She has conquered sitcoms, movies, and Spanx. Her incisive, tough, slightly absurd humor is now the voice of comedy. But rather than say mission accomplished, Fey is taking the biggest leap of her career—playing a foreign correspondent in the Middle East.
Tina Fey, who has played any number of outrageous characters on Saturday Night Live; who wrote the best-selling 2011 memoir Bossypants, about her rise in one of the most chauvinistic fields of entertainment; who outshrills the hard-charging Sarah Palin in her dead-on impersonation (in other words, not exactly a shrinking violet)—that Tina Fey is sitting across from me at Cafe Luxembourg in New York City, speaking so softly that I’m struggling to hear a word. The lunch crowd has yet to arrive, so I can’t blame ambient noise. Her lips are definitely moving.
“It didn’t occur to you that it was just a power move?” her long-time collaborator Robert Carlock will quip later. “Sometimes,” he adds, “it feels as if it will look like I’m moving in to kiss her if I get any closer.”
I find myself similarly concerned about overstepping personal boundaries, since Fey is already hunched over our table—quite close, in fact—with the sort of posture my grandmother used to tell me would lead to curvature of the spine by age 30. I don’t think this is what Sheryl Sandberg meant by leaning in. Then again, Tina Fey is living proof that, among many other things, fortysomething women can top the box office in an R-rated comedy (Sisters, her sixth film with partner in crime Amy Poehler, has grossed $100 million so far), so she could have written the book on that as well.
Eventually, as if acclimating to high altitude, I get used to her low volume, which is a good thing, since Fey’s conversation is as punchline-packed as her two sitcoms, the Emmy-gobbling 30 Rock and the current Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (returning April 15 on Netflix), each joke followed by two more, like a cascade of funny.
Fey, naturally, opens with a joke. “This is fitting nicely into my day,” she says when she arrives, exactly on time, having walked the few blocks from her Upper West Side apartment. “Work this morning, talk to you, then my annual gynecological appointment. I feel like this will be the best of the three.”
One would hope. We happen to be meeting the morning after the Golden Globes; this was her first year off after co-hosting with Poehler for three years. That meant the mother of two could not only avoid watching every nominated movie; she could retire by 10 p.m. “When it’s not your gig, you’re like, ‘I’m just gonna go to bed,'” she says.
This year’s MC, Ricky Gervais, naturally took a shot at the former hosts, claiming he was paid the same as Fey and Poehler together. “I immediately texted my agent: ‘That’s not true, right?'” Fey says. She laughs, but she also assures me, “It’s not true.”
Our meeting also comes shortly after Carrie Fisher addressed some brutal online remarks about her appearance in the latest Star Wars movie. Eventually the 59-year-old actress responded by tweeting, “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all 3 of my feelings…”
“I thought it was heartbreaking, and also smart of Carrie to be, like, ‘This hurts,'” says Fey. “Because a lot of times we talk about the politics of it, the unfairness of it, which is all true, but I think it’s clearer to people when you go, ‘Hey, that hurts my feelings.'”
Fey is 45, so aging in Hollywood is on her mind. “The greatest challenge for me as an actress is just getting older,” she says. “Trying to play the scene at hand while also trying to hold your face up. Fast-forward to being 68, and it’s a glorious act of bravery.”
She has sympathy for the challenges of getting older but is utterly confounded by the trend of obliterating signs of aging before they exist. “There were people on the Globes in their twenties who were so Botoxed,” she says. “In their twenties! We’ve been so conditioned now to never see a real human face, one that moves, with its original teeth. Sometimes we forget that there is a choice,” she adds. “I choose not to do this. It’s like wearing multiple pairs of Spanx: Good for you, not for me. Not mandatory.”
The best she can do, she says, is to try to stay in shape. “I was looking at Jane Fonda last night. And you know why she always looks great? Because there was never a point where you say, ‘Hey, remember those two years when Fonda got fat?’ It never happened. You just have to keep that baseline. That goddamn baseline.”
