The Tribeca Film Festival’s new series of Tribeca Talks is dubbed Storytellers, producer Paula Weinstein explained in the introduction to Tuesday evening’s installment, specifically for people like Tina Fey. Unlike the Directors Series, which spotlights filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon, Storytellers is more for multi-hyphenates, people who write and act and produce, across a variety of media. All of which was a little surprising to our Tina. “I was told this was VH1 Storytellers,” she joked. “I was gonna sing ‘Layla’ unplugged.”
She talked to a packed house at the Borough of Manhattan Community College on the day of the New York presidential primary — during an election where she’s missed having a regular outlet for political comedy. “Looking back on 2008 now, it looks like an episode of The Andy Griffith Show,” she said. “And now it’s like, Ryan Murphy brings you Horror Election!”
Not that she hasn’t been busy. She and TV Guide writer (and longtime friend) Damian Holbrook spent a fair amount of their sixty-plus minutes discussing the recently released second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a season Holbrook described as “a little edgier,” thanks in no small part to the loss of Kimmy’s “innocence.”
“You kinda gotta rip that Band-Aid off,” Fey agreed. “I mean, that’s how I like to think of Kimmy’s sexuality, this sort of scabbed-over thing.” But part of the writing process this season was informed by the possibility of star Ellie Kemper getting pregnant, “and I was protecting myself in case we needed an on-camera pregnancy – which, now we don’t. Ellie does have great news that she is expecting her first child, but in August, between seasons. Well played, Ellie.”
And this season also sees Fey returning to the show for a multi-episode arc, a character “I had back-pocketed since we first pitched the pilot… and then, at the end of season one, I was coerced by the writers to play Marcia Clark. Thank God I went first on that one. Could you imagine? Rolling out a terrible Marcia Clark… But that was like, we literally could not book anybody. Sarah Paulson was already booked for the other one, I think.”
But she was ready to do something more personally connected this season, she explained, for one simple and rather charming reason. “I wanted to play that part, because I like the idea of being a person who got to talk to that character, because – this is gonna sound really cheesy, but when you write a series, you have to kind of really be in love with all your characters. You have to really love them, because you’re gonna spend so much time thinking about them. I really felt that way about every character on 30 Rock, I feel that way about characters on Kimmy Schmidt. And so I really thrills me to play the person who really gets to talk to her and try to help her, through this messed-up way, because I love her.”
One of the pleasures of Fey’s recent period has been watching her try new things as an actor, and blossom into an honest-to-goodness movie star, in films like Sisters and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. But when Holbrook asked her to name her toughest movie role to date, she laughed it off. “I don’t have like, my Danish Girl, I don’t have like anything that a real actor would say, ‘Oh yeah, that was real hard.'” She tries to take it relatively easy, a point driven home when asked to name her favorite place to film in New York: “Always you feel like, the closer you can film to your apartment, the better… that’s the dream.” For now, she’s shooting Kimmy Schmidt in Greenpoint – something of an upgrade, neighborhood-wise, from 30 Rock‘s digs in Long Island City, which she describes as “a great studio where, in seven years I never took a walk. We just kept waiting for it to gentrify. It was like, you know what’s across the street? One of those fully-nude strip clubs where they don’t sell alcohol. Who’s that for? I wanna be real sober, and humiliate these ladies.”
She did bring her daughters to that set, however, and when Holbrook asked what quality Fey hopes to pass on to them, she didn’t hesitate. “It’s funny, because I hope I’m passing on to them some kind of work ethic. But we work so much, that I fear they’re gonna be like, some kind of trustafarians, who are like, ‘My mom is always tired. Like, I’m never gonna work.'”
“They’re gonna be saying that on their reality show,” Holbrook chimed in.
Towards the end of the hour, Fey discussed a few upcoming projects in the pipeline. There’s the third season of Kimmy, which will shoot in the fall to air next May. There is the non-Hocus-Pocus-sequel witch movie we heard about a while back, which led to a whole detour about where witches fall in an actresses’ career: “It’s funny, you see like, ingenue, ingenue, ingenue, working girl… witch?” And that was a perfect opportunity to mention “how I tried to cram my way in” to Disney’s recent film adaptation of Into the Woods. “I did that thing you never do, where I’m like, ‘May I please audition?’ And it’s like, ‘They knew where you were, sweetheart. They’d have found you if they wanted you to audition’… That was in my weird year off between TV shows, when I realized when people say they’re gonna like, stretch themselves? It just means they’re gonna annoy people. Rob Marshall did not need to hear me sing in his apartment!”
She’ll also spend her Kimmy hiatus working on the long-promised Mean Girls musical, which she says they’re having trouble figuring out if/how to update, since “social media doesn’t dramatize well.” And inserting that element would require some research, since Fey doesn’t do Twitter. “It’s a dark place,” she explained. “Honestly, I just George W. Bush it. Remember, when he would be like, ‘I don’t read the paper,’ and I was like, ‘Huh. Good choice!'”
The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 24th.