A life long tomboy, Téa Leoni is not one to shy away from a challenge. So it was with relish that she approached the stunts in her role as a dinosaur-battling mom in Jurassic Park III. Only one scene—in which her character is submerged in a steel cage as an animatronic beast attacks—gave her pause. "She said, 'You know, I have a real fear of being trapped underwater,' " recalls JP III director Joe Johnston. "I said, 'Let's just do this once.' So Téa was underwater, and she was screaming. I thought, 'Oh my God, she's drowning! Get her out of there!' " In fact, she was just doing her job. "I'm fine," Leoni announced when she resumed breathing. "Let's do it again!' "
That up-for-anything attitude is typical of the 35-year-old actress. Consider her decision to marry former X-Files star David Duchovny in 1997 after just four months of dating. (Four years later, they're still going strong.) Or her tireless battle to rescue her NBC sitcom The Naked Truth—finally canned in 1998 after three seasons—before bouncing back on the big screen in that year's summer hit Deep Impact. The addition of Madelaine West, her 2-year-old daughter with Duchovny, 40, certainly hasn't cramped her style. "When I first met her, I thought, 'God, this is an attractive woman but a woman with a little bit of danger in her,' " says Mark Rydell, who costars with Leoni in the forthcoming Woody Allen film Hollywood Ending. "She has a quality which is somewhat reckless."
And earthy. "This is a girl who belches without restraint anywhere and all the time," says her friend and former Truth costar Holland Taylor. "But it's her eccentricities that make Téa who she is."
Maybe so. But these days Leoni is more likely to define herself by her priorities. Though the mega-budget JP III will likely boost her career, "her child, her marriage, family and friends come first," says Taylor. At home in Malibu, where the family shares a $3 million house with their dogs Blue and George, Leoni gets around in a Dodge pickup, boxes to keep in shape and dotes on daughter West (as her parents call her). "She has David's eyes and David's cautious smarts," says Leoni, who took a break from acting between Impact and last year's The Family Man to care for her. "From me she has somewhat of a dramatic tendency."
Indeed, as a child, Leoni's own dramatic flair earned her the nickname Sarah Bernhardt from her paternal grandmother, Helenka Adamowska Pantaleoni, a Broadway actress who helped found UNICEF. Born Elizabeth Téa Pantaleoni to lawyer Anthony, now 62, and his wife, Emily, 59, a nutritionist, Leoni and her brother Tom, now 38 and an antiques dealer in Ojai, Calif., grew up on Manhattan's swank Upper East Side. As a teenager Leoni headed for Vermont's progressive Putney School, where her classmates recall her chomping on jalapeño peppers straight from the jar and chewing tobacco. "We thought it was cool," says former roommate Dana Hokin. "We liked to spit."
After graduating from Putney in 1984, Leoni studied anthropology during her two years at New York's Sarah Lawrence College. In 1988 she accepted a friend's dare to try out for a TV revival of Charlie's Angels. Though the show never made it onto the air, Leoni had found her calling. In 1991 she married Neil Tardio Jr., a commercial director, but the pair split more than two years later. Leoni then landed the lead on Naked Truth in 1995, where she struck up a well-publicized affair with the show's married creator Chris Thompson.
Her romance with Duchovny has proved far less tabloid-worthy. The pair were first introduced in 1992 at an audition for The Tonight Show. But sparks didn't fly until five years later, when a mutual agent set them up on a date. "My first impression was that he was incredibly quick-witted," Leoni recently told Talk magazine. Plus, she added, "I thought he had really nice thighs."
Duchovny was equally smitten. "Téa's just very funny and game and strong," he told Cosmopolitan last year. After a whirlwind courtship, the pair wed in May 1997. That fall Duchovny resumed shooting The X-Files in Vancouver, but with Leoni in Los Angeles, he pushed successfully for the show to be moved there. The pair faced a major test when West, at 9 months old, was hospitalized with a life-threatening case of pneumonia and a respiratory virus.
Now a healthy toddler, West can look forward to having "a lot" of siblings, her mom has said. Though perhaps not enough to fill her collection of custom-built hot rods. "Téa is a total motorhead," says her admiring JP III director Johnston. "She's like the perfect woman: good-looking, funny and she likes cars."
Danielle Dubin and Rebecca Paley in New York City and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles
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