Fey’s metamorphosis from frumpy SNL writer to superfunnysmart knockout is one of the great reveals in modern pop culture. With her 1999 promotion to co-anchor of Weekend Update, she became an overnight sex symbol for geeks and third-wave feminists alike. She is indeed beautiful, but her appeal has as much to do with sticking a pin in the myth of perfection and the work it takes to pull that off—as in her infamous goodbye to David Letterman last May, when she stripped down to reveal “the almost medical contraptions” beneath her skintight dress. “I purposely wore three or four layers of Spanx underneath, including those terrible nude-colored ones, because as I crafted the bit I didn’t want people to think I was trying to look good,” she says. “And some people reacted by saying it was not good for women, because I wasn’t fat enough under there.” She laughs. “You cannot win.”
Fey wasn’t lying when she declared to Letterman that she was giving him the last dress she will ever wear on a talk show—or pretty much anywhere that doesn’t involve a leader of the free world or Carol Burnett. “It really was for me: ‘Oh yeah, I’m seriously not doing this anymore,'” says Fey. “Which is a fun game to play with my stylist, who is not so excited about my decision.”
In Bossypants Fey wrote: “Left to my own devices, I dress like I’m here to service your aquarium.” Since I don’t have an aquarium I’ll take her word for it, but today’s outfit is indeed high on comfort, low on style. “I get how a dress and heels look,” she says, “but, Lord, I’m not good in them. In real life it’s almost like, ‘You gotta pay me if you want me to wear a dress.'”
The greatest challenge for me as an actress is just getting older. Trying to play the scene at hand while also trying to hold your face up. Fast-forward to being 68, and it’s a glorious act of bravery.
Fey’s follow-up to Sisters is what you’d call a real departure, the closest she has come to dramatic acting. In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a dark comedy that she produced and stars in (it’s her 12th film to date), she plays a character loosely based on the journalist Kim Barker, author of the equal parts hilarious and horrifying memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in which mind-boggling absurdities pile up almost as fast as the bodies. The New York Times review of the book described Barker as “a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war.” For that reason it ended up on Fey’s desk, and Barker’s voice does share a tough-minded confidence and satirical bite with Fey’s. She asked Carlock, who co-created 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt, to write it, and she turned to her old SNL boss, Lorne Michaels, to co-produce, as he had done on Mean Girls and 30 Rock. “Robert is a real intellectual and a structure person,” says Fey. “I knew he would research and write the hell out of it. Lorne is erudite himself, so he respects that, but he also has this part of his brain that’s show business. Is the audience actually enjoying and connecting with the story? Is it fun and exciting? Is it a movie movie?”
Chicago Tribune who volunteered to cover the war in Afghanistan. For the film Carlock turned Barker into a cable news reporter (more visual), amped up the romance (Martin Freeman is the love interest), and down-played the politics. “It has nothing to do with what should be done about Afghanistan—it is 100 percent not that,” Fey says, clearly aware that moviegoers are resistant to films about war and that her fan base is largely female—though there are guns and explosions and helicopter rides for the guys. “It’s really about Kim blowing up her original life and taking a leap when no one expects a person over 40 to go and have this adventure, for lack of a better word, in a place where, for hundreds of years, the West has been out of its depth.”
One of the jokes in the film is that, given the shortage of available women in Afghanistan, a 6 in New York instantly becomes a 10 in Kabul. Kim finds herself getting hit on as frequently as Tanya, a British TV journalist played by Margot Robbie, who would be a 10 pretty much anywhere. When Robbie read the script, she was struck by the novelty of two confident women who are friends from the jump, who aren’t competitive or conniving. “They resembled my own friendships,” says Robbie, who grew up in Australia obsessively watching Mean Girls with her friends. “I think we’ve seen it 60 times. We know every line.” For that reason the actress was “kind of terrified when this opportunity came up. Tina’s so wicked funny that I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up. In fact, she’s very chill and inclusive. Other people that quick-witted might try to hog the limelight—you know, ‘I’m the funny one here, I’m going to land the jokes’—but she never does.”
