In her new movie, “Admission,” Tina Fey plays a successful career woman struggling to right a life that’s clearly out of balance. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same could be said of nearly every big-screen star turn she’s had thus far. Adjust a few details (job, geography, marital status, fertility outlook . . .) and her latest role, Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan, looks a lot like Kate Holbrook, her character in “Baby Mama,” who looks like Claire Foster (“Date Night”), who looks like Ms. Norbury (“Mean Girls”), who looks suspiciously like Tina Fey.
Well, of course, you say. They’re all Tina Fey, the same way that Miranda Priestly, Lindy Chamberlain, and Sophie Zawistowski are all Meryl Streep, when you get right down to it. But here’s the difference between Fey and most movie stars: She’s realistic about her range as a leading lady and says she’s been deliberate about only taking on parts for which she actually seems suited. That may make her acting resume less than Streeply, but it’s also one of the many reasons we like her so much.
“I take each thing as it comes and think: Would I be plausible in this role, in this job?,” Fey, 42, explains in a recent phone call from New York, where she lives with her producer-composer husband, Jeff Richmond, and their two children. “Could I plausibly be a college admissions officer? Yes. Could I see myself in the kind of situation that this woman is in? Yes.”
Portia’s “situation” is that she doesn’t think she’s parenting material until she’s introduced to a brainy high school student (Nat Wolff) who could be the boy she gave up for adoption as a baby. “Admission,” which opens Friday, is in many ways a traditional romantic comedy; Michael Sheen plays the self-involved cad who jilts her and Paul Rudd plays the noble teacher she’ll come around to, but not before several false starts and much witty banter. It’s the kind of story line that wouldn’t have been out of place on Fey’s just-ended sitcom, “30 Rock,” except that her comedy-writer alter ego, Liz Lemon, would have found some way to derail happiness with the noble teacher, thereby restoring the natural order of alpha female singlehood and returning her to the arms of her TV work family well before lunch arrived from Blimpie.
“30 Rock” debuted in 2006, and most of what we think we know about its creator and star (born Elizabeth Stamatina Fey in Upper Darby, Pa.) has been gleaned from that show or her 2011 quasi-memoir, “Bossypants.” She was famous before that, of course. After coming up alongside Rachel Dratch at Chicago’s Second City, she punched in for nearly a decade at “Saturday Night Live,” where she served as head writer and “Weekend Update” coanchor. She wrote the screenplay for 2004’s “Mean Girls,” for which she should have her own shrine in high schools across the land. But Fey didn’t vault into the Power Girls of Comedy pantheon — joining such trailblazers as Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore — until the sitcom she created and starred in took off and kept going, conveniently aided by her “I can see Russia from my house!” impressions of Sarah Palin on “SNL.”
All of which raises the question: Does she miss not having a steady television job to report to? Should we be worried that she’s like a prematurely retired Bill Clinton wandering aimlessly around the White House? The suggestion makes her laugh.
“I am wandering around the White House, and I’ve been asked to leave repeatedly,” she quips. “No, I feel OK.
“We talked a lot in the writers’ room about what we wanted the last episode to be, and we watched a lot of finales of other shows. We wanted to feel like it was a regular episode of ‘30 Rock’ in that we wanted to still have a lot of jokes, but we also wanted to leave room for characters to express their feelings toward each other. ’Cause that was our observation in watching a lot of finales — that it’s nice and it’s OK to let the characters say goodbye to each other. It can be satisfying for longtime viewers.”
While critical reaction to the final episode was mixed, no one is questioning Fey’s talent or ability to connect with an audience. Ask people what they like about her, and the word that comes back most often, besides “hilarious,” is “real.”
“She’s such a cool person,” says Rudd. “She’s so real. The opinions people might have about her from interviews — how non-precious or non-diva-like she is — all of that is true. She’s just a great person to hang out with.”
That was the vibe we all got from Fey’s hosting of this year’s Golden Globes with pal Amy Poehler. They were like girlfriends watching along with us at home, cracking quick-witted jokes and lobbing slightly snarky hand grenades when deserved (yes, you, Taylor Swift). In the wake of that success, Fey dodges frequent media inquiries about whether she’ll host the Oscars someday. But you can’t blame people for wondering. It’s starting to look like gold is her color.
Her “Admission” director, Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”), who notes that every director should have the luxury of reading his star’s autobiography before filming, says he never seriously considered anyone else for the part.
“One of the reasons I desperately wanted Tina to do this role was that [Portia] needed to be somebody who’s smart enough to fool herself into thinking that she’s satisfied with her life,” he explains. “Tina is analytical and very self-deprecating, and she’s also got a direct link, I think, to herself as a kid.”
It’s that everywoman/Supergirl blend that Fey will guard like a Brink’s truck as she remarkets herself post-“30 Rock.” While she insists that no master plan exists and directing isn’t high on her list (“I’m not at this current time so interested in directing a movie,” she says, “but I would love to write another movie and then produce it so that I can pester the director”), she hopes to keep having it all. Possible projects include both TV and movies, preferably working mostly with trusted friends, because it’s more fun and because she can.
Already underway is a role in “The Muppets” sequel (“The Muppets . . . Again!”) currently shooting in London. She plays a Russian prison matron, which apparently means that Muppet movies aren’t subject to Fey’s aforementioned plausibility rule. Go figure.
Fey has also recently dabbled in rap music. She appears on a mixtape put out by Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Donald Glover of TV’s “Community”), which has fans wondering if there’s more rapping in her future.
“So much more rapping,” she deadpans. “My album drops. . . . No. But I hope so. I hope there’s more rapping in my future.”
OK, we’ll bite. If Tina Fey cultivates a full-on rap career, what will her official rap name be? There’s barely a pause before the improv veteran has an answer.
“Uhhhhhhh . . . Flabbergaszzzzted,” she says. “With a lot of z’s that you can’t even figure out where they would go.”
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.