It was her razor-sharp impersonation of US Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin that made her name. Now comedian Tina Fey is playing sexy in a hot new romcom. Here she talks pole-dancing, date nights – and the trauma of wearing a corset
As career-enhancing opportunities go, it was one that few people, least of all Tina Fey herself, saw coming. Screenwriter of the 2004 hit film Mean Girls, and creator of award-winning comedy 30 Rock (in which she also stars), Tina had quietly acquired something of a cult following.
Then, in 2008, Sarah Palin made her headline-grabbing run for the American Vice Presidency, and Tina’s uncannily accurate impersonation of the gun-toting Governor (on the US comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live) turned the 39-year-old comedian, after two decades of hard slog, into an overnight sensation.
Her performance gave SNL its best ratings in over a decade, landed Tina an Emmy the following year – and had many people convinced that lines from her act (‘I can see Russia from my house!’) were Palin’s own words. Yet her success was ‘just one of those things that came out of nowhere,’ she says.
‘You can grow up wanting to make movies or wanting to appear on SNL, but I don’t think anyone sits there dreaming, “Well, I hope there’s a politician out there who looks just like me so I can do impersonations of her!” It was weird because so much of what I’ve done has come out of sheer doggedness, and then this fell into my lap. It put me on the map with people who hadn’t seen 30 Rock or SNL, so what can I say? I’m indebted to her!’
The two women eventually met when Palin appeared briefly alongside Tina in another SNL skit. ‘She was very pleasant,’ says Tina. ‘We talked about our kids and school, and her hair person helped our hair person alter my wig to make it look more accurate, and she also gave us tips on finding the right lipstick. She’s incredibly telegenic and likable, and she’s now beginning a successful career as a television commentator, so I think she’s doing OK.’
And did President Obama ever call Tina to thank her for her part in ensuring that Palin and the Republicans didn’t get into power? Tina laughs. ‘No, I’ve not heard from him yet, and it’s not my place to talk politically. I speak only through sketch comedy, thankfully.’
Tina is self-effacing to a fault – far more comfortable in the role of observer than star. ‘My daily life consists of going to work or being at home,’ she says, ‘so when I do interviews I always forget to muster up some kind of personality. Two hours from now, I’ll be going, “I really should have tried to jazz that up a little.”’
She needn’t worry: her work speaks for itself. Razor-sharp and ferociously intelligent, she was the first female lead writer at Saturday Night Live, which she joined in 1997. Since Mean Girls, the brilliantly observed high-school comedy in which she co-starred with Lindsay Lohan (and which took over $120 million at the box office), she has featured alongside Ricky Gervais in his directorial debut The Invention of Lying, and created the critically acclaimed comedy series 30 Rock, which has 14 Emmys and six Golden Globes to its credit.
Her biting wit and pert good looks have made Tina, in one critic’s words, ‘the sex symbol for every man who reads without moving his lips’. Tina modestly bats this away. ‘I cannot do my hair, I cannot do my make-up, and anyone who knows me will tell you I’m the most bedraggled person they have ever seen,’ she says forlornly. ‘I have such a lack of skill in the womanly arts, it’s embarrassing.’
‘The thinking man’s crumpet? The thinking man wants to sleep with the same lady the dumb man does. They all want Jessica Simpson’
So she doesn’t subscribe to the view that she’s the thinking man’s crumpet? ‘Well, let’s be honest – the thinking man wants to sleep with the same lady the dumb man does. They all want Jessica Simpson! But I’ll take those compliments for as long as I can because they won’t last for ever. I’ll save all the cuttings so that some day I can look through them.’
And her admirers certainly won’t be disappointed with her latest cinematic offering, Date Night, in which she and Steve Carell (the David Brent equivalent in the US version of The Office) play Clara and Phil Foster, a bored couple who attempt to shake up their marriage with a date night at a fancy New York restaurant. When they swipe someone else’s reservation in order to be seated quickly, they find they have inadvertently stolen the identities of a couple being hunted by a ruthless mobster (Ray Liotta) and enlist the help of a James Bond-like security expert (Mark Wahlberg) to extricate themselves from the mess.
Tina spends most of her time on screen looking thoroughly gorgeous in a low-cut blue cocktail dress and, in a scene that will delight her male fans, lip-moving or otherwise, does a pole dance with Carell while dressed in a beaded red corset.
‘That dress was really uncomfortable,’ says Tina. ‘I wore it for 52 days, and then they put me in the red corset, which was worse. I even needed a helper to go to the bathroom – a very nice woman, but it was quite demoralising all the same. I was very lucky, though – they shot that pole-dancing scene very kindly. You’ll notice there’s not one full frame from behind.’
The thing you most notice about Tina is that the person she’s toughest on is herself. Although she and Steve Carell both cut their comedy teeth in the Chicago-based improvisational troupe Second City, she quickly points out that ‘Steve was everyone’s idol, and everyone knew he’d do well. Me doing well was more unexpected. I was chunky with short hair, and it was good in a way, because you can’t be worried about your looks when you’re trying to learn comedy. I’m lucky now that they can beat me enough with a make-up brush so that I look OK, but I’m glad I live in New York, because I think Hollywood would be tough. I mean, I go to the awards ceremonies and even though I’m not big [actually, she’s tiny] I’ll still be the heaviest person there. But that’s OK. My looks aren’t what I bring to the table.’
