Téa Leoni Is Helping Tell Trans Stories the Right Way—Without Cis Men

Also: Is "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" simply the best?

Madam Secretary herself, Téa Leoni, has had an interesting acting career spanning series like Flying Blind and films like Bad Boys and Flirting With Disaster. And now, she’s executive produced a documentary called Man Made, about four transgender men preparing for Atlanta’s TransFitCon, the only all trans-bodybuilding competition in the world.

Man Made—directed by trans filmmaker-activist T Cooper—was released last week, and, as Leoni said, “Simply put: You see this film, and it changes you.” I chatted with her about this and other passions.

Hi, Téa. So you’re shooting the last season of Madam Secretary. And she has become POTUS.

Yes. Too bad—it’s not nearly as much fun. The president just sits there and decides. It was a scrappier role.

Sorry to hear that. But how is she doing as POTUS?

You’ll find out soon enough. 

Sarah Shatz/CBS via Getty Images
Téa Leoni in Madam Secretary.

I heard that during a break in taping, there was a scuffle when an extra pushed ahead of the craft services line.

I read about that. It’s weird. I don’t know why that made such a big splash. They say any press is good press. But I can’t believe it was so remarkable.

I guess because someone was unruly.

But aren’t they every day. At the White House [chortles].

Did you always want to go beyond acting and produce?

Yeah. It’s inevitable if you care, because being just the actor can be a restrictive position. I’ve produced a few things. Sometimes I just produce to get the ball rolling on things that I think are important. Man Made was something I felt had to be told, and anything I could do to help the filmmaker tell it, I’d go for it.

Have you always been a crusader for equal rights and justice?

I feel if you say yes to that, you should be able to lay out some kind of resume of proof. I’m not interested in laying out a resume. But I have to say, I’m more interested in that than anything else. I’m tired of where we are.
 

The state of our country?

That’s too limiting. Maybe I’m just tired. I remember when T came to me about Man Made. This incredible passion for the story. I don’t think actors necessarily help political campaigns. I think sometimes we should shush it a little bit. But this was an opportunity to give T the platform because he’s exactly the person who should be telling this story. I was shocked at how many documentaries are out there around this subject—transgender struggles and transitions—that are all made by cisgender men. I love that T was going to tell the story. And this is not about the transition. There’s such an obsession with the transition.

I like the fact that it covers four people with different levels of acceptance and self-acceptance, to reflect the diversity of the trans male community as it evolves.

Yes!

What’s a misconception about you or something people may not know?

A lot. I think it’s all a misconception. I think there’s this idea that we know each other because people look at each other’s faces on Instagram, and they feel understood because they’re in charge of that story.

So there are misconceptions?

I think it takes a lot of generosity of spirit. Getting back to Man Made, I love the review that said, “The largest muscle on display is the heart.”

Review: A Star Is Born in Tina—The Tina Turner Musical

Manuel Harlan
Adrienne Warren as Tina Turner.

The flip side of male valor is represented in Tina—The Tina Turner Musical, the latest in Broadway’s succession of jukebox shows that use an artist’s hits to tell their life story. By now, we know the formula for this kind of show: A talented child is misunderstood by their horrible parents, but grows up to be a big star, partly because of a horrible spouse, with whom they break up, only to find themselves in financial ruin until they reinvent themselves and prove that they were the impetus behind their own talent after all. Followed by a medley.

That’s pretty much what we got in The Cher Show (though she had a nice mom) and again, it’s the case with Tina—The Tina Turner Musical, but this time there’s less cleverness and flash and more depth and darkness.

In Nutbush, Tennessee, little Anna-Mae Bullock (a wonderful Skye Dakota Turner) “sings too loud” in church, according to mama (Dawnn Lewis), a deeply misguided parent who only has one potentially good piece of advice: When battered by your husband, fight back. Anna-Mae—AKA Tina—ends up mirroring her parents’ relationship by hooking up with the exciting but destructive singer Ike Turner (an effective Daniel J. Watts), who promotes her to renown while controlling, demeaning and beating her on a regular basis.

Bloodied but not defeated, Tina finally breaks free, and Act Two begins the more conventional Behind the Music-style story of her rising out of oppression, fleeing the dead-end of Las Vegas, and re-emerging with a comeback album full of texture and commercial appeal. Along the way are encounters with racism, ageism, and misogyny, as you come to see the pain behind Tina’s wiggy looks and infectiously strutty moves.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd and written by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, Tina is dramatically involving, slick-looking (thanks to sets and costumes by Mark Thompson), and, except for a couple of awkwardly shoehorned numbers and telegraphed moments, well-constructed as you see Tina grow into a woman who refuses to be putty in anyone’s hands, least of all some man.

But none of this would be all that earth-shaking without a good Tina, and Adrienne Warren (Tony nominee for Shuffle Along) happens to be a great one. Capturing the bristling diva while imbuing the part with her own heart and soul, Warren is a stunning performer who brings passion to hits like “River Deep—Mountain High” (pre-psychotic producer Phil Spector, played by Steven Booth, helpfully tells her to just sing the notes), “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” And after being bashed and bouncing back for the umpteenth time, she returns for the de rigueur performance medley of “Nutbush City Limits” and “Proud Mary.”

Is it Shakespeare? No. But this is one of the better jukebox shows, and Warren is “simply the best.”

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.
@mikeymusto