Madam Secretary Creator Barbara Hall on Being a Female Showrunner and Creating a Reluctant Hero

Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Last night, CBS debuted Madam Secretary, the new show from Joan of Arcadia creator Barbara Hall in which Téa Leoni plays the secretary of State, to a very good-size audience. In his review, Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “Madam Secretary is … attuned to the ways in which women exercise (and are expected to exercise) great power on those occasions when they manage to acquire it.” When John Horn, host of Southern California Public Radio’s new arts and entertainment show, the Frame, spoke with Hall, she spoke about how her time being a woman in a man’s world has influenced Madam Secretary and her other shows. (Listen to Horn and Hall’s interview below and subscribe to the Frame at iTunes or Stitcher.)

There’s been a fair amount of talk that your main character, Elizabeth McCord, is an idealized version of a Secretary of State, perhaps even Hillary Clinton. How do you react to those kinds of comparisons?
I don’t mind the idea of any one of the three female secretaries of State giving somebody an image of what we’re trying to do, but Elizabeth McCord is a total fabrication using some of the ideas that I’ve gotten from researching all three women and looking at their various styles and various challenges.

As you’re thinking about it, as you’re writing — thinking about Madeleine Albright, thinking about Hillary Clinton, thinking about Condoleezza Rice — are there certain aspects of each of their characters that you are taking to create the character of Elizabeth McCord.
I really would argue that I used their styles. They had very different styles that they brought to the office. And I did actually have the good fortune to meet with Secretary Albright and talk to her about what that was like for her, and she had one story that she told me that I thought was really interesting, which is that one of her granddaughters said to her, “You know, what’s the big deal about Grandma Maddy being secretary of State. All the secretaries of State are women.” And I loved that because it’s a kind of perspective that we’re going for. Of course, right now, we’re adjusting to the idea that — Elizabeth McCord will be the fourth female secretary of State — but of course we want all of it to be one day that somebody’s kid will say, “What’s the big deal about a female president,” you know?

Madam Secretary reads a little bit like a wish-fulfillment fantasy of how you hope the District of Columbia would work.
Yeah, I think there is really an aspirational quality to her character. I wanted to create a character that when people watch her as she approaches her job, they might say, “If I was Secretary of State that’s how I would get it done.” And I think we all have those fantasies about taking on Washington. So, I really wanted her approach to be legitimate because she isn’t a politician, but she has a lot of hands-on experience, having come from being in the CIA.

You mentioned that you wanted Elizabeth McCord, the character played by Téa Leoni, to be aspirational. How much of that thinking influences your writing on television and if that’s something you believe very strongly as you’re creating new shows.
Yeah, I do believe very strongly in it because I think that our primary objective when we create television shows is to entertain people, but you want to do it in a way that has something to bear on larger questions. If we’re going to pull the curtain back on something, like the State Department, which can be far too dry or educational, you have to give it a fantasy element that invites people to participate.

How much did you care about politics or women’s roles in politics before creating this show and working on Homeland?
I’m all over the map about it. I was a political science minor in college; I spent some time wanting to be a political writer, a journalist. Then, I went in many different directions and I spent a lot of time writing law shows so I got involved in that world, including one that I created called Judging Amy, which was about the juvenile court system. And then I went down the road of writing metaphysical shows. I created Joan of Arcadia. I went into that world for a while. So, I would say when I was going into other areas of creative writing, I probably had the same amount of interest that any other informed voter has, which is I paid attention and I’m interested in politics, but I wouldn’t have identified myself as someone who was hyperfocused. In a way, it gives me a lot of scope because I really don’t bring a lot of ideas to it that are pre-formed. I really was able to go deep into the research, almost like a science experiment and decide what I wanted and didn’t want to tell about the story.

Do you think there is a common theme here — Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia, Madam Secretary — is there something that unites the idea behind what you want to accomplish on these shows?
I really like the fish-out-of-water. The reluctant hero is probably a common theme of mine. It’s certainly something that I set up in Madam Secretary. It’s important for me to bring her in from the outside. And then, women in a man’s world is something that I end up exploring a lot and something that I end up living a lot, so I think that finds its way into my work.

When I first started, I was the female voice and you get a lot of jobs early on — “Well, I guess we should have a woman in the room on this.” And, of course, that changes. The industry has changed a lot and there are a lot of female writers. I find that the range gets more narrow as you go up and so that there are less female showrunners than there are female writers. So, it’s something that I really feel I got in on the ground floor as it was changing and now I’m a part of the rest of it changing. So, it really was a journey for me the way I hope we can experience it for Elizabeth because it isn’t just about being a woman. It’s a little bit about being an outsider, too.

How many women are writers on Madam Secretary?
There are there women writers on Madam Secretary counting myself. And there’s, of course, a female creative producer, Lauren McCreary. Tracy Mercer is a female creative producer and, you know, we have Téa, of course, who’s a producer as well.

You’ve been in the television business for a number of years, but you came to it by way of writing novels and you’re also a musician. You said that when you found Bruce Springsteen it “changed everything. Not just music. Everything I wanted to do came from that moment.” How did Springsteen change your life and how did he influence you as a writer?
It’s something as simple as the fact that he was somebody who came from nowhere and then went on to express himself through his chosen art form and then had everything that he imagined himself having in terms of expression and breaking out of his world. And I was someone who came from a very small town, who didn’t have a leg up on anything. In fact, I couldn’t see the poetry of where I came from and I figured that if Bruce could make poetry out of New Jersey, I could make poetry out of a small town in Southern Virginia.

Barbara Hall On Being a Female Showrunner