STORY WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For Digital First Media
Back in 2011, when “New York Times” critic Michiko Kakutani was giving war correspondent Kim Barker’s memoir “The Taliban Shuffle” a rave review, she mentioned that occasionally Barker resembled “a sort of Tina Fey character.”
That was enough to get the real Tina Fey interested.
“I found out about the book after [Kakutani compared Barker] to me,” recalls the actress, 45. “And because I’m an egomaniac and a moron and wildly unimaginative, that really spoke to me.
“So, I got a hold of the book. Loved the book. [As I was reading it], I was also thinking, ‘Could this be a movie?’ I saw events and moments that, to me, were so fascinating and strange and funny and cinematic.
“I definitely thought it should be a movie. I took it to [producer] Lorne Michaels and to [‘30 Rock’ writer] Robert [Carlock].”
Both Michaels and Carlock were enthusiastic about the project too and, five years after the book’s publication, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” arrives in theaters March 4.
After the screenplay was written, Fey, Carlock and Michaels immediately thought of hiring John Requa and Glenn Ficarra to direct. In the past, the pair has excelled at balancing comedy and drama in such films as “Crazy Stupid Love,” “Bad Santa” and “I Love You Phillip Morris.”
Fey, a native of Upper Darby, Pa., trusted the filmmakers so much that she wound up relaxing into a role that required her to show off her dramatic chops for one of the first times in her career.
“Well, I think the book is funny, too, and I think no life experience is wholly dramatic,” notes Fey. “In real life, people in the most dire situations must cope through humor and find humor in things.
“I thought there was a real honesty in the book. So, my hope was that if I tried to perform honestly, whether there were jokes or not, it would be fine.”
In “Whiskey,” Fey is surrounded by a handful of heavyweights including Martin Freeman as a Scottish reporter who winds up being her love interest; Margot Robbie as a fellow journalist and eventual pal; Alfred Molina as a former Pakistani Prime Minister; and Billy Bob Thornton as a high-ranking U.S. military commander.
“For me, it was just so educational to get to work with Martin and Alfred and Billy Bob and Margot,” says Fey. “They’re all people that I have really, really admired in other roles. So I just tried to keep up with them.
“It was like playing tennis with someone who was a much better tennis player. You just hope that your game comes up a little bit.”
Fey admits to being a big fan of war comedies but, despite the setting of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” she’s not sure the movie belongs in the same genre as “MASH,” “Catch 22” and “Dr. Strangelove.”
“There actually are so many great war comedies,” says Fey. “But this movie is, at its core, a human story. It’s about relationships. It’s not political. It’s not ‘Dr. Strangelove.’
“It’s about a woman who is sort of making a choice to blow up her existing life and go on this adventure, for lack of a better word. For me, it was about these people and these relationships.”
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” was shot largely in the American Southwest. While a second unit was dispatched to the Middle East, most of the action was shot in Albuquerque, which stood in for assorted desert locales, including Afghanistan.
Even though every effort was made to build giant sets for the actors to lose themselves in, Fey occasionally had a tough time relying on the powers of her imagination. (The production design was coordinated by Douglasville’s Beth Mickle).
“The most challenging thing personally for me was trying to pretend we were in Afghanistan, and to trying to imagine the feeling of danger because we were in New Mexico. We were in the United States,” she recalls.
“So, to try to do that was tough. Everything else was there for us. The words were there. The characters were so well drawn. But [putting myself into that situation] was the biggest challenge.”
Before production began Fey spent some time with Barker, but the actress always knew she didn’t want to do a flat-out impersonation.
“Mostly, I just wanted Kim to not be mad about the movie,” says Fey with a laugh. “This wasn’t a case where I was trying to be taller or sound exactly like Kim. I wanted to try to find the spirit of her.”
As far as Barker is concerned, Fey did a terrific job. The journalist couldn’t be happier with the movie.
“I’m really pleased with it,” says Barker, the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009.
“I think it’s really accurate to my narrative arc, and to the absurdity of how we lived over there, and to the sadness that we saw, and to the war that continues to go on and on in Afghanistan.
“One thing I really like about the movie is how you have this year, and it’s [presented] as like every other year, and it’s kind of like rinse and repeat. It’s just goes on and on, and repeats itself.”
With a few exceptions, war comedies are usually tough sells at the box office. But Fey believes she has a trick to get audiences to come see the movie on opening weekend.
“I think we should say that the vehicles transform into robots and then they fight each other,” says the actress with a chuckle. “Listen, [movie-goers] will be halfway through the film before they realize, hey, that didn’t actually happen.”