A woman, as Dirty Harriet might have said, has got to know her limitations. In the past seven years Tina Fey has written a best-selling book; starred in three movies; created and nurtured a TV show that was so influential and critically acclaimed, it’s amazing it wasn’t canceled; won enough awards to mobilize her own metallic-statue army; and had a key part in contributing the following words and phrases to the lexicon: Blerg, What the what?! and I want to go to there. Oh, and given birth to two children. Plus, with one dead-on impression, possibly helped decide the 2008 presidential election.
So now she’s ready for a nice lie-down, thank you very much. Or at least a coffee. Arriving at an old-school bistro near her Manhattan home, she looks like any other local mom after the school run: sensible boots, puffy jacket, cardigan and striped T-shirt. She orders the coffee and her second breakfast (two eggs over hard plus ham). The first was the leftover half of her toddler’s discarded croissant.
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Fey, 42, is working on a new character, Woman with Time on Her Hands. After seven years of 16-hour workdays, she and husband Jeff Richmond, who was an executive producer on the aforementioned TV show, 30 Rock, have bought a dog, started to spend more time with their kids Alice, 7, and Penelope, 19 months, and given some thought to what TV shows they might like to watch. They’ve never seen any Breaking Bad, for example. Fey admits to sometimes going to bed at 9 p.m. She further admits that what with the puppy and the toddler, she now has to put up with a different sort of ordure than she dealt with on the show.
“It’s kind of like a giant bluff is called, because of all the things you’ve said you would do if you had time,” Fey says of her new phase. “It’s like when you have five weeks’ vacation, and you say, ‘I’m going to clean my house and learn Spanish and weave baskets.’ Now I have to choose.” Lily Tomlin, who plays Fey’s mother in the new movie Admission, says she believes Fey “must be addicted to the same drug I am: adrenaline.”
The actress-writer-producer acknowledges that her newfound liberty might not go smoothly. She lacks some basic life skills, like dressing: “For seven years I would literally pull something off the floor because it was 6 o’clock in the morning, go to work, put on my wardrobe until the end of the day, put on what were basically pajamas and then go home.” Even the Upper West Side Mom ensemble she’s wearing today came from 30 Rock‘s wardrobe. “I don’t actually know what I like to wear in real life,” she admits. “It’s going to be a period of terribly awkward experimentation. Like middle school all over again. Perhaps I’m a person who wears a blouse with an ascot? Dark green nails? I think it’s going to be a series of caftans.”
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Fey’s next move will be significant in part because so many women have drawn inspiration from what she has done so far. In dreaming up Liz Lemon, the harried television producer on 30 Rock, she created a more accurate portrait of female power than viewers were used to in their entertainment. Instead of a hard-charging haute-couture harpy, Lemon was a hapless middle manager, sort of keeping it together at work but botching her social life. Frumpy, frazzled and free of romantic finesse, Lemon offered many working women a mirror without the flattering lighting. “It was definitely a show that was more about reflecting how people are—at least with Liz—as opposed to any kind of wish-fulfillment characters,” Fey says. “I meet a fair amount of women who say they really identify with her. Almost all of them look like me, although I love hearing it from anyone.”
This Everywoman appeal may be the reason Fey doesn’t fear the creative badlands that 40-something actresses often find themselves in: too old for the love interest, too young for the mom. After all, she has never really relied on her capacity to allure. “That’s not where my bread is buttered, thankfully,” she says. Though Admission has a romantic subplot, the bedroom scenes were scaled back after Fey met with the filmmakers. “I was like, First things first: can’t do that, no one wants to see that, not doing that,” she recalls. And while she’s happy to rock a cleavage-baring deep-V neckline in photos, she will not show side boob in real life. “Photos are a controlled environment. I would not walk around with it.”
What Portia (her character in Admission) and Liz Lemon represent is a bulwark of sanity against the ocean of nuttiness that is show business or the college-application process. Rationality, more than social ineptitude, is the characteristic that seems most like Fey. At Saturday Night Live, where she rose to be head writer, and at 30 Rock, Fey revealed herself to be remarkably levelheaded. Her comedy often works the corner where common sense and absurdity meet. One of the most beloved parts of her memoir, Bossypants, is her prayer for her daughter, which includes the request “First, Lord: no tattoos. May neither the Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches.” Fey is less the clown than she is the grownup, the shepherd, the magnetic rod that can gather all the crazy around her into a working whole.
Does having so many women identify with her make Fey nervous about living up to expectations? Um, no. It’s not slowing her down either. She wouldn’t mind writing another book. She and Richmond have announced plans to make a Broadway musical version of her 2004 film, Mean Girls. Sometime in the future, she is contractually obliged to come up with a new show for NBC. She knows exactly what she wants it to be: a hit, something squillions of people watch. Apart from that, the details are a bit fuzzy: she’d like it to be funny and, ideally, clever. But she’s not afraid of failure. “You’re going to take some swings and misses, and you can’t be afraid of it,” she says. “You can’t get paralyzed by ‘It has to be perfect.’”
Perhaps the biggest challenge in Fey’s future will be that newfound work-life balance. She has thrived under pressure. What if doing nothing proves to be an unbearable strain? What if tending to the digestive tracts of small creatures and test-driving the TV remote send her over the edge? “I don’t foresee a heroin-filled future,” she says. But then she pauses. “I could be wrong,” she adds. “It could take a turn.”