bad Boys you were mostly getting dragged around.
Exactly! [Laughs] And then the television show [The Naked Truth], which was fun the first year, trying the second, and by the third year had become like a horrible ex-boyfriend. I was really ready to leave it all. This was a good way to ease my way back in.

Was taking the time off a difficult decision?
Leaving was easy. Coming back was, well, well researched. I talked with other actresses. This industry actually caters to mothers — I couldn’t imagine a better job! [Gestures around the trailer] I mean, we have this room for her, she’s not lacking for anything.

For your next film, it was reported that you might be working with director Jonathan Demme on the dark comedy Intolerable Cruelty.
I adore him. And I am dying to do his movie. But I gave my word to [Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings writer-director] David Russell that I would do a film with him. He’s bringing over his new script at 3 o’clock today, in fact.

What’s it about?
I am not allowed to say. There’s more secrecy around that than Jurassic Park III. But I’ll tell you one thing: There are no dinosaurs.