Tina Fey Talks Sex Scenes, Burqas & Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.
When reviewing Kim Barker's memoir, The Taliban Shuffle, The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani wrote that Barker portrays herself as a "sort of Tina Fey character" in describing her experiences as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Now, Fey plays a character based on Barker in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a movie adapted from the book by Fey's longtime writing collaborator Robert Carlock. So what did the writer-actress think Kakutani was implying? "I think it mostly means that Kim described that she dressed very slovenly in the book and that was the only connection anyone needed," Fey told us. "Oh, you dress like a slob? That reminds me of someone."

In the movie — which opens March 4 — Kim leaves her desk job in New York to cover the war in Afghanistan as a TV journalist. (The real Barker was a print reporter for the Chicago Tribune.) Kim is clueless at first, but soon falls for the war correspondent lifestyle, which involves heavy drinking, hard partying, and putting herself in harm's way in the name of breaking news.

Did you read the
Times review that mentions you on your own? Or did someone flag it for you?
"That was brought to my attention, and then it prompted me to get the book, and then I enjoyed the book so much that I had to jump quickly. A lot of times, when you read a book like that you’re like, oh my gosh, I have to get this before anyone else buys it. Or you could be sitting here with, like, Julia Roberts right now or, like, Kate Winslet. That would have been better for you, but not for me. [Laughs]"

I spoke to Kim earlier, and she said you were excited for the costumes on this film.
"Ah, the greatest wardrobe of all time. Like Blundstone flat boots, jeans, oversized jackets. Ah, it was the happiest I’ve ever been in any wardrobe, ever."

Even more so than Liz Lemon?
"Even more so."

Why?
"My coat was on all the time. Literally, it was, like, just work boots. So comfy."

Obviously, you and Robert Carlock are a great writing team, but he wrote the screenplay. Did you work closely with him?
"Oftentimes we’d talk about stuff before he started, and after that first draft, I sort of gave him a very few thoughts. It really was one of the best first drafts I’ve ever read of anything. You could have shot every page of it as it was, and it was great. The biggest rewrites came about solely as pragmatic reasons of, like, okay, this is the budget, what of this can we afford to shoot? I knew he would be particularly well suited to write this. Because there are so many things you have to research and get right, and I knew he would be so diligent about that."

When you first read the book, was there anything you knew you had to have in the movie or that you had to change to make it work on screen?
"I knew that it would probably have to be simplified. Even Kim, I guess, when she first met with Robert said, 'I know you’re going to drop Pakistan, and people would need to be amalgamated into fewer characters.' I knew that the relationship between Kim and, in the movie, Fahim [Christopher Abbott], was a beautiful one, and that some of the absurd, wonderful, other strange relationships, like the attorney general [Alfred Molina] having a crush on her — just how would that play out? Inviting her to his office and being like, guess what? I have a bed in my office. Those things would for sure have to be in the movie."
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount.
Pictured: Tina Fey in "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot."
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One of the things that struck me was how Kim is immediately sexualized in Afghanistan. What did you want to portray about what it’s like to be in this patriarchal society that’s also a powder keg of testosterone?
"It’s a complicated thing, because obviously out and about… it’s that mix of, like, among the Western men, she was like, I don’t mind this, I don’t mind being big man on campus here. But at the same time, to be experiencing such an oppressive society outside the house culture. In a lot of ways, it’s such an interesting mix of everything that we have to process as women. Do we want that attention? Do we not want it? This culture says, here’s the way to be safe from this kind of male attention: Cover yourself with a giant piece of fabric. Well, that’s obviously not a Western solution. So yeah, it’s interesting. It’s a complicated thing to be a woman anywhere, but especially over there."

It’s interesting how it plays with ideas of invisibility. You wear a burqa in one scene. What was it like putting that on?
"I really did not like wearing that. It’s very frustrating. You can’t see. You can’t tell if you’re going to trip. You don’t have use of your arms because there are no sleeves. In the book [a character] says to Kim, 'You are in the blue prison.' Kim has talked about how, as a journalist, it was kind of freeing because then she could be invisible, but she’s having a very different experience than the person who is being forced to wear it in their real life. It just made me very very grateful to be born in the West and be born in the United States."

The movie references the “American white lady” story. Why did you want to acknowledge that?
"I think any conscious, intelligent person — you’re immediately aware that the story we’re telling about Kim and her experience, obviously, compared to the experience of women who were actually born and live in Afghanistan, is a very American white lady story. So I think that was just Robert’s wise way of saying, 'We know what we’re doing here.' It’s nice to be able to have the character of Shakira [Sheila Vand] say that to her. At the same time, if you are an American white lady, that’s the only story you have to offer."

