She's won eight Emmys, four WGA Awards and is the youngest-ever recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, but these honors are like third-place spelling bee trophies compared to what Tina Fey gets to do this weekend: share the big screen with the Muppets.
And this is no mere cameo. As Nadya, the humorless warden of a Siberian prison, Fey sings and dances with a wrongly-imprisoned Kermit the Frog and a star-studded collection of non-Muppet inmates that includes Jemaine Clement, Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo. Very few people can say they've done a musical number with Kermit the Frog; even fewer can say they've done one with the star of MACHETE.
Fey is well aware of her good fortune, and, all joking aside, she has an enormous amount of respect for the Muppeteers who make the magic happen. As with anyone who's performed with the Muppets, Fey is a tad reticent to shatter the illusion and discuss the behind-the-scenes brilliance of folks like Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson and Dave Goelz, but it seems wrong not to acknowledge that these are some of the most skilled improvisational comedians working today. They're so comfortable in the moment while manipulating the Muppets, you completely forget that they're there.
While Fey was entirely at ease with the improv side of acting with the Muppets, she's quick to credit director James Bobin and composer Bret McKenzie for her singing coming off as well as it does. She is, of course, being modest. Fey belts out her big number with the gusto of a seasoned musical theater performer; if the comedy racket ever becomes old hat, Broadway beckons.
In the below interview, Fey and I discuss the technical aspect of working with the Muppets, Ray Liotta's theatrical training and the time Kermit the Frog saved Robert De Niro on live television. She is as genuine and awesome in person as you'd expect.
Jeremy: You're a '70s kid. Was there a specific guest or a bit on THE MUPPET SHOW that really popped for you?
Tina Fey: I watched it with my parents and my brother, and the fact that everybody was into it I knew it was kind of cool. You would see Steve Martin or Madeline Kahn do the show, and I knew enough to know that those were big-deal comedy people.
Jeremy: With those names in mind, when you get to work with the Muppets it must be something of an honor.
Fey: It is an honor. The Muppets themselves are such super-gifted performers. When people ask "Can you sing in this movie," I'm like, "You know who else sings? All of the Muppets!" They all sing, and they're amazing. But I've been lucky in my life. There are a couple of times where I've been like, "Wow, this is something that was a really big deal to me as a kid, and now I'm in it." Weirdly, I compare it to having met John McEnroe a bunch of times. John McEnroe was a huge deal to me as a kid, and now if I saw John McEnroe on the street he'd be like, "Hey!" He'd know who I am. It's that kind of crazy childhood dream come true to be in this movie.
Jeremy: I've interviewed Muppets before, and, the first time I did it, I was wondering if it would be awkward. Ten seconds in, Steve Whitmire disappeared, and I was talking only to Kermit.
Fey: Yep. You're with them. I find it very easy because they're so present, they're so real. A lot of times they're more present than human actors that you might work with, who might be doing a scene with you, but you can tell they're worried about how they look, or they don't really know their lines, or it's not their coverage so they're kind of half-assing it. The Muppets are really with you in every scene.
Jeremy: So you don't get Kermit's double?
Fey: You don't get a dirty, one-eyed Kermit for your off-camera lines. You get the real guy. (Laughs) There was one day we were shooting, and I was doing off-camera lines for Kermit. I was trying to lean up against the lens, and Steve very kindly reminded me that I did not need to give Kermit an eyeline; Kermit's eyes were not, in fact, functioning. I was like, "Oh, my god, you're right!" But he was so real to me, I was trying to give him an eyeline.
Jeremy: Given your improvisational background, did you find guys like Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobson to be working with same skill set you studied?
Fey: Yeah. Improv is improv. Being able to be fast on your feet, but also agree and add on and not ask questions, they know how to do it.
Jeremy: You also have a theater degree.
Fey: I do! Say what you will, I'm using my college degree.
Jeremy: I'm envious. I have one, too, and, well, this is it.
Fey: No, this counts as using it. You have the same language to discuss these things with.
Jeremy: Sure. We can talk about the "three unities" if you want.
