Less than three months ago, Tina Fey was strutting across the screen in Sisters fretting about whether her dress showed too much “under-teat.” In the new film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (March 4), her concerns are a smidge heavier and any visible skin is kept securely under wraps—or, more specifically, a bright blue burka. The movie, adapted from journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle, follows Fey’s fictionalized Kim Baker as she leaves behind a domestic TV news job and slightly depressive boyfriend for a foreign correspondent gig in Kabul, Afghanistan. When she arrives she is met, in equal measure, with all the dangers of a war zone and an expat scene that resembles a freshman dorm.
Fey, who also produced the movie, spoke to TIME about how it acknowledges a premise built upon “white-lady problems,” why it avoids all talk of biological clocks and how she made use of her skills as a former fake news anchor.
TIME: The New York Times review of The Taliban Shuffle says that Kim Barker “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character.” Soon after the review was published, you had signed on to play a character based on her. Is that the origin story for this movie?
Tina Fey: Embarrassingly enough, I think it was one of my agents who forwarded me that review and motivated me to get a copy of the book. It was such a compelling story and so rich with crazy things that happened to Kim, I was just really intrigued. I knew that [30 Rock show runner] Robert Carlock would be perfect to write it if he were interested. So I went to Lorne [Michaels] and Robert, and then Robert spent a long time doing research and hatched one of the finest first drafts for anything I’ve ever read.
Did you agree with the reviewer that Barker was like you?
To me it wasn’t necessarily that obvious, but Kim has sort of a self-deprecating honesty in the book. It sounds like she dressed as badly as I dress and as [30 Rock‘s] Liz Lemon would dress, wearing a shirt off the floor for a big night out. She talks a lot in the book about one oversized, stretched-out t-shirt that she wore a lot.
What was the research process for you, playing a character based on a real person, but not actually the real Kim Barker?
It’s not a biopic. I wasn’t trying to sound like Kim. The book itself was a treasure trove to read, and to watch as many documentaries as I could. The news end of things I had some understanding, just from being around NBC all that time. Because we were just in New Mexico, [we were] really trying to figure out how best to feel like we were in Kabul and in places that were dangerous when we weren’t anywhere dangerous—depending on what part of Albuquerque you’re in, and what time it is.
Did you draw on your experience as a Saturday Night Live Weekend Update anchor to play a serious journalist?
It was useful to have that fake-journalist muscle. They’d show me a page of fake news dialogue, dense with Pashtun names, and I would have to bang it out in one take. One day it was freezing, and after we finished I joked, “Y’all are lucky I can memorize like that, or we would have been here for hours!”
When Kim explains why she left the States for Afghanistan, another character replies, “That’s the most American-white-lady story I’ve ever heard.” Was that something you were hyper-aware of, that her problems were going to be held up against much more dire problems?
I think it was funny, but also smart to call it out, that what drove her there and what she discovers on the way is a very first-world experience compared to the people she is meeting over there.
How do you approach tone in a war comedy?
You figure it out as you go. Robert has great instincts, so his script is the first thing. Then as you’re shooting, you feel your way. [Directors] John [Requa] and Glenn [Ficarra], having made movies like I Love You Philip Morris, Crazy Stupid Love, Focus, they kind of define themselves as makers of mixed-tone movies. Then as we were going through edits, you get to a point where there was a joke here, but at this point in the film, does it feel wrong to have a joke here? It’s tricky.
Kim is very career-oriented, but there’s no hand-wringing about her biological clock or finding a partner, which is kind of rare.
It’s not particularly a thing in the book—Kim would say, this was so much more appealing than trying to stay in Chicago and have babies. I remember it popping up in one piece of language, and I asked Robert to take it out, because I said I would really love for there to not be any of that in this movie. Let’s not do that because it’s not every person’s story. And he happily agreed.
This movie was a reminder of our capacity, as consumers of media, to tune out terrible conflicts in other parts of the world, and for the media to play into that decision.
I think at some point in the movie Kim is even questioning, do I really care enough or am I just addicted to being this person and getting to be the voice of it back home? Afghanistan has been a complicated place for a long time, and people keep coming from every direction saying, I’m going to straighten this out, I’m going to get it organized over there. And it remains this elusive, beautiful, harsh place that no one from the outside can quite wrangle.
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