Though she’s starred in a couple of feature films ("Baby Mama," Date Night"), and had a prominent role in, as well as wrote, "Mean Girls," Tina Fey is still best known for her TV work: head writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live," creator-writer-executive producer-star of "30 Rock." But with that show now gone, Fey is moving forward with her big-screen career. The former member of the renowned Chicago improv group Second City will be seen next year in "The Muppets ... Again!" and later this week starring opposite Paul Rudd and Lily Tomlin in the college-set comedy "Admission." Fey, 42, who plays a Princeton admissions officer, recently spoke about the film in New York.
You’ve been so busy with television, how did you get involved in this project?
I started talking to [director] Paul Weitz about it a few years ago, and actually had met Jean Korelitz, who wrote the book, at a New Year’s Eve party. She said, "I have this book who someone’s gonna call you about." I said, "Really? Happy NEW Year!"
What did you like about the story?
I liked that it was a story about, kind of, adult people. It was a world that I thought was interesting. Not just a world of college admissions, but I was interested in people who live their whole life in a college environment, and how insular and weird that can become. Also, I thought there was a nice warm heart to the story.
You went to the University of Virginia. But didn’t you apply to Princeton?
Yes, and I remember failing at my Princeton interview. My mom wanted me to apply to Princeton since I was a kid. I remember, kind of like the scene in the movie, when Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) goes to the alumni interview and just from the minute you go in, it’s like, nope, this isn’t gonna work. I had a long plaid skirt on, and a suit jacket, and I just wasn’t bringing it. Unlike now, where I’m dazzling. (laughs)
So how was your own college experience?
I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, and I was at the University of Virginia from ’88 to ’92. It’s a great school, but for me, it was very culturally different, if only because I came from a suburb where everyone was half-Italian, half-Irish, half-Greek, whatever. But here were the most really white people I had ever seen. The most beautiful blonde girls with the long ponytails and hoop earrings, and they all owned horses and stuff. I felt like I had gone to Sweden or something. But I got involved in the drama department there, and that’s where I found all the oddly shaped people, and we sort of stuck together.
You ended up in the world of improvisation. Does that kind of background help when you’re on a movie set?
Hopefully it does help. There were definitely moments with Lily Tomlin [who plays her feisty mom] where we did improvise a tiny bit. It’s certainly not always improvising just to try to find jokes. In this case it was making yourself ready to react if someone does something different. You can definitely tell that Lily is not just expert at that, but is really thrilled by it. If anything changes in a take, she notices it and responds. She was like, "Oh, we’re changing stuff a little bit? OK, let’s go!"
You’re a writer as well as an actor. Did you want to keep changing the script?
No. I would guess that I’m probably less likely to change things than other actors only because I know how MAD it makes ME when actors want to change things. So I try not to, unless I’m specifically being asked to improvise. The thing about the book and the screenplay – it was all so well done, you didn’t have the impulse of, "Oh, we’ve gotta fix this." It was all really thoughtfully written. It’s nice when you can go into something where you really trust that everyone had really thought about it, more than you have, even. That’s just like a gift.
"Admission" opens on March 22.
Ed Symkus covers movies for GateHouse Media and has been writing about actors and filmmakers since 1987. His favorite interview was with Elliott Gould. His worst interview was with Tommy Lee Jones.