Tina Fey expands showbiz repertoire with `Mean Girls'

Lead writer for `SNL' tries writing script for movie

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

April 29, 2004|By Ian Spelling | Ian Spelling,N. Y. TIMES SYNDICATE

At New York's Regency Hotel, a half-dozen television correspondents and about a dozen newspaper and magazine writers are milling about, patiently waiting their turn to spend time with Tina Fey. It's a peculiar sight -- no one cares about television writers, yet everyone's eager to grab a few quality moments with Fey.

Here's why: Fey's no mere writer. She's the first female head writer at Saturday Night Live, as well as the co-anchor of Update. And now she's written her first feature, Mean Girls, which stars teen hottie Lindsay Lohan and features Fey in a supporting role. Plus the 33-year-old has that whole sexy-funny-gal-with-glasses vibe going for her, making her a thinking man's It Girl.

"I feel like I'm really getting away with murder," Fey says, dressed casually in jeans and a denim jacket, as she settles onto a couch. "I'm sort of living every writer's dream. I get to write, and I also get to show my face and say, `I'm a writer!'

"The first three years I was with the show," she says, "all the lady writers would sit around, and we'd see the lady performers from the show all dolled up to go out to movie premieres or some party they got invited to, and there'd be a complete Cinderella syndrome. We'd be up all night, our hair would be crazy-looking, we'd be in sweat pants, eating donuts and saying, `Have fun, you guys.'

"So it's been a little bit of a writer's dream come true."

Eager to expand her repertoire, Fey based her script on Rosalind Wiseman's best seller Queen Bees & Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence (Crown, 2002). The film, directed by Mark Waters and produced by Saturday Night Live boss Lorne Michaels, tracks Cady Heron (Lohan), a teen raised and home-schooled in Africa who is suddenly relocated to suburban Illinois, where she must navigate high school.

As the story unfolds, Cady pretends to befriend the school's teen queen, Regina (Rachel McAdams), and her worker bees/hangers-on (Lacey Chabert and Amanda Seyfried), to take Regina down a notch. But there's hell to pay when Regina discovers what's going on. Fey plays Ms. Norbury, a teacher trapped in the crossfire.

"I liked the subject matter in the book," Fey says. "It rang true to me. I think the invisible and not so invisible ways that girls mess with each other are inherently funny, even though it's a traumatic time of a girl's life -- and it carries on into adult life, if left unchecked.

"Rosalind had done a lot of interviews with real girls and talked about real things that happened to them," she says. "I tried to get those nuggets of real behavior into the script. Also, a lot of little things in there are experiences of my own from high school. There are snippets of conversation, and some characters, that are from my own experiences."

Writing the film offered a lesson in the difference between features and sketch comedy, Fey says. Lesson No. 1: Story is poison for sketches but a requirement in a screenplay. Lesson No. 2: To some extent a movie is simply a sketch on steroids.

"When I write a sketch," Fey says, "I get to see all these designers and technicians and actors applying their skills to the tiny idea I had. On a film it's like that, but with more people there to flesh out this thing you made up.

"But the big difference is waiting for a reaction," she adds. "I'm so used to the immediate turnaround of live television. You've got to wait almost a year for anyone to see a film."

By this time, she admits, she doesn't have much of a sense of what the film is actually like.

"Now it's so out of my hands that I've got the atti- tude of a curious bystander: `I wonder what will happen now with this,'" Fey says.

In the meantime, she's focusing her attention on Saturday Night Live. Fey joined the show's writing staff in 1997, after several years in Chicago with the Second City comedy troupe, and became writing supervisor in 1999.

"I think we've had a lot of good shows this year," she says. "We've had some very interesting and unusual hosts, which I think always helps."

Fey, who lives in Manhattan with her husband, Jeff Richmond, hopes to write more movies, but adds that she could envision herself as a "lifer" on SNL. She'd be particularly inclined to stick around, she notes, if she could still get occasional opportunities to act in other projects.

"I really love being able to perform a little bit on the side," Fey says. "That satisfies a side of me that's really show-offy and wants a little attention. But I know that I'm better at the writing part, so I'm really happy that I can make my actual livelihood through writing and do the performing on the side."

For film events, see Page 39.

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