The funniest woman on the planet — with help from her current costar, Lily Tomlin — gives you a crash course in risk taking, self-confidence, and getting what you want (with a big freaking smile).
Few people leave Tina Fey speechless, unless they happen to be one of her all-time favorite funny ladies. “Years ago I was doing Saturday Night Live‘s 25th anniversary show,” recalls Fey. “The studio was packed with big stars like Tom Hanks, Paul Simon, Sting, Elvis Costello — everybody who was anybody at the time. But the only person who made me freeze in my tracks was Lily Tomlin. I had watched her on SNL when I was a kid. I walked backstage where she was rehearsing and when I saw her, I literally gasped.” Fast-forward 14 years and Fey, who just wrapped the final episode of her Emmy-winning sitcom 30 Rock, is starring in the big-screen comedy Admission as an uptight college admissions officer — and the daughter of a hippie feminist played by Tomlin. Thankfully, Fey was far less tongue-tied when the two connected — via FaceTime — to talk about confidence, getting what you want, and how they both learned to have the last laugh.
IN YOUR NEW MOVIE YOU PLAY AN ADMISSIONS OFFICER FOR PRINCETON. WHAT WAS YOUR OWN COLLEGE EXPERIENCE LIKE?
Fey: I went to the University of Virginia, but I applied to Princeton. I was a good student, but I was not quite Princeton material. I remember having an interview with an alum and I wore a long plaid skirt and a blue jacket. I didn’t have polish like the private school kids. During the interview it came up that I didn’t drive. I was like, “Yeah, I’m just not interested in driving.” The person looked at me like, this kid is so lame. They wanted super-adventurous — I didn’t even want to drive a car.
Tomlin: When the people at Princeton find out they rejected Tina Fey, they’re going to be gnashing their teeth.
DID YOU HAVE STRONG FEMALE ROLE MODELS GROWING UP?
Fey: I was born in 1970, which was a somewhat lucky time. As a kid the message was all “Free to Be…You and Me” [based on the 1974 Marlo Thomas music video that preached girl power]. There was so much public talk about girls doing anything, girls playing Little League! Then we rolled all that into the Spice Girls. Of course now our empowerment is kind of twisted. It’s like, Girls can do anything! You can profit from your own sex tape!
Tomlin: I’ve been disappointed by role models, but I also have never counted on somebody to be a role model because, politically, I could see people were fallible. They could be noble, and they could also be tragically sad and depressed. It’s both liberating and sort of destabilizing because authority begins to not mean very much to you. When I realized my mother had been a baby it was all over for my mother.
Fey: [Laughs] What do you mean?
Tomlin: I found this picture of her when she was a baby. I thought, If my mother was a baby then that means my teacher was a baby. Everybody was a baby! It meant they were just like me.
HOW DO YOU BOTH GET WHAT YOU WANT? DOES HUMOR PLAY A ROLE?
Fey: Humor is a great coping mechanism in real life. I know things are getting stressful if I lose my sense of humor in any situation. Part of being successful is being a good collaborator — and being smart enough to find the right people to work with.
Tomlin: You have to know your sensibility. When you know what you like or what you want, it makes you appear very strong. It’s just like you, Tina. You created your own work and made a place for yourself. All of that is shaped by your intelligence, but also by your sense of what is good.
Fey: It helps to trust your instincts.
Tomlin: That self-confidence also comes from the culture. Like Tina said, she was born in the ’70s when there was all this fermentation of girl power. That influenced her generation.
Fey: You know what’s interesting. I played the “Free to Be…You and Me” video for my daughter, Alice, who’s 7, and it brought up things for her that just aren’t issues anymore. The song talks about everything girls can do — but she was looking at me like, I know, Mom. I know I can be president, so why are we singing a song about this?
Tomlin: I can understand that. She has listened to that song and thought, this is so retro.
Fey: She did go through a Disney princess phase, which I let happen because I figured it would gain too much mystique if I told her she couldn’t. Then she went through a period where all she wanted to play was a game she called “Two girls fighting over the prince.” Every night in the bathtub she’d have these two dolls do elaborate gymnastics and swimming shows and then the prince — this plastic little gay prince who’d sit in the nude on the side of the tub — would judge them, and choose one to be his wife.
Tomlin: Oh my God!
Fey: We don’t play that game anymore.
SO HOW DO YOU NURTURE CONFIDENCE IN YOUR DAUGHTERS? [FEY’S SECOND CHILD, PENELOPE, IS 1.]
Fey: One specific thing is I try not to speak badly about my own body or food things in front of them. And I never talk to them about their bodies in terms of anything but being healthy. Last winter Alice wanted to eat more and more holiday candy. I said, “Pace yourself, I don’t want you to throw up.” I said that because I was a big barfer as a kid. But our babysitter misheard me and she said, “That’s right, you don’t want to blow up. You don’t want to get big and fat!” That’s when you realize no matter how much you try to guide your children, they will always encounter other people’s weird messages.
IS YOUR PARENTING STYLE AT ALL LIKE YOUR MOM’S?
Fey: I hope so. My parents did a good job making us feel safe but there were also expectations for us to be good and responsible people. One way I’m like my mom is I hover to see if my daughters eat what I cook. My mom used to always do that. If my brother and I liked something, she kept making it. There was a period in the late ’70s when the world discovered ranch dressing. My mom started putting ranch on everything she made. Finally we were like, “Mom, cool it with the ranch!” She said, “But you like it!”
LET’S TALK ABOUT CRITICISM. HOW DO YOU HANDLE IT?
Tomlin: When I was younger too much of my self-worth was invested in what other people thought. Mostly I cared what they said about my work — I didn’t care what they said about me personally. Though a critic once reviewed a movie I was in and said I was horse-faced. I didn’t like that. Later on I saw him at a restaurant. I felt like walking over to him and saying, “Neighhhhhhhhhhhh!”
Fey: And shooting a strong stream of urine at him.
Fey: I find it unnerving when you come across something on the Internet that’s hateful. You have to tell yourself to stop reading it, that it doesn’t matter.
ARE YOU BOTH NATURAL RISK TAKERS OR DO YOU HAVE TO PSYCH YOURSELF UP BEFORE YOU TAKE ON A CHALLENGE?
Fey: I’m very comfortable with certain kinds of risk that other people have fears about, like speaking in public or getting up on stage to improvise. But I would never bungee jump. I would never ski.
Tomlin: Psychological risk is more exhilarating. But I don’t like physical danger, either.
Fey: Would you skydive?
Tomlin: I might, but only when I’m really really old and think, How long do I have anyway? Maybe then I’d be more excited about plummeting to earth.