Is there any reality, I ask Fey, in which she would be able to do what Barker did? “I think I’m brave about some things and a huge coward in other ways,” she says. “To go to places where there is real jeopardy like that, with bombs and snipers? No, I don’t think I could do what Kim did. My fake bravery is talking in front of a bunch of people who might hate it.”
Also, she adds, “Kim is taller than me. You can be a little more confident when you’re tall.”
By all accounts—including Fey’s own—lack of confidence was never a major issue. Elizabeth Stamatina Fey grew up the younger of two children in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, a high-achieving, unapologetic nerd and self-described mean girl (“That was a disease that had to be conquered,” she once said). A virgin until she was in her twenties, she was a prude with a curiously lewd sense of humor and an obsession with musicals (she played Sally Bowles in a University of Virginia production of Cabaret). Her parents were big fans of comedy, and Fey says her mother is very funny. Tina grew up loving the loose, crude comedies of the ’70s and ’80s (Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes), but Alexander Payne’s 1999 film Election was the watershed moment. “When I saw that movie I was like, ‘They made this movie just for me.'”
She was two years out of Second City by then, on the staff of SNL. Carlock isn’t sure about his first memory of Fey (overalls may have been involved), but he’s clear about one thing. “In my five years writing for SNL, a very competitive place, I never saw anyone figure out a way to have their voice be part of what the show wanted so quickly,” he says. “I certainly never totally figured it out.”
I think I’m brave about some things and a huge coward in other ways. My fake bravery is talking in front of a bunch of people who might hate it.
Somehow Fey instinctively knew what America wanted in comedy, too. From her nine years at SNL (she was the show’s first female head writer), to 2004’s Mean Girls (a movie turned meme), to 30 Rock, right up to her unstoppable co-hosting gigs with Poehler (which are a kind of art all their own), Fey’s graceful transcendence of comedy’s boys club—a perfectly lobbed joke, as it turns out, being a most effective weapon—has inspired a flood of like-minded female powerhouses. A 2008 Guardian profile described her success as an exception in U.S. comedy. It’s not a stretch to call Fey a godmother to the flood of brazen funny women who have broken out in the eight years since, including Kristen Wiig, Lena Dunham, Melissa McCarthy, Mindy Kaling, Amy Schumer, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (Broad City), Jill Soloway (Transparent), and Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex- Girlfriend). And yet…
“Amy and I just did two months of press for Sisters,” Fey says, “and journalists were still bringing up, ‘People say women aren’t funny.’ The next time I’m at a press junket and someone says that, I have to remember to say, ‘We need to stop talking about whether women are funny. And we need to acknowledge that black people are funnier than white people. Let’s discuss that.’
Two other questions popped up with frustrating regularity. “Every single interviewer asked, ‘Isn’t this an amazing time for women in comedy?’ People really wanted us to be openly grateful—’Thank you so much!’—and we were like, ‘No, it’s a terrible time. If you were to really look at it, the boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage, while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.'”
And the second question? “‘You and Amy have known each other for so long. What do you fight about?’ And we’d say, ‘We fight about the same things Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg fight about. Do you ask them that question?'”
Poehler has called Fey her comedy “wife,” though they’re not officially a team. Friends since Second City, their comedic chemistry exploded when they began playing Palin and Hillary Clinton on SNL in 2007, in sketches that artfully skewered sexism in politics while delivering sublimely dead-on parody. Their combined appeal—Fey’s darker yin perfectly complemented by Poehler’s upbeat yang— only deepened with the Globes. If there’s a rap on Fey it’s that her sitcoms, in particular, are high on jokes, low on heart— not unlike her indelible 30 Rock alter ego, snarky, prim TV producer Liz Lemon. Poehler, on the other hand, is sunny and gregarious, if sometimes too sentimental (see her Parks and Recreation). In other words, I say to Fey, Amy would be leading the conga dance at the school dance, while “I’m sitting in the corner with my purse in my lap, ready to leave at 10,” she continues.
