NEW YORK (AP) — Wednesday was Tea Leoni's birthday. But when referring to her age recently, she realized she wouldn't be turning 50 this time, but 49 instead.
"I keep doing this!" she laughed, meaning giving her age a boost. Ever since her last birthday, she had reported her age as 49. "I lost 48 this year — totally!"
It started as a playful goof on the ploy of a friend who routinely claims she's eight years older than she is. "Then people tell her, 'Oh, my God! You're GORGEOUS!'"
There is no need for Leoni to give herself any such cover. She is gorgeous, agelessly and naturally, even bundled in sweater and jeans against a raw winter day in a sandwich shop near her Manhattan apartment.
Besides, she's a woman who knows who she is. And what she wants.
"I really do want to do something special for my 50th," she announced in her husky purr.
This was a rare day off from shooting her CBS political drama, "Madam Secretary" (airing Sunday, 8 p.m. EST), which, since premiering last fall, has spurred one question over and over for its star: Who inspired her portrayal of her character, Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord — real-life counterparts Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice or Madeleine Albright?
"For a while," Leoni said, "I joked around that it was (Henry) Kissinger, because I was getting so tired of the question."
But the truth is, she's inspired by her dad.
Anthony Pantaleoni, she said, "is the most even-keeled, most diplomatic human being!" A prominent New York corporate attorney, "he has the grand empathy to see both sides of a question. I can discuss things with him, and he doesn't get adamant that there's a single right way."
He even inspired Leoni into acting.
"I was going to be an anthropologist, and I was really good at it. But I wasn't passionate about it. He said, 'Don't do something because you're good at it. Do it because you're passionate about it, and you'll GET good at it.'"
The advice paid off for his daughter, whose many films include "Fun With Dick and Jane," ''Flirting With Disaster," ''Deep Impact," ''Spanglish" and "Jurassic Park III." Her previous series include the sitcoms "Flying Blind" and "The Naked Truth."
On "Madam Secretary," Leoni plays a woman of strength, charm and forbearance juggling obligations as a world figure, a wife and a mother of three. The show, renewed for a second season, is not so much about overcoming opposition as finding common ground — whether at work or at home.
Co-stars include Bebe Neuwirth and Zeljko Ivanek as well as Tim Daly ("Private Practice"), who plays her loving husband, Henry.
"To me, Henry was the real breakout character," said Leoni. "A theology professor, with a twist. I love that she can come home with her ethical dilemmas and he can be like my dad, the guy who can see both sides and is willing to talk about it."
Reports suggest that Daly has become Leoni's leading man off-camera as well as on, although she chooses not to discuss such matters beyond saying, "Tim Daly sure is a swell fella."
Her 17-year marriage to David Duchovny ended last year.
"It's not to say we didn't both have hurt, but David and I still adore each other," she said. "We text every day, deal with the kids" — their daughter and son, now 15 and 12 — "every day. He is part of my family." He even remains close with his former in-laws, she added: "We are a perfect tennis foursome."
Family is important to Leoni, who grew up in Manhattan and counts 25 cousins living nearby. Also important are friends, many of whom she has kept since school days. She makes time for hobbies (she loves fly-fishing) and serves as a national board member of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, which her grandmother founded in 1947.
Bottom line: The entertainment world isn't the be-all and end-all for Leoni, nor is her acting career, which she largely put on hold in recent years in favor of the role of full-time mom.
"Sometimes people say, 'Do you wish your career had amounted to more?' And I think, 'Ouch!' But the answer is: no.
"With acting," she explained, "I love everything between 'rolling' and 'cut.' I love it! It's everything else" — deals, promotion, celebrity — "that's hard and I don't really love." Those are things she has mostly kept at arm's length.
"When I watch a scene I'm in and remember hearing 'rolling,' it's like the memory of a friend." Between "rolling" and "cut" and beyond, she summed up, "I've had it exactly how I've wanted it."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore