Tina Fey is quite the egomaniac.
In past years, she’s been, if not exactly dismissive of her dramatic skills, then clearly open about her willingness and desire to learn from those around her. She’s surrounded herself with some of the industry’s most gifted performers. And as she’s racked up hit movies, fronted NBC’s 30 Rock, and brought home an impressive haul of Golden Globe, Emmy and SAG awards, she’s become more assured in her skills in front of the camera.
“It’s a continued learning process. Of the 2 million professional actors in the United States, I think I’m now above the 1 million,” says Fey.
In fact, while her professional achievements are without question impressive, Fey cops to being unable to squeeze extra minutes out of her day, even now that 30 Rock wrapped up in January after seven seasons on air. Her free time, she says, is non-existent. She sneaked out for one daytime movie, like a kid playing hooky. But mostly, she’s in her office, cranking away at scripts and then rushing home to be mom to two young daughters.
“Why can’t I get anything done? I’m still up quite early with the 19-month-old (Penelope). Then we get our older one (Alice) off to school,” she says. “Then hang around with the little one until the babysitter comes at like 10, and then try and go in and do some work. Lately, your day is just gone. I catch up on doctors’ appointments I didn’t do in seven years.”
In fact, Fey’s stamina seems jaw-dropping, although she’d be the first to tell you otherwise. She’s a procrastinator who doesn’t get enough sleep, has help at home, and tries her best to keep her many projects going. Between raising her kids with her husband, composer Jeff Richmond, and wrapping up her show, she was co-host of the Golden Globes with pal Amy Poehler, delivering a performance that dazzled critics and viewers. And now, she’s headlining Admission, a sweetly offbeat romantic comedy in which she plays a deeply controlled admissions officer whose life goes off-course when she meets a high school senior who could be the son she gave up for adoption. It hits theaters March 22.
Fey shot the film last summer, during the two-month hiatus she had from NBC’s 30 Rock. Her decision was carefully thought out, as are most things in her life. For all her deeply self-deprecating humor, you get the sense that nothing gets by Fey, who’s methodical and meticulous to the core, but still damn funny.
“Working with her is the best. She has a million ideas, elevates everything she is in, and no one works harder. Homies for life,” Poehler says via e-mail.
Given that her older daughter goes to first grade in Manhattan (“Now people can go on Urban Baby and try to figure out what school that is,” quips Fey, referring to the acidly mean anonymous parenting message board), Fey is particular about her work commitments.
“It’s funny how quickly you go from having a childhood dream of making a movie to asking who’s in it and when it shoots because life is too short. If you’re going to explain to your kids one more time that you’re going to work, it better be a good story, shot locally, with very delightful people,” she says.
She’s not the global spokeswoman for all working moms, but Fey doesn’t mince words about loving her job as both writer and actor. If she stayed home with her kids 24/7, she admits, she’d invest all her energy into them — most likely in an unhealthy way. She’s equally forthright about the realities of being a woman in her 40s whose shelf life as an actress is possibly encroaching on its sell-by date.
“I like to work very much. Right now it feels like there’s this window, and I’m finally free to do some things. I’m 42. That can be your headline. I think I’ll be in a no man’s land for movies pretty soon,” she muses.
Not likely. Professionally, Fey is a series of hyphens. She’s a gifted screenwriter who penned Mean Girls. She’s the best-selling author of the essay collection Bossypants, which she calls her most personal work to date. She’s an award-winning actress who seems to segue effortlessly from hit to hit. Yet none of her success is accidental.
“Tina is very analytical,” says Admission director Paul Weitz. “She’s very comfortable being a leader and being a boss. At the same time, she’s willing to tell you when she thinks you’ve missed something. She’s immensely polite. She’s very nice to the people who work for her. She respects people.”
When it comes to her co-stars, Fey chooses wisely. The unerringly charming and funny Paul Rudd plays the laid-back single dad to Fey’s academic stickler. Portia, a staid, conscientious workhorse, plods through applications and controls the futures of eager wannabe Princeton freshman. It’s an aspect of her personality that particularly hit home with Fey.
“One of the main things I identified with was her job, her going through all the applications and having people’s dreams in her hands. That really reminded me of working at SNL,” says Fey, who spent nine years on the late-night sketch show, as both head writer and performer, before making a triumphant guest-starring return as Sarah Palin. “You get huge boxes of writing submissions. You read them and look for a glimmer of something good. It’s a lot of pressure.”
If anyone can handle it, says Weitz, it’s Fey.
“She is way more together than Portia. Portia is very constrained, and she sacrificed a huge part of her life in order to cope. I think Tina is in control of herself, but not in a negative way. She’s been through a lot, and she’s a tough bastard in the best possible way,” he says.
What’s surprising about Fey is how little she has changed over the years, even as her fame and resulting compensation have grown exponentially. She has always exuded a knowing and well-placed confidence in herself. She’s not showy or particularly gregarious or fake. She’s cordial without being cloying. And she speaks softly, forcing you to sit up and listen.
“She doesn’t give it away. She’s anchored. She’d laugh me off the couch if I said that to her, but she has a sense of self and does nothing gratuitously,” says Lily Tomlin, who plays Fey’s mother in Admission. “She doesn’t make a big fuss about anything, including herself. There’s nothing indulgent or overwrought about her. It’s so corny to say, but she’s a regular person with good sense. … She’s not a people pleaser, so you really trust her.”
All the members of Fey’s inner circle are “such lovely, down-to-earth, inclusive people,” says Admission screenwriter Karen Croner. “Her family is really important to her. Her husband is hilarious, as is her older daughter. That is a real grounding point for her. And the thing about Tina is, she can do anything. I would not be surprised if in her spare time, she’s getting a degree in neurobiology. She can probably sing and dance and is just keeping it a secret.”
Rather than bask in the afterglow of her Globes hosting success, Fey does what any comedian would do: She takes the off-kilter approach, saying she’ll accept additional awards show gigs only to catch up on her shut-eye in another city, away from her early-rising offspring. “I just want to go away and sleep for the weekend. It’s the ultimate motivation,” she says half-kiddingly, after disavowing her desire to host the Oscars in earlier interviews.
Although Fey has never turned to injections to maintain her youth, she concedes that it’s a hassle to try and keep it together, especially when she has to be public and promote a film. “You know what takes a lot of time? Trying to look like a female. It takes so much time,” she says. “I have the premiere, and I have to go at night and get a manicure and pedicure. You know who’s not getting a manicure and pedicure tonight? Rudd.”
Fey has a more pressing problem ahead of her: flying with a toddler. She’s leaving for London this week to start working on The Muppets … Again!, opposite Ricky Gervais, and is bringing Penelope with her for the first week; Richmond is joining her later on with Alice.
“I had to get the passports for the children this week,” she says. “The baby was so sick. Glassy-eyed, with a runny nose. And she’ll have that picture for five years. Poor thing.”
Like any parent, Fey clings to the small and random victories.
“I made kale chips, and my daughter ate them. The little one eats like a monster. The older one, I’m always telling her that I don’t want to talk to her about eating her vegetables. Just eat them. She did eat kale chips the other day. I win, Urban Baby. Kiss my (butt),” she says.
Fey is a good listener, a sharp observer, and quick with a comeback. Tell her how an older subway passenger thought you were pregnant two years after having your baby and stood up to give you her spot, much to your chagrin, and Fey smiles knowingly. “But you took the seat though, right?”