Fey cuts loose in 'Mean Girls'
By Donna Freydkin
NEW YORK Don't be afraid of Tina Fey.
True, in her spare time, the recreational artist rips photos out of the National Enquirer celebrity tabloid and redraws the stars, inserting dialogue bubbles with jokes too dirty to print in this newspaper. And yes, she skewers back-stabbing, conniving high schoolers in her first screenplay, "Mean Girls," which continues a successful run in theaters.
But beneath that sardonic little grin and behind those signature black-rimmed glasses, Fey, 33, is a soft-spoken, introverted pussycat who bakes cakes and sews pillows. Seriously.
Just ask her husband of nearly three years, "SNL" musical director Jeff Richmond.
"Her persona is so caustic, but she's very shy and she doesn't like confrontation in real life," he says.
But she unleashes her anger in "Mean Girls," a comedy determined to show that teens are heavyweight champions in girl-on-girl cruelty. The movie's catty Cruella De Vil is Regina George (Rachel McAdams), a girl who rules her school and her chic clique, the Plastics, and corrupts sweetly clueless new student Cady (Lindsay Lohan).
Regina is an "amalgam of girls I was intimidated by in high school," says Fey, who has a role in the film as a misunderstood math teacher. She inserted unsavory aspects of herself into Regina as well: "If I don't like someone, I don't want my friends to like them either. It's a dark part of me that I think Regina has."
While her movie paints a stark portrait of school as a bloody battlefield, Fey herself fondly looks back on her years at Pennsylvania's Upper Darby High School.
"My high school experience was a lot like my life right now, in that I was constantly overextended, I always had a paper due," she says. "I was very studious and obedient and in a lot of activities. I did the choir, the drama club, I was on the school paper, I played tennis. I definitely don't look back on it as a horrible time. I've always thought that if I hadn't ended up doing this, I would have been a teacher."
Instead, she has become one of "SNL's" breakout stars. Fey's ardent fans rave about her on the Internet and call her late night's It Girl. They love her glasses, which imbue her with a smart-girl sexiness but in fact serve a practical purpose they help her read the cue cards on "Update." And they gossip about the origins of the mysterious scar on the left side of her face. Fey won't say how she got it, save to mention that it happened during her childhood.
That's also when she started cracking jokes. There was plenty of ribbing at home among her paramedic-writer father, homemaker mother and older brother Peter.
"Tina comes from a really funny family, with a good sense of humor about themselves," says "SNL" and "Mean Girls" co-star Amy Poehler, who has known Fey for 11 years. "She's good at being teased and teasing other people."
In middle school, says Fey, she knew she "wanted to be perceived as funny. I got a taste of it. It's like, all right, this is going to be my thing. I'm going to try to be that person at the party. Because being the foxy girl was not happening, so I was looking for another role."
Fey quickly points out that she was nobody's homecoming queen. Instead, she was acerbically funny. In the treacherous school universe, she used her wit "to play off being smarter than everybody."
On a recent Friday afternoon at the show's midtown set, Fey is mutedly funny, delivering zingers and one-liners under her breath, almost to herself.
She likes the new pink jacket she's wearing, she says, save for the fact that with it on, she "should be working at a day spa" and doing bikini waxes.
And chances are, Fey would have been the best waxer in the biz. "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels, who hired Fey in 1997 and promoted her to the show's first female head writer two years later, calls her "disciplined and focused.
If she says she'll do something, she does it. There's no laziness in her."
She honed her comedy skills with Chicago's vaunted Second City improv group, which she joined in 1994 (the same year she met her future husband) after graduating from the University of Virginia.
In Chicago, she became tight with future "SNL"ers Rachel Dratch and Poehler.
"The first day I met her, I knew she would be a huge success," says Poehler. "She's really funny, really smart, very sarcastic, very hard on herself, very hardworking, very silly and very shy. She's grade-A hot meat."
Her smarts helped make "SNL" relevant again and win the show an outstanding writing Emmy in 2002, its first in more than a decade.
One of Fey's very first sketches starred the late Chris Farley as a large baby in a Sally Jessy Raphael satire. She has since skewered the ABC female gab-fest "The View," and, with Dratch, created Sully & Denise, two beer-guzzling Boston teens played by Dratch and Jimmy Fallon. And then there's the Fun Friend Club, a Barney spoof starring Dratch as a physically mature kid who won't leave the show despite her massive cleavage and pungent body odor.
Featuring women in her skits, says Michaels, is part of Fey's commitment to making sure that they're "well represented on air." She's doing that on a male-centric show generally not heralded for its stellar treatment of female comedians.