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A 'grounded' Tina Fey expands her territory to movies

David Hiltbrand / Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT)

NEW YORK – Though she's head writer at "Saturday Night Live," the first woman to hold that title at NBC's comedy institution, and the celebrated coanchor of "Weekend Update," the show's mock-news segment, Tina Fey couldn't escape the feeling that she was slacking.

"I wasn't close enough to a nervous breakdown," Fey says. "I needed to pick up a little extra work."

So a couple of years ago, Fey determined to write and act in a feature film.

She selected some rather odd material from which to adapt her first screenplay: Rosalind Wiseman's "Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence."

Where others saw a somber parental guide, Fey, 33, detected comedic gold. "Some of those behaviors," she says, "while damaging ... struck me as funny – the lengths girls will go to (to hurt other girls) and the ingenious ways they mess with each other."

From that text, Fey fashioned "Mean Girls," which opens Friday. It's a supremely catty comedy-of-manners starring the ubiquitous Lindsay Lohan as a home-schooled teen plunged into the social snakepit of her local high school.

Fey also gave herself a role as Ms. Norbury, a sad-sack but sympathetic math teacher – not that she's done her acting career any favors. "I'd say, `I'll write my part later,' but I never got around to it," she recalls. "I didn't really save any comedy for myself, but I am the moral compass of the movie."

She's also the flasher. "It's true," she says, laughing. "I get my clothes off before the opening credits are done with."

A minute into the film, Ms. Norbury inadvertently strips to her bra in front of her calculus class and the school principal ("SNL" vet Tim Meadows).

"People are going to see that and say, `You wrote in the part that you take your shirt off? How tacky!' ... It was supposed to be evidence of her bad luck."

"Mean Girls" was shot last fall in Toronto. To fit it into her hectic "SNL" schedule, Fey may have been the first woman smuggled into Canada in her pajamas.

"I'd do 'Saturday Night Live,' finish at 1 in the morning, take off my makeup, put on pajamas, and get in a motor home. I'd sleep while they drove ... so I could be on the set at 5 a.m."

Making do without much shut-eye is normal to Fey. "SNL's" writers pull more all-nighters than the staff at a crack house. The 20 weeks a year when the show is in production, Fey writes and oversees sketches Monday to Thursday, then works on ""Update" with three other writers and coanchor Jimmy Fallon on Friday and Saturday.

"You just can't do anything else," says Fey, encamped in a Park Avenue hotel suite to promote "Mean Girls." "You can't take a shirt to the dry cleaner. You can't get your teeth cleaned. Then you try to make it all up on a hiatus week."

Fey joined "SNL" as a writer in 1997 and within two years was overseeing the staff of 30.

"You give more responsibility to those who consistently deliver," says Lorne Michaels, the show's executive producer. "Apart from her extraordinary work ethic, Tina's writing is consistently original and funny and contains a guiding intelligence."

Occasionally Fey would appear on camera. But it wasn't until she and Fallon were asked to revive the moribund "Weekend Update" in 2000 that she became an overnight sensation.

And a singular sex symbol. Maybe it's the naughty-librarian fantasy, but guys were looking beyond Fey's glasses and severe business attire at the "Update" desk and seeing a babe. Fey made People's "50 most beautiful" last year, and Rolling Stone hailed her as "the thinking-man's sex symbol."

All of which strikes the petite brunette as "ridiculous, but I'm going to ride it out till I can't ride it no more."

You can debate her sex appeal, but there's no questioning her wry and incisive wit. Fey's sense of humor is prone to dark, often PC-defying twists. Earlier this season, she announced, "A U.S.-born panda named Hua Mei will soon be returned to its ancestral homeland of China. Where it's expected to be delicious."

"I can always tell one of Tina's gags," says her father, Donald, a retired fund-raising writer. "They're the short, punchy ones. She takes a different view of things. It's a real Philadelphia sense of humor."

Her sharp tongue has made Fey the Dorothy Parker of the modern era, a compliment she immediately trumps, adding, "without the alcoholism and the gay husband."

There were, in fact, no wild years for Fey. Even during the turbulent teens she chronicles so humorously in "Mean Girls," "I never drank or smoked," she says. "I never tried drugs in my life. I didn't have sex. I was so obedient someone should do a study of my parents and find out whatever it was they did."

She was born Elizabeth Stamatina Fey to a pair of West Philadelphia natives, Donald Fey and the former Jeanne Xenakes. Growing up in a predominantly Greek neighborhood of the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby, Fey was a mystery ethnic thanks to her father's German-Scottish genes.

"The Greek kids would be like, `You know she's Greek,'" recounts Fey, "because I was passing. I was the Lena Horne of the Greek community."

"She was always focused," her father says. "When she was 11, she took all these books out of the library by Steve Allen and other guys. I said, `What's that for?' And she said, `I'm writing a paper.' It was on the nature of comedy."

"She had a very intelligent humor, not the jokey kind," says her brother Peter, older by eight years and managing editor of information services at QVC in West Chester, Pa. "She would zing you and a few seconds later you'd react. Like, `Did a 14-year-old just say that?' "

At Upper Darby High, she was firmly on the AP track, except in math and science, which never captured her interest.

"I saw my old calculus teacher recently and I said, `You're not going to believe it: I'm playing a calculus teacher,' " she says. "My desk butted up against his desk and I'd fall asleep in his face in calculus."

Fey went on to the University of Virginia. "I loved it there," she says. "It was such a foreign atmosphere to me, so Southern and genteel. After my neighborhood, that was hilarious to me, just to see that many blondes."

She majored in drama. "I was a big theater nerd," she declares, "with black tights and Doc Martens and baby-doll dresses. But I was so happy, and I started writing in college."

After graduation in 1992, Fey eventually joined Chicago's Second City, the improv troupe that has long been "SNL's" farm team. There she met Jeff Richmond, a piano player who became Second City's musical director. They married in a Greek Orthodox ceremony in 2001.

The reasons for Fey's soaring success are obvious to those who know her. "It's her conviction, tenacity, and her brains," her brother explains. "Plus she's a little competitive."

But even her relatives are overwhelmed by Fey's growing fame. Says Peter, "My father recently sent out an e-mail: `Here's all the magazines Tina is in this month. I can't take much more of all this.'"

Despite the attention, Fey is still remarkably low-key. The word used over and over by friends and family to describe her is "grounded."

"She grew up middle-class," says Amy Poehler, who has been with Fey at Second City and "SNL," and has a role in "Mean Girls." "She has a real blue-collar sense of comedy: Work really hard and remember where you came from."

"Over the last few years, I've sent her some brief e-mails, knowing how busy she is," says Paul Roth, the Upper Darby math teacher who put Fey to sleep. "And she always takes a few minutes to get back to me. She's the same great girl I knew from high school."

Fey admits that one reason she took on "Mean Girls" was to explore her post-"SNL" options. "I wanted to see if this was something I could do well," she says of screenwriting.

Not that she has plans to leave, but the winds of change are always swirling around Studio 8H.

"Jimmy has a movie in the fall with Queen Latifah called 'Taxi.'" After that, she predicts, "he'll be on to bigger and better things."

Fey can't see herself anchoring ""Update" alone. "I might be a little strident," she says, wrinkling her nose.

"Like lemon with no tea."


© 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Nicolas Khayat / KRT Campus

NEW YORK, NY – Tina Fey arrives at the "Mean Girls" premiere in New York City, on Friday, April 23, 2004.