Tina Fey - From spoofer to movie stardom

Tina Fey became famous globally for her take-offs of Sarah Palin, but had already won awards for Saturday Night Live. She tells Gill Pringle about Date Night, her new comedy with Office star Steve Carell

Introduced to British audiences as luckless Liz Lemon in TV's 30 Rock, writer Tina Fey has come a long way for a self-confessed "super-nerd" whose career once revolved around making other people sound funny. More than anything, Fey's savagely spot-on skits of former US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin propelled her into the spotlight, adding an Emmy to her growing collection of awards including five other Emmys, two Golden Globes and numerous Writers Guild awards.

Born Elizabeth Stamatina Fey in suburban Philadelphia, she majored in drama, moving to Chicago where she trained with famed improv troupe Second City, while working a local YMCA desk by day. By 1997, she joined the writing staff of the US satirical sketch show Saturday Night Live, the long-running late-night show responsible for launching the careers of John Belushi, Adam Sandler, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy among many others. She graduated to head writer two years later and was added to the cast the following year. But it was Fey's uncanny resemblance to Palin that proved a major career springboard.

Having left SNL four years ago to focus on her own TV series, 30 Rock, she was lured back to the show after former Alaskan governor Palin appeared on the political scene, plucked from obscurity as John McCain's running mate.

"For years I'd been physically compared to Nana Mouskouri although there's not much you can do with that these days, so Sarah Palin was a real gift," laughs Fey, 39, whose other writing credits include the script for 2004 hit teen flick, Mean Girls.

Aside from her TV credits, Fey's big-screen career is also rapidly gathering speed, with her starring in comedy Baby Mama two years ago and opposite Ricky Gervais in last year's The Invention of Lying. Now she has teamed up with fellow small-screen star Steve Carell in couples comedy Date Night, a witty take on that peculiarly American term that has worked its way into everyday vocabulary.

"I think it is sort of a relatively recent thing," she ponders. "Just in the same way parents now say 'playdate' when their children play together. That wasn't a thing when I was a kid, you just went over to someone's house to play, now they schedule a 'playdate'. But I do know a lot of couples that refer to this as their 'date night'," says Fey whose own parents Donald, a grant writer, and Greek-born brokerage worker Jeanne, introduced her to classic comedies from Monty Python and The Marx Brothers from an early age.

As mother to a four-year-old daughter, "date nights" are nothing new to Fey and composer/comedy director husband Jeff Richmond, 50, although Fey's screen date-night with Carell goes horribly wrong in this comedy.

"I think its something that any married couple with kids can relate to. When you're married and you have a kid and you work, there's a part of being in the relationship with your spouse that can be really like an irritating burden at some point and you have to remember that what brought you there in the first place was your love for your spouse, because it becomes like: 'Oh great, now I've got to go talk to him too. Great! I just want to go to sleep.' So you have to remember to tend to that garden. Its important to find time to see friends too and just try to battle against the general fatigue level.

"I don't have any seriously disastrous 'date night' stories of my own but I do know that feeling when you're so tired, and you've made plans to go out and when you leave, you're actually envious as the babysitter settles in to watch TV and order food, and you're like: 'Aw, I want to stay with the babysitter. I'm jealous of the babysitter.'"

Deliberately avoiding versions of their TV incarnations, Fey says her and Carell's Date Night husband and wife have little in common with their small-screen personas: "But maybe there will be some satisfaction if people like those two shows where they might be able to pretend in their minds that Michael Scott [Carell's Office character] and Lemon are finding love.

"Playing Steve's wife came remarkably naturally. I started berating Steve immediately and he resented me immediately," she quips. "But I think the aspect of trying to take control of everything and not really letting the husband in on the day-to-day family stuff rings true. I think that's a real thing that people do, women especially. I like that my character Clara is smart, and I like the core of this relationship. They do love each other. They're not bickering; they're not horrible to each other, they're just in a frustrating patch in their marriage. I feel like that's intelligent and truthful. Seriously, once you're married, you stop even celebrating Valentine's Day. Maybe I'm bitter but I think that's strictly amateur night!"

Having once envisaged a career behind the scenes, Fey admits to a certain amount of doubt at her recent good fortunes: "Ah, the impostor syndrome!? The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: 'I'm

a fraud! Oh god, they're on to me! I'm a fraud!' So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud. Seriously, I've just realised that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.