In their universe, the cheerleader (as Poehler was) and the high school newspaper editor (as Fey was) could be best friends. And not just best friends but BFFs ebulliently running the show in their distinctive, female way—including the increasingly common trend of taking your girlfriends with you. “‘I helped out so-and-so’ is not something I would ever say,” Fey says, “but it definitely has been important to me and Amy and Maya [Rudolph] and all the women I came up with. We really are a generation that is there to work together and not be tricked into thinking we have to backstab each other to get somewhere. So while I can’t take credit for the trend, I am definitely not part of the problem.”
Lorne Michaels was a great role model in that he mirrored her best instincts. “In a business where you can find a lot of examples of people who are not fair dealers, Lorne and Tina are great fair dealers. They’re both loyal,” says Carlock, who has written for and with Fey for 11 years, so long that “assuming her voice is second nature at this point. The Venn diagram overlap is pretty good.”
When I ask Fey to describe her relationship with Carlock, she replies, “Two obedient people working themselves to death.” Her punishing work ethic comes, she says, from her parents: the Greek women on her mother’s side and the German and Scottish on her father’s. I ask Carlock if Fey is as bossy as she claims. He laughs. “She tends to get what she wants, and unfortunately—or fortunately—she’s usually right.” But it’s more than just being right; she’s a savvy strategist. “Tina picks her spots,” he says. “Writers love to talk and throw out all their opinions. She’s very good at having already thought about objections beforehand. She’s disarming and very open-minded, but she does not come unprepared. She brings a gun to a knife fight every time.”
The boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage, while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.
A few weeks after we meet, Fey is back on SNL spoofing Palin, who had recently endorsed Donald Trump. She still has fun with the gig, but she’s relieved to be, as she puts it, “out of the Weekend Update business. On that kind of show,” she says, “you have to stay neutral, and it would be tough to stay neutral now. In hindsight [the 2008 presidential election] seems genteel in comparison.” The race, I offer, is at least good for comedy. “It’s funny until it isn’t,” she says. “It’s gotten kind of ugly.” A longtime Independent, she is underwhelmed by the candidates. “I hate them all.”
Fey has always been defiant about her right to be funny in her own way; she writes for herself, not liberals or conservatives or the politically correct. Kimmy Schmidt took some online heat last season for a Native American subplot. “There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that,” Fey said at the time. “Steer clear of the internet and you’ll live forever.”
She is therefore the rare comedian who has no Twitter account. “It feels very fun to me not to be on it,” she says. “It’s like a comfy blanket.”
And maybe it’s for the best. “I think my husband would tell you that I’m constantly angry. Not at him, just angry,” says Fey, who has two daughters with director and composer Jeff Richmond: Alice Zenobia, 10, and Penelope Athena, 4, who may be a chip off the old block. “Alice has a first-child thing, where I don’t think she lets herself get mad,” Fey says. “But oh my god, I can’t stop the little one from being angry. It’s funny: She was a very screamy, grouchy toddler, and now she’s bigger and has more language, and sometimes she’ll say, ‘I feel mad now.’ In the middle of nothing. One of her babysitters says to her, ‘You can be mad, but you can’t be mean.’ Which has been helpful to her. I didn’t learn that until much later in life.”
Richmond—whom Fey met at Second City and married in 2001—is, according to his wife, “the funniest person you’ve never seen be funny.” He has described Fey as more principled than anyone he’s ever met. She’s “very black-and-white about the rules of a relationship. Our marriage is borderline boring, in a good way,” he told Vanity Fair in 2008. When I read that back to Fey she says, “Um, is that still true? Is that the question? We’re still not swingers, no.”
Fey and Richmond have long wanted to do a Mean Girls musical. “We’d still love to, if we can carve out some time,” she says. In the meantime, there’s a third season of Kimmy Schmidt to write, a pilot for CBS, The Kicker, to produce, and several acting roles in the pipeline. “I’m going to keep plugging away as long as I can,” she says of acting. The roles “just have to make sense. It doesn’t feel right to play the gal about town looking for dates anymore—though I just watched Desk Set, with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Hepburn is 50 and playing the single gal in the office,” Fey says with evident incredulity. “But she’s real skinny, and I think that’s how she gets away with it. If she’d had a mom body, no one would have allowed it.”