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Tea Leoni talks 'Madam Secretary' finale and puppy-crushing on Letterman

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Sarah Shatz/CBS

Tea Léoni’s Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord has survived Bolivian cults, Greece’s debt crisis, and a nasty explosion in the Middle East—all in her first year of active duty on the hit CBS drama. So what can we expect from her show’s first season finale?

The star chatted with EW about this and other pressing political matters—like late-night TV and how we shouldn’t be sweating it.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Madam Secretary finale airs May 3. What can we expect from it?

Téa Leoni: Oh gosh, where to begin…I’m feeling really good about it. It’s been a long time since I’ve done television, and in film, you have your 2-3 months or longer; it’s as good as it gets and it’s done. What I hadn’t thought about is, your first season is your trial. You discover so much, and it’s so fun because you find you may be brought on to fill a certain palette, or make a certain color, and then it explodes into a completely different color. It’s the same for Elizabeth McCord—I’ve been playing around to really find her because this is an ongoing thing, and I have a little bit of a tricky job because on the one hand, she’s Secretary of State. On the other hand, I don’t want her to ever get so polished she resembles a lifetime politician. So there’s this balance, and of course she’s going to get better at it. I’ve been using her lack of experience as a bonus; her deftness doesn’t come out of her experience.

What’s on tap for the final episode?

In the final episode, we flash back to how she got there; not just prior to her life in the CIA, but to her marriage and what these commitments mean to a relationship and how it impacts it, and how [Tim Daly’s] Henry and Elizabeth have handled themselves.

Will Elizabeth deal more with her PTSD? Marsha Mason just appeared as her therapist in the last episode, in a really nice bit.

Yes, she does, and I have to tell you: I was sooo thrilled to get a chance to work with Marsha. I hope she’ll be willing to come back and work more with us, because that’s certainly the intention. The PTSD was an interesting idea. Elizabeth is not battling addiction or a bad marriage or personal crisis that might derail her…and, oh, I feel like I’m describing her as dull!

No, she’s very centered. That’s what I like about the show—it never creates drama purely for drama’s sake, and it shows how this woman fits into this dramatic puzzle that’s been put in front of her.

Oh good, I’m so glad you’re writing this, and it’s not on me with my pre-finished cup of coffee because I don’t really get literate until four o’clock [laughs]. We came to this episode when we were discussing how long we wanted story arcs to be. Like we’ve had the [late] President Marsh storyline last through the whole first season, and then we discussed Elizabeth being involved in this coup in Iran, and this explosion that took place.

I felt strongly it would be ridiculous if Elizabeth weren’t affected by that. This is not a woman who was in the field. This is a mother with a beautiful family, and post-traumatic stress would be a likely outcome. And I didn’t want to treat it lightly as something where it’s, like, ‘she pops pills and now she’s fine, and now that can be season 4’! Through research and everything else, we came up with this idea of a therapist. We would be gravely remiss if we didn’t cover that as well. Elizabeth has her confidantes that we’ve seen talk [to] about her work, but getting a female therapist is so interesting because now we can see her talk about Henry and her marriage.

Over the season, we’ve seen an advisor (Kevin Rahm) reviewing Elizabeth’s current staff. Is there any danger of losing any of them, any pink slips coming their way?

Not any plans, no. [laughs] The State Department has to stay alive, and one of the big things in season 1 was how many people their budget can afford, and I’m hoping we will also be able to grow some of the staff and have some new visiting characters. We have Kevin now—I love that character—and I hope we’ll get Sam Daly [son of Tim, who played Daisy’s medical-marijuana lobbyist fiancé] back; it’s really fun to think of a lobbyist for pot mixing it up with the State Department. That’s brilliant.

I also loved your recent scenes with veteran actor Philip Baker Hall, who played the Foreign Service officer going into retirement.

What a joy to work with him! You’re rehearsing on the day, and instincts are flying. So we are changing dialogue on the fly, and I love that, and he was unbelievable. We had such a good time. We flew him in, but I have to say what’s great about New York is there are so many brilliant actors and we have such great access. I’m looking forward to more scenes like that next season.

Henry was offered that prestigious job. Do you see the family being fractured going forward?

I don’t think so. [Creator] Barbara Hall has a pretty good commitment to the family being able to persevere through quite a bit, and the flashbacks in that final episode with show much of that perseverance. It shows where they learned it. The National War College [which preps military for high-level foreign policy] is a really interesting spot to put Henry. We want to see more of Henry working with Elizabeth, not just at home, and have his stories loop back in.

Henry’s practically a diplomat at this point.

Yeah, pretty much. [laughs]

One last thing: Your network-mate David Letterman airs his last Late Show May 20. What do you remember about appearing on his show?

I had this, maybe, 14-minute flirtation or infatuation with Dave. I don’t what it was. I walked in, sat down and had this strange kind of puppy crush.

Was this your March 1996 appearance, around when Flirting With Disaster came out?

Yeah. I was an absolute idiot, like a dolt, on that show. I couldn’t get my thoughts straight, and I was sort of taken with him. And I remember thinking, ‘This is just so ridiculous. Snap out of it! You have three and half more minutes!’ And I don’t think I ever recovered.

I think he may have had the same feeling. I remember him speaking a lot and very nervously.

It was the oddest, most hilarious, bizarre, potentially one-sided romance that lasted about twelve minutes. And I never really saw him again. But I have to say, I was talking to David [Duchovny] the other night, and he was on with Letterman recently. And he said ‘You know, I felt really sentimental saying goodbye to him.’ And David’s probably done the show about 20 times. He said it felt very nostalgic, he said it was a little bittersweet. But then again, I never thought any of us would get over Johnny [Carson] leaving. I’m very impressed by some of the new cats coming on; they’re really keeping that playfulness alive. David Letterman has that same boyish humility to him, after all this time. Maybe that’s what I found so charming and fell in love with for that few minutes.

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