Were you worried about avoiding the cliché of, white lady goes to foreign country and finds herself?
"Yeah, well, I think the movie is so much more about a person who falls into the lifestyle of being an adrenaline junkie, and so I think it’s almost more of a marketing trap. That’s where that can happen. The movie is really about these people who get hooked on this adrenaline lifestyle, who party all night and do meaningful work, and live in dangerous conditions and put themselves at risk. That becomes their whole life, and they feel like they are nothing if they go a step back from that. So I feel like it’s a more specific thing than just, like, I kissed a foreign person."

The film has a lot of dramatic elements, certainly more than compared to your last movie, Sisters, and a lot of other stuff you’ve done. But it also has your voice. Taking on a role like Kim, do you feel like you have to shed any of your comedic persona?
"This is the second movie I’ve ever been a producer on. On Sisters, I ended up collaborating with Jay Roach as a producer, and this movie I am producing with Lorne Michaels and Broadway Video. Even though the movies are very different, this feels consistent — these are all things that I find interesting and want to present to people. I think Robert has known me for so long and is good at writing for whatever will work for me. Probably almost better than I am at this point. He also knows what I will or won’t do. He was saying, 'I knew there had to be some kind of sex scene in the movie, but it had to be a joke one or she wouldn’t do it.' You just try to play the thing as honestly as you can."

It’s a complicated thing to be a woman anywhere, but especially over there.

Tina Fey
There’s a joke about how Kim isn’t wearing a lip color, her lips are just chapped. I noticed there’s a similar version of that joke in an episode of 30 Rock.
"Aha, that might be Robert’s fault. I think he probably just forgot. Because I did."

It was first season.
"So long ago. It’s fair use."

It’s the “Black Tie” episod
e.
"That’s great. He’ll really beat himself up over that."

I'm sorry! I don’t want him to beat himself up! I did want to ask you about doing the sex scene. What was filming that with Martin Freeman like?
"It was very easy, because Martin is a fine human being and a comedian. I don’t speak for him, but for me, when you know the goal of the scene is also comedy, then the burden of it is completely alleviated. I’ve done so many things on stage... And if it’s in the name of comedy, I don’t care. It was fine. It was a couple hours that one day. Couldn’t be easier."

You get a Zero Dark Thirty moment when you have to rescue Martin’s character, who is kidnapped. What was playing that like?
"I think it was a nice adjustment on Robert’s part. Robert talked about how Kim’s book has all these crazy relationships and [Kim's real-life] friend Sean was kidnapped. He wanted to find a way to take those things and put them into one narrative, give them purpose within this narrative as opposed to anecdotes. I think that he did a good job of doing that and making it more movie-ish, for lack of a better term, without betraying what we had set up. I think if Kim had herself kicked down the door with an AK-47, we would be all the way in movie crazy town. The fact that she talked to people that she had relationships with is believable to me, anyway."

Off topic, I wanted to ask you about election-year comedy, and it being challenging because it’s so outlandish. What’s your take on that?
"The behavior is so ugly. I was saying to friends that now is the time to do a theatrical release of Mike Judge’s movie Idiocracy. Now is the time. Where the president is a wrestler and everyone’s just a dirt bag. I feel like we’re ready for that now."

Onto the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Ellie Kemper said at TCA that Kimmy is dealing with herself this year.
"Yeah, Kimmy has to dig a little deeper this season."

I assume it’s not going into Room territory, though. Have you seen that?
"I didn't see Room yet. I was like, oh, now everyone loves [this dark topic] now that it’s not funny? [Laughs] We’ve always tried, with Kimmy’s experiences, not to sell them short. This season she digs a little deeper, but it’s still comedy, but hopefully it’s emotional for viewers by the end."

And more Titus [Tituss Burgess] singing, hopefully?
"So much singing. Oh my goodness."

You had a quote that went viral about how you have stopped apologizing for jokes. I assume that’s a reaction to internet commentary?
"Yeah."

Do you think that element of the internet — and the internet in general — has helped or hurt humor?
"I think it’s bad for jokes. I think people are much too easily offended, people make a hobby of being offended, and it’s boring. I think particularly people like Louis C.K., great comedians, they don’t care. They are going to say whatever they want, and they should. Everyone still can say whatever they want. No matter how many comments you post."