"Having become a public figure perhaps later in life than most I think has helped me deal with the aspects of intrusion into my private life. I mean, it is insane. But I think because I'd worked a lot of places for a long time before stuff like this happened, I have an almost terrifying clarity of how much longer are they going to let me do this.

"People do treat you differently, so it's nice to come into it a little bit older because you sort of know not to believe it 100 percent. Everyone is so nice to you all of the time, telling you, 'you look great,' when you know you don't. But that's OK. Being a little older, it's easier to take things with a grain of salt. For example, a lot of times, with 30 Rock, the writers will tease me when I come in looking the absolute worst, that I could be eating something that I found on the floor, just really bad... They'll be like: 'You're a star! You're living your dream,' but there's no time to really walk around and feel powerful."

Discussing the fate of 30 Rock, in the light of her co-star Alec Baldwin telling everyone he's about to quit, Fey laughs: "He's leaving Earth! He's going into space! But Alec says that all the time. I think he's a brilliant guy, and certainly talented enough and smart enough to do a lot of things, but I think his curse is that he's a brilliant actor, and he won't be able to stop. I also think that the job is very hard. I've always been impressed that to do that five nights a week, all year, it's a grind, and it's difficult to be fresh and original. Hopefully we'll continue for two more years. Obviously it's not really up to us, but if we could go to season five and six, that would be ideal. I would love the people at NBC to give us that. You want these series to be good the whole way through, I think we'll have to see if we get that far, and see how we feel."

One aspect of her success is the fact that Fey today has thousands of followers on Twitter – despite the fact it's not even the real Tina Fey.

"Isn't that crazy? It's not me! It has like 300,000 people following me, but it's not me. I'm way too old to get into twittering and all that stuff," she sighs. "I'm a writer, so the thought of having to write one more thing, be responsible for turning out anything else, is way too many."

Fey's own four-year-old daughter is famously responsible for some of 30 Rock's biggest catchphrases: "It's true," she smiles.

"We've incorporated several things she's said. I think it's because I bore everyone to tears in the writer's room with stories about her that subconsciously it gets into their brains. But, yeah, things like 'I want to go to there' and 'touch my knee's butt' are all her work. One of these days she's going to figure it out and start charging," says Fey who confesses she has become the sort of parent she once poked fun at, planning 'playdates' for her daughter around her busy work schedule.

"It's a cliché isn't it? The way modern parents are today expected to spur their kids into becoming mini-geniuses? Already its like, Saturday is ballet... You do sort of build your day around taking them someplace or going somewhere. These kids are going to be amazing. A whole generation of super-fit geniuses! But I don't think I'll be encouraging my daughter to take up acting. After working with two children on Date Night, and those children were lovely, but it's a long day for a kid. They're very happy to be there, but I do think it's too much like real work for a kid."

Once Fey and Carell had signed on for Date Night, such is their kudos among fellow actors that a whole host of A-listers came out of the woodwork, resulting in a supporting cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, James Franco, Mark Ruffalo and Ray Liotta.

"It was weird having Mark Wahlberg on the set. I mean, he produces Entourage and has this serious career after being a teen idol. But he totally understands comedy and ad-libbed so much funny stuff," she says.

One of the few successful female comedians today, Fey laments the dearth of comedic opportunities for women in a largely male-dominated occupation. "I know a lot of women who are very funny, but mainly in TV. Women for a long time have driven TV comedies, going back to the Fifties with I Love Lucy, but, for some reason, it's different in movies. Maybe more women need to produce movies.

"I also think, as a mom, that when a movie comes out, I kind of don't get a babysitter and I don't show up, whereas a teenage boy will go to the movies, so I think producers follow where the money is. If boys are going to the movies more, you're going to get movies for boys. TV has always been more for the ladies," says Fey who developed her own savage comedy skills as a teenager, understanding that a sense of humour was a great way to avoid criticism and win friends.

Today Fey sees no respite from the comparisons with Palin who, although resigning her post as governor of Alaska, remains in the US public eye after publishing her memoirs and still engaging in numerous television appearances.

Despite their shared trademark black-rimmed spectacles and physical similarities, Fey insists she's rarely mistaken for the politician: "It happens less than you might think. But I do always think when I'm in the airport or at Disneyland, that's the first thing people will think of if they see me."

Having made her name in comedy, Fey admits to a secret desire to do something totally unfunny.

"I always joke," she says, "that as my working retirement I'd want to be a judge on Law & Order! Improv is tough."

'Date Night' opens on 21April

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution