Tina Fey steps into 'truly absurd' new role

By Michael O'Sullivan

In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Tina Fey found a character tailor-made for her, Michael O'Sullivan reports.
Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Photo / Frank Mas, Paramount Pictures
Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Photo / Frank Mas, Paramount Pictures

When the New York Times reviewed The Taleban Shuffle, Kim Barker's darkly comic memoir of her five years as South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, Barker's literary alter ego was described as "a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war".

It was an apt - and, it turns out, prescient - bit of wishful casting. Inspired by that one review, Fey read the book and brought it to her old boss at Saturday Night Live, producer Lorne Michaels, with an offer to co-produce and star in a movie adaptation. That movie - retitled Whiskey Tango Foxtrot - military slang for the abbreviation WTF - is an adaptation by Fey's long-time writing and producing partner Robert Carlock.

According to Fey, who plays Kim (rechristened Baker and turned into an American TV producer), that New York Times reviewer wasn't wrong.

"In movies, I'm often the one sane person in an insane world," Fey says by phone from New York.

"What was so appealing about this world that Kim Barker experienced was not only that it was truly absurd, but that it really was true. In 30 Rock, things had to be heightened. In Kim's book, these crazy things were actually happening all around her."

As an example, Fey cited Barker's depiction of the clumsy, G-rated attempt by the Islamic Afghan attorney general (played by Alfred Molina in the movie) to woo Kim during an interview.

"He's like, 'There's a bed in my office now,' "said Fey. "That's just insanely funny." Barker, who played no role in developing the screenplay, said she was initially "terrified" that the narrative arc of her story would be inaccurate, thanks to the adjustments, large and small, that inevitably happen to books on their way to the screen.

"If this movie had ended with me - and by 'me' I mean my character - coming back to the States and getting married with a kid, after I had been overseas because I wanted to see the world and I wanted adventure, I would have been mad at that narrative," she said. "That happens a lot with movies with female protagonists."

Ultimately, Barker is "really happy" with the finished product. "My big fear was that it would be like Anchorman in Afghanistan," she said. "What I like about the movie is that I expected to laugh, but I didn't expect to tear up. It sounds really ridiculous, because I wrote a book with some dark, sad points, but I wasn't sure they would convey."

Barker said one of those teary moments came during the scene in which Kim says goodbye to Fahim (Christopher Abbott), her Afghan "fixer/translator/paid best friend," whose his real name was Farouq.

It's one of Fey's favourite scenes, too. "The relationship between Kim and Fahim is so beautiful," she said. "You don't typically see two adults having a friendship that is not romantic." Other relationships in the book have been heightened, such as a love affair between Kim and a rival reporter, played by Martin Freeman.

Another relationship that informs the film, if only tangentially, is the one between Fey and her late father, to whom the film is dedicated. A veteran of the Korean War and a journalist and writer, Donald H. Fey died in October.

"He was a very good writer," Fey recalled. "He used to tell me and my brother [writer/producer Peter Fey], 'When you're writing any kind of journalistic copy, the important thing is you should be invisible in the piece.'" According to Fey, the line between great journalism and great comedy is less bright than one might think.

"The mark of a great comedian is that they find something to say that's true, but that no one's noticed yet," she said. "That's the formula: I'm observing something that's true, and no one else has pointed this out yet."

Who: Tina Fey
What: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
When: Opens at cinemas March 17

- TimeOut

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