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Ryan Eagle Talks with Tea Leoni
Of John Dahl's You Kill Me
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Read Ryan's Review of the Film


I caught up with Téa Leoni at The Gansevoort Hotel recently to discuss her new film You Kill Me. In it, Leoni plays Laurel, an acerbic woman who has found her match in an alcoholic hit man named Frank (Ben Kingsley). She talked to me about the nature of subtlety in film, what she hates about relationships in life and in the movies, and about an unfulfilled childhood dream job. -Ryan Eagle

Tea Leoni and Ben Kingsley in You Kill Me

Ryan Eagle: You’ve done comic roles in the past and both you and Ben Kingsley are extremely versatile to say the least, still neither of you really spring to mind when someone says “comic actor.” In You Kill Me the deadpan exchanges between you guys were really funny and really captivating. So I’m wondering if you got the feeling that the humor would pop once you two started working together? Did it come naturally or was it something that you had to cultivate?

Tea Leoni: I think that the script clearly indicated that there would be some funny…some funny! And I think Ben is certainly one of those actors that because Gandhi might be the first thing that comes to mind, people don’t think he’s going to be as funny as he is. But he has a very good ear for comedy, especially in character. Because I think he’s so willing to be vulnerable and the best part of funny is someone who’s distracted – who is so focused on some sort of self-consumption that they get caught off guard, you know? And he has this sort of delightful boyishness about him that gave a gentleness to what otherwise is pretty dark with some pretty dark circumstances in the film. I never felt like – oh, we need to go back and try and make that funny. Definitely not. I don’t think even in a film like this that it ever works that way. There were times that we did actually find – that’s not a funny scene. And John [Dahl] would very graciously say, “Well then that’s not a funny scene,” not willing to go in and hack around with it in order to get a laugh. That’s the comfort that comes with a dark comedy because it means that the dark is so acceptable that you can miss a joke – inadvertently or on purpose – and it can still work. It just becomes something else that is appropriate.

Ryan Eagle: It was pleasing to see a relationship between two obviously damaged people without having to wade through mushy dialogue or explicit “cry your eyes out” backstories…

Tea Leoni: Yeah – Good! I’m so glad! That’s one of the major points that I make when talking about this film.

Ryan Eagle: Could you speak to the importance of subtleties in your character and your performance a little bit?

Tea Leoni: Well first, I just – again, I want to thank you for that question.

Ryan Eagle: (laughing) You’re so welcome!

Tea Leoni: You know when I read the script the first thing that jumped at me when I knew I was going to do this movie and as I was reading the script I was thinking, “oh, God it’s going to be on the next page,” there’s going to be that terrible monologue where we hear why Laurel is so damaged. And then I got through the script and actually – he’s going to kill me, but – I’ll just say “a manager” of mine said, “Yeah, but I mean they’ve got to rewrite or do something ‘cause – I mean, I don’t know why she’s so damaged. I mean what happened with her stepfather?” And I thought (flashes the O.K. sign) now I’m sure I’m right.
I was so appreciative of that confidence from the script and also – I get offended by that as a woman in film – that it seems like we always hand that to the chick of the flick. Let’s give her a half a page, A) to seduce her into doing the movie and B) so that we can just have that soft, little lovely about why she’s damaged. I love the fact that the damage that was brought to Laurel was all my own imaginative, demented work. And I got to go as far as I wanted and at times it would show itself in a way that probably was too much and John [Dahl] could tell me to put a little bit less at stake. You know, clean up the seven-year-old birthday party that was a disaster or whatever. Just take that out of my back history – and we could sort of laugh about it. You know I think what I got reading this script – I got that she was damaged and it was my bit to figure out how or why. And it wasn’t a random choice. That was when I looked to Frank [Ben Kingsley] and what it is about this man that excites her and changes her. There’s a sort of squeal that starts to come out of Laurel a little bit like a playfulness, which I think is because she’s finally met somebody who is exactly what he says he is. And my backstory for her – that’s never happened before.

Ryan Eagle: It’s a cliché in life, often mirrored in romantic comedies, that women sometimes try to change the men they love if not to simply improve them then to mold them into their ideal mate. Laurel completely accepts Frank and his flaws. Do you feel that that dynamic gave the film and your character an air of calm and maturity not present in some other cutesy romantic films?

Tea Leoni: Well, I think one (places hands in hip pockets and leans back in her chair) – if we could just speak to it – one of the things that I hate in relationships and romantic comedies both, is that…pestering – that banter of oh, he’s so blah, blah. Look at what I have to do, look at what I have to put up with. With that sing-songy tone, rolling the eyes and bending over to pick up the shoes or whatever it is…I find it dull and unrealistic and completely lacking any kind of depth. It’s a relationship I wouldn’t wish on myself. I look at some of those romantic comedies and I think you know what’s funny? You’re screwed. I give you a year at best. Six months more likely. Two months appropriately. And I think what was sort of greatly celebrated in this movie was – isn’t this what really good love would be? Which is you find somebody – you’re not a match for everybody – but then you get to find that one person that fits so well. I mean that to me, that’s what makes this movie – this relationship in this movie – so sexy. You’re right. There isn’t a change and we don’t see Laurel get disappointed cause he went off the wagon or whatever. They just don’t exist in that kind of – that fairytale realm. And two damaged people can’t anyway.

Ryan Eagle: So much of comedy comes from dealing with pain. In this film there’s a thoughtful balance between humor and pain for both Laurel and Frank. Were you conscious of that balance during filming and did it complicate the role for you?

Tea Leoni: (frowning) Um –

Ryan Eagle: – In other words, the comedy grows out of the pain sometimes –

Tea Leoni: – Oh, I think it always does, the best comedy anyway. I mean I look at any comedic role I’ve ever played and I’m always coming from a place of a woman who believes her life to be at stake…(pause)…over something really dumb. I think that what makes it not just funny, but so digestible is that it’s so endearing cause you’re watching somebody screw up all by themself – you know, they’re their own worst enemy kind of thing. So I think in this one, again, there was no sort of conscious sort of thought of where’s the funny. We could see that out of these two people and these two finding each other – and again I want to give plenty of credit to the script. There were some great dialogues in there between the two of us and occasionally, you know we’d take it one step further or we’d change things in and out, but it was there on the page.

Ryan Eagle: Please forgive this next one. Your childhood aspiration of becoming a tollbooth attendant on the G.W. Bridge is well documented in many of your bios. Any jealousy over Luke Wilson’s job as a tollbooth attendant in this picture?

Tea Leoni: (laughs)

Ryan Eagle: He even has some funny scenes with Sir Ben in the tollbooth. Seems tailor-made for your youthful aspirations.

Tea Leoni: Ah, no. No jealousy there. But I – listen – I will defend my interest and my ambition to be a tollbooth collector –

Ryan Eagle: – Really? (interrupting)

Tea Leoni: – Because it makes perfect sense to a child. I’ve grown up and since understood that apparently the money they collect doesn’t go into their own pockets. So I am gracefully relieved of that ambition, but at the time I thought it made a lot of sense. You were in this cozy little booth, and all day long, all night long, as long as you wanted to stay at work people just handed you money. I mean it’s genius, actually.




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