"For me, it was cooking," she tells TVGuide.com with a laugh. "The kids hate my cooking. They totally don't appreciate it!"
The push and pull between professional and personal obligations is one her new TV alter ego knows well. "It's just finding the time to do it all, which is of course also a theme of the show. How do you, and what do you toss overboard?" she says. "It's relatable for me so I like playing it out."
On Madam Secretary, premiering Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET / 8 p.m. PT on CBS, Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA analyst-turned-college professor and a mother of three who is suddenly thrust into the position of Secretary of State. "I think what attracted me to the role was the fact that this woman was a fish out of water," Leoni says. "She probably shouldn't be in this job. Would she be? Maybe. Could she be? Definitely. But she's definitely working outside the box."
Elizabeth's challenges as the new girl in the administration are just a small part of the equation. There are also the international crises, the inner-office politics of the state department, as well as Elizabeth's duties to her children and her husband, Henry (played by Tim Daly). "I was really intrigued by the idea of what's it like to go to the state department and run it during the day and be concerned with the safety and well-being of 70,000 employees, the biggest arm of our government, and then come home at night and deal with your daughter's boyfriend's texts that broke up with her at midnight the night before," Leoni says.
Much like Elizabeth's return to Washington D.C., Leoni's return to series television comes after a lengthy sabbatical. Much has changed on the small screen since her network sitcom The Naked Truth went off the air 16 years ago. "I feel really honored to be coming into this show at a time when we're very accepting and people are very enthusiastic about watching complex, strong women and watching us succeed and fail and stumble and celebrate," she says.
Madam Secretary came at the right time in more ways than one. "I had just gotten back from Jordan when I got this script," Leoni says of a trip she made with UNICEF, for which she has served as an ambassador for 13 years. "I'm ticky like a baseball player. I figured there had to be some reason how those events were colliding, overlapping by about a day."
After passing on several TV projects in recent years, Leoni knew this was different. "Somebody said, 'How did you know that you had to do it?' It's really, honestly that I knew that I couldn't not do it," she says. "I have passed on things for reasons that were personal, reasons that were professional, and the ones that you rue the most, I think, are the ones where it isn't about whether or not you'll see somebody else doing it, it's just that you'll miss it long after it's gone. And I felt that I would miss this long after it was gone."
After CBS agreed to shoot the show in New York City where Leoni lives with her two children — "that was really my one caveat" — she signed on. However, after years away from the TV grind, starring on an hourlong network drama was a big time commitment. "There have been quite a few people who have come up to me and said, 'Whoa, No. 1 on the call sheet and on a drama, huh? What were you thinking?'" Leoni says. "When David [Duchovny] was doing The X-Files ... the hours on that show were extraordinary, so I didn't go into it completely ignorant. I felt like this part was worth it."
Leoni also made sure to do her research for the role itself. She read books written by former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton, in addition to traveling to Washington D.C. and meeting with the "lifers," aka those who have remained in the state department through multiple administrations. "It was interesting to talk to these lifers and say, 'So, what's the hair like?' and ask them the stupidest questions you can come up with," Leoni says. "I did do research because I had to know that they walked and talked not just like they did on The West Wing. That just couldn't be my reference point. As great as that show was, I felt like I needed to go see."
Sounds like Elizabeth McCord could take a page or two from the book of the busy woman portraying her. "I think you have to know that these are real human beings that are making these calls, sometimes very tough calls," Leoni says. "I always wanted to know, like, how did Hillary put her feet on the floor when she got up in the morning, and the answer's probably something like just like everybody else and we're just going to show that."
Madam Secretary debuts Sunday at 8:30p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT on CBS. Find out why it's one of our editors picks:
Additional reporting by Robyn Ross.
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)