Tina Fey talks about her new film – and plans to revive her sensational impression of the former vice-presidential candidate.
One day Tina Fey was an actress in a little-seen television sitcom, worshipped by an ardent cult following but mainly ignored by mainstream audiences.
The next, thanks to a hilariously dead-on impersonation of US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, she was a YouTube sensation, a political lightning rod and the nemesis of the Republican Party.
Oh yes, she was also finally recognised as a writer and actress who possesses those all-too-rare triple attributes of brains, humour and sexiness.
Now 30 Rock, the television series she created and stars in as the frantic, brittle and endearing TV producer Liz Lemon, has just been renewed for its fifth season and she has a new movie, Date Night, in which she stars with Steve Carell, coming out soon.
But her Palin impression, which made its debut on the satirical comedy show Saturday Night Live last September and continued during the run-up to the U.S election, has not been abandoned.
“I haven’t been watching her on television lately because I’ve been working on 30 Rock, but I’m doing another Saturday Night Live next month and I’m sure we’ll be trying to write something about her,” she said when we meet.
Fey, 38, is looking summery in a white jacket and red-and-white striped shirt over dark slacks, and even without the Sarah Palin glasses and cutesy winks there is a noticeable physical resemblance to the former governor of Alaska.
Humorous and friendly, Fey is on a hectic schedule of promotional duties for Date Night, in which she and Carell play a married couple whose romantic evening out goes horribly wrong because of a case of mistaken identity. Over the course of one night in New York they run from the police, seek help from a shirtless weapons expert (Mark Wahlberg) and perform a comically inept pole-dance routine at a strip club.
Although both star in popular half-hour television situation comedies, Fey and Carell (who has the Ricky Gervais role in the US version of The Office) hardly knew each other before filming began, although Fey remembers being a first-year student at Chicago’s famed improvisational training ground Second City when Carell was a big-shot starring in sketches on the prestigious main stage.
Born just outside Philadelphia, Tina Fey was reared on comedy, watching old Marx Brothers movies and Monty Python sketches with her parents. She made her way to Chicago in 1992 to take classes at Second City, where after two years she became a featured player.
While appearing in revues and improvising sketches, she submitted several scripts to Saturday Night Live, was hired as a writer and moved to New York, proving her worth in the competitive, testosterone-fuelled writers’ room.
She appeared in one of the episodes and after watching herself decided to diet and lost 30lb. She became the show’s first female head writer and began performing regularly in sketches.
“I dreamed of being an actress when I was a little kid because you don’t know then that the writer writes everything the actor is saying,” she said. “But as I got older I got into college and became more aware that writing is another option and I started getting into it, too.”
She finally left the show in 2006 to develop the semi-autobiographical 30 Rock, about a Saturday Night Live-style television series, centring on the head writer, Liz Lemon, and how she manages her relationships with the show’s volatile star (Tracy Morgan) and its executive producer (Alec Baldwin). Although it has never notched high ratings, the show and Fey have won Emmy awards, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards.
“Hopefully women can see a little bit of themselves in Liz Lemon,” she said. “If Sex And The City was the fantasy fulfillment portrayal of life in New York, Liz Lemon is the opposite, almost embarrassingly realistic portrayal of single life in your thirties.” Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, struck by Fey’s physical resemblance to Sarah Palin, persuaded her to return to the show as a guest and on September 13 2008 she impersonated Palin in a sketch, alongside Amy Poehler as Hilary Clinton. Their repartee included Clinton needling Palin about her “Tina Fey glasses” and over the next four days the sketch notched up nearly six million online video viewers. Fey returned as Palin the following month and on the October 18 show she was joined by the real Sarah Palin.
Tina Fey has been married for nine years to composer Jeff Richmond, whom she met while they were both at Second City and who now composes the music for 30 Rock. They live on New York’s Upper West Side with their four year old daughter Alice and Fey can easily relate to the plight of the Date Night couple.
“It’s a very realistic situation this couple is in,” she said. “They love each other but they are overwhelmed by their day to day life and can’t find time to pay attention to each other.
“Jeff and I have been working together since the mid-nineties and when you have a job that is so time-consuming it’s nice to have the same job as your spouse. It’s a blessing because it would be very hard for someone who doesn’t work with you to understand why you have so much homework!”