“What I Do for a Living Is Get in Trouble on the Internet”: Tina Fey on Film Producing, the Bechdel Test, and the ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ Whitewashing Controversy

They’re separated by a single letter – Kim Barker, the Chicago Tribune correspondent who reported from Afganistan and Pakistan in the mid-2000s, and Kim Baker, the slightly fictionalized version of her played by Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the new film adaptation of Barker’s memoir. But last night, they shared the stage, along with the film’s screenwriter (and Fey’s longtime collaborator) Robert Carlock, for a New York Times-sponsored “TimesTalk” in which producer/star Fey also addressed (among other subjects) the film’s controversial casting.

Fey’s introduction to Barker and the book, she explained, is “a somewhat embarrassing story, because basically, my agent forwarded the Times review of the book, and Michiko Kakutani had referred to Kim as sort of a ‘Tina Fey type character,’ an egomaniacal moron. So I said, ‘I wanna read that book!’ So I got ahold of the book, I thought it was really funny, and I liked that it was so funny while set in this extreme environment. And I’m always looking for a something that can be a movie where I’m not, y’know, a lady who works at a magazine.”

Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, Kim Barker, and Melena Ryzik at the "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" TimesTalk. Photo credit: Mike Cohen.
Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, Kim Barker, and Melena Ryzik at the “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” TimesTalk. Photo credit: Mike Cohen.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with working at a magazine,” Barker assured the moderator, Times culture writer (and occasional Times Magazine contributer) Melena Ryzik. As to any concerns about turning her life over to Hollywood, Barker was unequivocal: “Oh no, I have no trepidation whatsoever, throughout life. I mean, I worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so…”

Though playing a real-life war correspondent “didn’t feel like a crazy leap” to Fey, she did wonder, “How did I beat Angelina Jolie to this? Seems like her kinda thing.” And though she did her research and felt comfortable in the role, she was also well aware of her limitations. “The directors would sometimes say, ‘Do you guys wanna improvise?’” she recalled. “And I’d be like, ‘I can’t improvise too much, because I don’t know what I’m talking about.’ Like, I know what I learned, but it’s like running for president: I’ve got what they told me. Let’s not go wide of that! So we didn’t improvise too much.”

Fey is also credited as a producer on the film (alongside Ian Brice and her SNL/30 Rock producer Lorne Michaels), and she explained how she seeks out projects, in simple but personal terms. “I just really try to make movies that I would want to see, if I went to 68th Street,” she said. “And that’s really the guiding thing — it can be anything, it can be a dumb movie like Sisters — dumb in the best possible way — or it can be something like this. I think my friends and I, my comedy friends — Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph — before there was a name for the Bechdel test, we all had sort an internal version of, like, ‘Is this movie stupid or not?’ So yeah, I like to work on things where women are talking to other women, and they have names, and they’re not just called, ‘wife.'”

Tina Fey and Robert Carlock the "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" TimesTalk. Photo credit: Mike Cohen.
Tina Fey and Robert Carlock the “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” TimesTalk. Photo credit: Mike Cohen.

“And you get your white male friend to write it,” Carlock interjected.

“And that’s how it gets done, because I get scared,” Fey replied, going into a mousy, shy voice.

“And you don’t know computers…” Carlock continued, to which Fey added, “And I get my period and I don’t feel good…”

Carlock’s joke about white men did lead to the inevitable but uncomfortable discussion of the movie’s biggest controversy: the casting of British Alfred Molina and American Christopher Abbott as an Afghan official and Baker’s Afghan fixer. And to address it, Fey offered up a lengthy explanation of a flap she saw coming.

“John and Glenn, the directors, would go, and they had sessions for all the parts in the film,” she said. “They would see, I presume, dozens and dozens of actors. And when it came to the role of Fahim [Abbott], and to Sadiq [Molina], I said to them, ‘Guys, I beg you to be thorough. And I beg you to please look, to find an Afghan person if you can.’ And then I came in towards the end, and I would read with the two or three finalists for these major roles. And, y’know, it came down to it, and there were two guys up for the role of Fahim, and Chris Abbott won the role, he won it fair and square…

“And it’s not to say that that person isn’t out there, obviously, of course there is a person of that ethnicity who could play that part. But in 2015, in the pool of actors in New York City that [casting director] Bernie Telsey very, very diligently searched through, these were the best people for the role. And I did say to John and Glenn, ‘Guys, I hope you’re sure, because I’m telling you, a year from now, the only person who will get in trouble for this is me. Because that’s what I do for a living, is get in trouble on the Internet.'”

(That said, let’s see how the Internet feels about this addendum: “I try to make myself feel warm about it in the fact that, y’know, Afghans are Caucasians, it’s Caucasians playing Caucasians. If you really wanted to go to the mat on it, you could say it’s not any different than, y’know, an Aussie playing a Brit, although I’m sure people feel that it is.”)

Still, as noted in our review, the film offers up positive representation as well – specifically, as Ryzik noted, in the way Fey continues to personify “a woman who is capable but imperfect.” (“My epitaph,” joked Barker.) And that’s simple math, Fey says: “The more women you can get on screen, the less each one has to stand for all women. So the more the better in that way.”

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is out Friday.