The last time Téa Leoni had a movie premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, she didn’t get to walk the red carpet. It was back in 2004, for House of D, her husband David Duchovny’s feature directorial debut, in which she appeared as a suicidal mom. ”I was in New York, but I was home babysitting,” the actress says, leaning back in a swivel chair in downtown Manhattan’s swank Hotel Gansevoort. ”David went and got the swag and I was at home changing diapers.” Well, not this time. For the Tribeca debut of You Kill Me, Leoni left the kids with Duchovny. A black comedy directed by Rounders‘ John Dahl, Kill Me stars Sir Ben Kingsley as an alcoholic hitman who falls for Leoni’s unlucky-in-love single gal. (It’s due for release on June 22.) On a sunny afternoon in April, we chatted with the friendly, funny actress and mother of two just a few hours before the big NYC premiere.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I watched a screener of your movie this morning, and—
TÉA LEONI: Oh, God. It’s so not a movie to be watched before 5 o’clock. You watched it at home, in the morning? Oh, this is terrible.
No, no. It was great — a funny way to kick off a long day.
All right. [But] this is a night movie. And an audience movie. It’s fun to see how people react to it.
Which you will, later today. What’s it like to have your movie premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival?
It’s interesting. It’s a festive festival because it’s New York and it’s alive. So many other towns where festivals are held are a little Sleepy Hollow-ish. But, I mean, you worry about how your movie will be received, just on the street. I get less concerned with critics because everybody’s a critic. It’s a little bit like going to the doctor and he tells you you have a tumor. So you go and see five other doctors to find one who will tell you, ”Eh…it’s not so bad.” [Laughs] So it’s fun to be in a more casual environment and watch with a little less worry.
What made you sign on to You Kill Me?
A phone call from Ben Kingsley. I’m not ashamed to say that I said yes before he told me what the project was. Because to say that Ben was on my short list of people I wanted to work with, you know — you almost don’t put him on your list because you gotta figure that’s like asking for God. So I was very pleasantly surprised. Then when I met him, he was the one who told me that John Dahl would be directing. And this was another person who I’ve held in the highest of esteem since The Last Seduction, which is one of my favorite films. If someone were to say what’s your sense of humor, you could almost go to that film. So then to read the [You Kill Me] script, and I was so happy. I just thought, Okay, where is this going to go wrong? I looked for the other shoe to drop. But I can report that the other shoe never dropped. It was a pristine experience. I am rating this as No. 1.
Whoa, even above working with your husband on House of D?
Oh, well, that’s not fair because I was only on set for that one for like five days!
Ben Kingsley has such an imposing on-screen persona. But I just know he’s a teddy bear in real life, isn’t he?
I think he would probably cringe to hear himself described as a teddy bear, but [puts her finger on her nose] that’s true, it’s on the nose. I called him Sir Ben. And he said, ”Oh, no, no, no, please — Ben.” And I said, ”Yyyyeah, you know, the thing is, when’s the next time I’m gonna be sitting, with my pants off, on a knight? I’m gonna stick with Sir Ben, if it’s all right with you.” And he said, ”Yes, all right fine.” He was very funny about it. But that’s how he is, very warm and very available and very goofy. It was dreamy working with him.
What did you like about your character, Laurel?
I’m always gonna like somebody who’s damaged, [especially if] they’re self-damaged. Because a character who’s not laying blame, I can find compassion for. When John and I were talking, I said, ”Have you ever thought about Laurel having a pet? I would really like for her to have a turtle.” Because a turtle is cold. You can’t cuddle with a turtle — they wouldn’t like it if you did. And so we got one, and I thought there was something really sweet about the [scene where she] throws this scrap of food to what we assume is going to be a dog and it turns out to be this big f—ing tortoise. [Laughs] Here’s a woman who unconsciously wants to be close to something, but of course she would pick a turtle. Even a lizard would come close for warmth or something.
What are you doing next?
I don’t know. I’m meeting with somebody, but I don’t want to say it, because if I don’t do it, then that would be weird. But it’s another comedy — that’s all I’m gonna say. Watch, I’m gonna do, like, Sophie’s Choice 2.