On any episode of "Madam Secretary," U.S. Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord must negotiate with world leaders, Beltway power brokers and, sometimes, her own family on the home front.
As played by Tea Leoni, Secretary McCord is measured, whip-smart, ethical and strong. And as a woman holding what for two centuries was a man's job, she never forgets who paved her way: Madeleine Albright, the real-life first woman to serve as secretary of state.
Who better, then, than the former secretary to give McCord a little sisterly advice?
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This summer Albright, 78, took a break from teaching duties at Georgetown University and other worldly chores to film a guest spot on "Madam Secretary," airing at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday on CBS.
"The scene takes place at a ceremony for veterans," Albright explains during a recent phone conversation. Cast as herself, she commiserates with McCord about working with the dismissive new man brought in by the president — "what it's like for the secretary of state to relate to men who think they're superior when they're not."
But Leoni had already sought counsel from Albright for real. Last year, she reached out for a briefing on how to portray someone in that weighty position. Plans were made for them to meet for breakfast.
On the appointed day, says Leoni in a separate interview, "I had this image of her assistant briefing her: 'You've got a meeting today with Tea Leoni.' And her rolling her eyes and saying, 'Who is SHE?'
"But she was extremely generous, and also bothered to say, 'You're making foreign policy accessible.' I don't take that lightly."
Now hear something she might have learned from Albright, who served four years under President Bill Clinton, on how to deal with powerful, sometimes difficult, officials around the globe.
"When you get into the meeting, you begin with pleasantries: the weather, or 'I like your tie,' or whatever. You go through all that. Then I would get to the serious part: 'I have come a long way, so I must be frank.'
"But you have to remind yourself that you're not just representing yourself," Albright cautions, "and if you blow it, you've blown it for an awful lot of people. I would sometimes dig my nails into the palms of my hand. Just getting angry doesn't get you very far."
In April, Albright and Leoni attended the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, "which was really fun," says Albright. "But whenever anybody said, 'Madam Secretary,' we didn't know which of us should turn around."
It was that night when she was invited to appear on "Madam Secretary," a show she says she likes.
"I think it works as a good drama with very good actors," Albright says. "But I also appreciate how they raise germane and important issues. I think it's a good way to help educate the American public on what the job is about — how you're not just dealing with foreigners, but also with your own staff, with the White House and members of Congress, and the press.
"And it's interesting," she marvels, "how much the show really is like life."
That is, life for any secretary of state isn't all pomp, ceremony and high-level summits.
While McCord has three kids in the house, "my kids were grown up and they took charge of my life," recalls Albright. "One of my daughters paid my bills, and she'd call me up and say, 'Mom, did you REALLY need another pair of shoes?'"
In July, Albright, who had previously tackled acting roles on "The Gilmore Girls" and "Parks and Recreation," arrived at the New York studio where "Madam Secretary" shoots — and she had already learned her lines, "unlike many actors," Leoni says.
As rehearsals began, "I had a healthy number of butterflies in my stomach," Leoni says. "I'm in awe of her, and now she's on my turf, and I wanted her to experience my prowess as an actor playing a secretary of state on television."
But Leoni didn't figure on Albright's prowess.
"After a few run-throughs, she's really getting a feel for it. And by the time we shot it, oh, my God, she's on a tear! She owns the set! I was schooled in theater by Madeleine Albright. She was fantastic!"
Meanwhile, Albright came away apparently satisfied with her work — and game for an encore.
Asked if she'd consider another TV guest shot with Leoni, she replies, "Absolutely! That's OK with me."