Comedienne Tina Fey shows a darker side in new movie

Tina Fey talks with her signature wit about the similarities of comedy and serious drama

Comedienne Tina Fey is a pretty well-known name in Hollywood after the success of 30 Rock and her stint as Golden Globes host last year. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Comedienne Tina Fey is a pretty well-known name in Hollywood after the success of 30 Rock and her stint as Golden Globes host last year. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

With her starring role in the award-hogging sitcom 30 Rock and her much-praised co-hosting of the Golden Globes last year, comedienne Tina Fey is a pretty recognisable face these days.

But her recent success in front of the camera makes it easy to overlook the fact she started out as a writer. In fact, she was the first female head writer on the star-making comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live.

In person, the 44-year-old's fast-twitch wit and comic timing - which have won her numerous writing and acting awards - are unmistakable.

At a Los Angeles press event for her new comedy-drama This Is Where I Leave You, journalists in attendance can practically hear the gears clicking in her comedy-sharpened brain as she sits next to co-star Jason Bateman and dazzles the room with her wit.

The multiple Emmy-winning writer and actress is equal parts warmth and mischief as she interacts with reporters at the small studio in West Hollywood.

There is also a bit of shy schoolgirl in there somewhere, which is not surprising, perhaps, when you learn she based her screenplay for the cult comedy Mean Girls (2004) on her own awkward high-school years or that this thinking-man's sex symbol was once a frumpy wallflower.

Not being an outsider anymore has not dulled any of her bite, though. Fey is a comedy ninja, quiet but lethal as she delivers zinger after zinger in her sweet and tiny voice, with the effect ranging from insightful to just plain silly.

She explains that she signed on to do This Is Where I Leave You because she wanted to work again with Shawn Levy, who directed her and Steve Carell in the 2010 romantic comedy Date Night.

"I was also very excited to work with Jason," she says of her 45-year-old co-star, before cutting his legs out from under him. Referring to another popular actor, she quips: "I did think it was Jason Segel for, like, the first few weeks."

It continues like this throughout the interview even though she is meant to be promoting a rather serious movie about long-held family grudges and secrets - meaning she actually had to properly emote and even cry on screen for a change.

When Bateman asks her, "Is crying easier for you now you have kids?", Fey, the mother of two girls, aged nine and three, says: "Yeah. It opened my black heart."

In the movie, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, she plays Wendy Altman, a frustrated wife and mother who is one of four siblings forced to reunite after the death of their father.

It is a big departure for the celebrated comedienne, who has made it to Forbes "100 most powerful celebrities" list in recent years.

Her biggest success was with the satirical TV series 30 Rock (2006-2013), in which she played the hapless Liz Lemon, the head writer of a fictional sketch comedy show. It was a character based on her own experience of joining the writing staff of Saturday Night Live in the late 1990s, where they began putting her on camera after she decided to lose 30 pounds (13.6kg).

Despite spotty ratings, 30 Rock was a consistent critical favourite, nominated for more than 100 Emmys and winning 16 during its seven-year run - including Outstanding Comedy Series from 2007 to 2009, and the Best Actress Emmy and Golden Globe for Fey in 2009.

While this was happening, its star was also moonlighting on Saturday Night Live, where she unveiled her hysterically uncanny impersonation of Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 United States election, in sketches.

The Palin clips went viral, making her an international star and winning her yet another award, the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.

Yet with all these accolades in comedy, a serious dramatic role is not as much of stretch for her as you might think, she claims, because comedy and drama actually play to similar strengths for an actor.

"Because it's all sort of truthful human behaviour. It's all coming from characters," she explains.

"So yeah, you go into those scenes and in the back of your mind is, 'The stage directions do say I cry here'. But you're just hopefully trying to play the scene as honestly as possible."

She also felt the need to take a break from business as usual after 30 Rock.

"I played a character for seven years. It did feel like I should really sit it out a season or two before I go, 'Hey guys, it's me again'.

"So I want to do things like this (This Is Where I Leave You), no matter what format they're in. Where I'm like, 'That story, those people, yeah, let's do that'. Whether it be TV or movies or busking... I could just be busking."

Even as she says this, however, Fey was hard at work trying to get not one but two original television comedies off the ground: Cabot College and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

After the interview, it was reported that the first of these - about a women's college that begins accepting male students - was not picked up for broadcast. But the second, starring The Office's Ellie Kemper as a woman trying to restart her life after years living in a cult, is to debut in the US later this year.

Fey points out that she was never going to star in either of these and that this was no accident.

"I'm back in the writers' room and it's reminded me that it's a lot of work, it's a labour of love," she says.

"Having done a show, you're like, 'Okay, here we go. It could be three (seasons) or it could be seven years'. It's like having your second baby. With your first baby, you don't really know what's happening. With your second, you remember," she says darkly.

And despite putting down her pen to star in this new comedy-drama hybrid, she concedes that some of the best comedic work these days seems to be done by those who both write and perform their own material - among them Louis CK with his semiautobiographical TV series Louie, which won the gong for Best Writing in a Comedy Series at the recent Emmys, or shows such as Lena Dunham's Girls and Amy Schumer's Inside Amy Schumer, which Fey says she is a fan of.

These shows "have that synthesis" of the star also being the writer and creator, she notes. "It's one less time that (the material) has to be translated, I guess."

Notwithstanding her forays onto the big screen with the recent indie rom-com Admission (2013) and popular films such as Mean Girls, the actress hints that TV may be where she will always feel most at home.

"I think television has been good for women, for whatever reason," she says, responding to a question about whether she feels like a pioneer who paved the way for the success of young female writercreator stars such as Dunham.

"You can go back to the beginning and you have Lucille Balle, you have Mary Tyler Moore. Not that they were necessarily writing their own shows but they were producing them a lot of the time."

Even as she proffers this thoughtful answer, you can see the internal struggle on Fey's face as she tries to ignore the fact that the Spanish reporter who asked that question had mispronounced the word pioneer as "pee-oneer".

In the end, she succumbs to her instincts.

"And so I think - ahem - I think there were pee-oneers before us," she says straight-faced. "So I'm like a secondgeneration settler."

This Is Where I Leave You opens in Singapore tomorrow.

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