Kim Barker Explains What It’s Like To Have Your Life Turned Into A Tina Fey Movie

Photo: Chicago Tribune/Getty Images.
Kim Barker knew that The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, her funny memoir about war reporting, would look very different when adapted for the big screen. She guessed that the movie wouldn't feature Pakistan, and that her character would have a romance with a man who is just a friend in real life. That is exactly what happened. In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, out March 4, Tina Fey stars as an alternate-reality version of Barker. The script (by Fey's frequent writing partner, Robert Carlock) made other adjustments: Movie Kim, for instance, is a producer for a cable network, while the real-life Barker wrote for the Chicago Tribune. Yet despite the Hollywood-ization, Barker likes the final product. She's even enjoying doing press for the film. "Always through this I was like, I'm a journalist first and foremost and I'm going back to my job after these couple of weeks of having my makeup done and fake eyelashes on. I'm going back to be a metro investigative reporter," Barker, who now works for The New York Times, told Refinery29. "I didn't want this to be some sort of... [in voice of disgust] 'Oh gosh, that movie.' And it's not. It's great. I like what it does for women. I like what it does for women in these reporter roles. I like what it does for Islam. It never demonizes it." Here's what else Barker had to say about watching her life get reinterpreted.

Did you ever see yourself as Tina Fey-like, before reading the Michiko Kakutani review that makes that comparison?
“I think [Tina Fey] is hilarious. I had talked about writing a funny book for years, but it's not necessarily the most natural thing in the world… You have to get in a funny space to be able to write funny. Yeah, I would watch 30 Rock. I'd be like Liz Lemon — Liz Lemon goes to Afghanistan. It was just one of the people I envisioned as me. Because I'm very much a character in the book.”

After the book was optioned, did you communicate with Robert and Tina about the writing process?
"I think it took us six months to get a contract, and then we had to wait for the end of 30 Rock, and then she's going to have a baby... [Eventually,] Robert and I started meeting pretty regularly. I introduced him to a lot of my friends from over there. Also a guy who lived here who used to be a journalist, but also used to be in the military. Then Afghans and Afghan-Americans. I threw as many people at him as I could. So people say, 'Oh, the movie's not exactly like the book.' It's pretty much a combination of a lot of things."

Robert and Tina have a specific tone. What do you think their brand of humor brought to the story?
“There are probably more laughs in the movie than there are in the book. That's one complaint about the book. People say, 'For a funny book about Afghanistan and Pakistan, it's just not that funny.' I'm like, it's pretty funny, okay? It's not like I'm making stand-up jokes. But it's situational humor. I think Tina and Robert's fans will really like it. I think they'll also be really surprised at the seriousness of it. I think Tina turned in her best performance. She's showing a serious side and also her usual comedic chops. People are like, 'What were you afraid of?' I'm like, Anchorman. Anchorman in Afghanistan. That would not be good. Because that's just not fair to the story.”

It's not about going overseas and trying to find yourself and finding a man. I hate those stories.

Kim Barker
Movie Kim is sexualized the minute she gets off the plane. And the film shows what it's like to be sexualized by fellow Westerners while living in a patriarchal society.
“It's not like I ever thought about being sexualized on a daily basis. I don't know if I actually was. Maybe? I've always, my entire life, used humor to deal with everything. If anybody ever said anything that was a direct come-on, I'd try to deflect it as much as possible. It's not like we just had a dozen women there. If you looked at the major newspapers and news organizations over there, there were lots of women. I thought being a woman was an advantage... Being a woman in Afghanistan meant that I had access to the entire population and not just the men. The men would kind of be like, 'Oh, yeah, sure, I'll see her. Who's this woman running around the countryside? [They would] treat you with a mix of respect and abject curiosity. Like, 'What are you doing here?'”

Kim’s romantic interest in the movie, Iain, is based on your friend Sean. Was Sean flattered by having Martin Freeman play him?

“He hasn't seen the movie yet. So we'll see.”


“I think Sean's fine with whatever. Sean didn't even read the book until last year... Martin bears somewhat of a resemblance to Sean. Last fall, we were joking around, and I said, 'The guy who played the Hobbit is playing you.' He'd be like, 'Yeah, he also played Watson, Kim.'"

What did you think about adding the romantic element to the relationship?
"Sean and I always knew that would happen... After the movie, I was messaging with him on Facebook, and I [told him], 'So, dude, we totally do it in the movie.' He's like, 'Yeah, I knew it because I saw that trailer... I can live with that.' I said, 'Also, I should probably tell you that you're such a dumbass that you take a public bus outside of Kabul on a reporting trip.' You see the dot dot dot and then stop, the dot dot dot and then stop. And I go, 'Oh, and I kind of rescue you from the Taliban.' He's like, dot dot dot stop. He's like, 'Wait, it's going to take me some time adjust to this.'”
Did you meet with Tina?
“We had lunch together and I saw her on the set... It's not like she shadowed me at work — as much as work was like, 'When's Tina coming?'” Did she have any specific questions?
“She wanted to hone in on, was I really scared? How did I feel when I first was going to Afghanistan? Did I ever feel like my life was in danger? I told her I was nervous meeting her for the first time and I didn't know what I was going to wear. I was going to wear heels and a power suit. Instead, I was, like, T-shirt, flats, skirt, and a jacket. Then we talked about high heels, and she said, 'Do you know what I really love about this movie? The wardrobe is going to be just amazing.' It was just, like, hiking boots and tennis shoes.” Is there anything you hope the film promotes?
“If it can be used by any young woman who wants to become a foreign correspondent, I think that's great. I love having strong women characters like this, and if they can be role models at all, that's a wonderful thing. Follow your dreams and it doesn't always have to end in a man. I was pretty adamant with Robert that I didn't want to end up in a marriage with a baby at the end. I want it to be ambiguous. Even though I was dating someone in real life at the end of the book, it's not in there, because that's not that story. It's not Eat, Pray, Love. It's not about going overseas and trying to find yourself and finding a man. I hate those stories. Sometimes you just find yourself. Primarily, primarily, primarily, I want people to take a look at what's happened in Afghanistan and maybe read the book and maybe talk about policy there. Maybe actually talk about strategy.”

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