What Tina undoubtedly brings are her sharp sense of comedy and her highly developed work ethic – both of which she acquired during her formative years. She was born Elizabeth Stamatina Fey in Philadelphia; her father Donald, of German extraction, wrote grant proposals for the University of Pennsylvania, while her Greek mother Jeannec worked in a brokerage firm.
Her family, including her older brother Peter, were all avid comedy fans and it was this which set Tina on her career path. ‘We’d sit together and watch things like the Marx Brothers and Monty Python,’ she says, ‘and when SNL started in 1975, it made a huge impact on me. I was only five, but I remember it from a very early age. It was a dream of mine to be on that show, but one that I absolutely never thought would come true.
‘I was quiet and quite shy as a child,’ she says, ‘but I was also a sarcastic, say-things-under-your-breath kind of kid. I think humour was a defence growing up, especially around the ages of 12 and 13 when I wasn’t the cutest kid in class.’ The screenplay for Mean Girls was based largely on Rosalind Wiseman’s nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes, but Tina, a self-proclaimed ‘supernerd’, also added observations from her own school days. ‘You need some other kind of coping mechanism, and I think humour was the way I got around things – that need to joke about yourself and put it out there before anyone else can say it about you. It was definitely a self-protecting device.’
After graduating in drama from the University of Virginia, Tina moved to Chicago and joined Second City, where she met her husband Jeff Richmond, later a composer on SNL and 30 Rock. She describes him as ‘a Dudley Moore type, shorter than I am, with a very handsome face’, and says that ‘his kindness and his sense of humour were probably the main things that attracted me. I met him when I was 24 and we’ve been together ever since. I went on so few dates in my life before I was married – and certainly none as catastrophic as the one in Date Night – but it was kind of love at first sight for my husband and me.
‘It was very easy and affectionate from the beginning, and there was none of that no-calling-back or game-playing. We didn’t get married until I was 31, but we knew early on that it was something we wanted to do; it was just a matter of us living in the same city again. Jeff was in Chicago and I’d moved to New York [for SNL], but there was never any question about us being together: I was very lucky in that sense.’ Did Tina find that her natural sense of humour intimidated men? ‘I’m not sure if they were intimidated,’ she says, ‘but maybe that’s why no one else would have me before Jeff did. But my sense of humour must have been part of what he liked about me because, frankly,’ she laughs, ‘there wasn’t that much else going on.’
Although she initially joined SNL as a writer, she appeared on screen the following year (1998) as one of the show’s extras, and eventually became one of its lead performers. She had her daughter Alice, now four, during her nine years on SNL, and having left to develop, write and produce 30 Rock (a comedy based on the exploits of the characters who work on an SNL-type series), Tina now finds herself juggling motherhood, wifehood and the extensive demands of her show.
‘I never really believed it before, but when you have a child, there really aren’t enough hours in the day to do anything,’ she admits. ‘I had to go for a dental checkup the other day and they were going, “Can you floss and then rub your gums with this?”, and I was thinking, “Are you serious? It’s just not going to happen.” Basically, any free time that isn’t spent looking after our daughter or working goes on sleeping, but every other week my husband and I will try to get out and have a date night, even though we never really call it that. It feels like such an effort, because all we want to do is go to bed, but we force ourselves to put on clothes – although it never actually gets to the point where I would put on a dress. And definitely not one with a corset.’
Tina is unsure about the idea of having more children (‘I don’t know. I’m 39 now – I’m getting up there!’), though she seems enchanted by Alice, who is already showing signs of being a natural performer. ‘Knowing her, I can’t imagine her doing anything else. She’s much more outgoing than I ever was as a child – I think she takes after my husband in that sense,’ she smiles.
Would she discourage Alice from getting into the acting business at a young age, particularly given the downward spiral that Lindsay Lohan subsequently embarked upon? ‘Lindsay was 17 when she did [Mean Girls] and she was brilliant. But to have success and money at that age has got to be overwhelming. No one tells you “No”, and I definitely wouldn’t want that for my child. I’d try to make her do theatre first because you learn a real work ethic there, and we’d certainly try and make her wait until she’s done school. But Lindsay was a lovely girl,’ she adds, ‘very smart and very funny – and I hold out hope that we’ll see some really good work from her again.’
Perhaps she might consider writing another vehicle for Lohan: after all, she is credited with almost single-handedly reviving the acting fortunes of Alec Baldwin, who stars as 30 Rock’s abrasive TV executive Jack Donaghy. Baldwin has won three Emmys and three Golden Globes for the role and co-hosted this year’s Oscars ceremony. ‘I don’t know if I helped him,’ says Tina, ‘but he’s certainly helped me get a TV show on air and keep it there, and I definitely wrote it with him in mind because he’s such a funny actor. He’s brilliant, and I absolutely love the fact that he’s a sex symbol again [in It’s Complicated with Meryl Streep].’ Is he as much of a sex symbol on the 30 Rock set? ‘We’ve all seen each other too much to even consider anyone a sex symbol, but he’s a real charmer.’
As Liz Lemon, the head writer of the show’s fictional series, Tina has enjoyed a succession of handsome on-screen boyfriends including Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, Spider-Man’s James Franco and our own Michael Sheen. ‘And I’m always in fear that these guys will think that I’ve only brought them on the show because I want to get my jollies,’ she laughs. But having worked her way through the ranks to become the most powerful woman in comedy, it’s fair to say that if anyone deserves to get their jollies, she does.