Fey: There you go!
Jeremy: But getting to do a musical must be an absolute blast. I mean, I've seen you sing before, and you're quite good.
Fey: I'm happy to do it if it's a goof, and if it's not live - or if it's live and it's really a goof. Then I don't mind.
Jeremy: Oh, come on. You're a good singer!
Fey: Thank you. I'm like a high school choir level singer. In the town where I grew up, for whatever reason there were a lot of really good singers in my town. We would do musicals, and people would just crush it. But I was always in the chorus because I couldn't get any big parts. That just shows you how dumb movies are, that I can make it all the way to a movie where I sing.
Jeremy: So were you ever singing live on set, or was it playback?
Fey: It's playback. You record in the studio with Bret [McKenzie], who's Skyping in from New Zealand. James Bobin is there. And they're super patient with me because... it's not like I was crazy off-pitch, it's just that my voice is really small. (Imitating Bobin) "Could you do it a bit bigger?" But they were patient so we could get enough to cobble together the track, and then when you go to shoot it, it's playback. That was super fun and relaxing because I knew I wouldn't mess up the singing. Then it's just dancing with a bunch of Muppets, and that's so fun. The night that we shot the end of "The Big House", we were outside in the dark and it was really cold in Oxfordshire, and James Bobin did this really cool thing. Everybody had been working really hard all day, and all the prisoners are dancing to the end of the song, so for the last take, he was spontaneously like, "Alright, everybody in!" And he had the whole crew run in and freestyle dance in the take. It was very joyful.
Jeremy: You also get to sing to dance with Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo. These are things we do not expect to see in a movie.
Fey: These are things that normally only happen in my home. Danny and Ray come over and we sing.
Jeremy: (Laughs) I heard you guys were tight like that.
Fey: But it was a really fun unit to be a part of while we were shooting. We were all in the same hotel in London. I'd go shoot all day, and then I'd see Danny and Ray having dinner in the lobby. They kind of became buddies. They hung out. It was pretty cute.
Jeremy: Getting to see them do a number from A CHORUS LINE must've been amazing. You were front row for that. And while I know that they're supposed to be in character, struggling through it and not singing particularly well, did you see them still wanting to nail it?
Fey: Yeah. Ray in particular was very committed to his choreography. He wanted it to be right. Not that Danny didn't, but I think Ray secretly has a bit of a musical theater background. Have you looked this up? I think Ray was a chorus boy.
Jeremy: I didn't look up Ray's theatrical training, but it wouldn't surprise me.
Fey: I think Ray may have been in DAMES AT SEA on Broadway. But I didn't ask Ray that. [Ray indeed was in DAMES AT SEA, though it was well-off-Broadway at the University of Miami.]
Jeremy: When you're working with Muppets as opposed to real actors, do setups take longer? Do you find you have more downtime?
Fey: They really don't. Maybe it's because this is James's second movie with them, but Steve and the crew felt like they had a great technical shorthand with him this time around. Since they'd done it together once in this incarnation, production knew what they needed and didn't say like, "Let's try to roll two cameras on this at once." (Whispering) Maybe I'm not supposed to talk about this, but they're so amazing and so interesting. (Laughs) But I remember Stevie saying to me that basically when you're a doing a movie like this every shot is a trick shot, so it takes the time that it takes. But in terms of any other movie I've made, it didn't take any longer.
Jeremy: It's funny how everyone wants to keep up the illusion.
Fey: I figure with this outlet it's okay. You're not being read by children.
Jeremy: I really hope not. I've asked to interview Steve Whitmire as himself before, and they always say no. Still, I was happy to see their names before the title in the end credits. Once you've seen them work, you're just in awe of their skill.
Fey: I remember seeing Kermit come and do a bit on SNL with Robert De Niro. It was live, and live Muppetry is dicey. I forget what happened exactly, there might've been a cue-card mess up or something, but I remember Kermit covered for De Niro. Something went wrong, and this guy on his back bailed out the world's greatest actor. That kind of sums up the spirit of how awesome they are.
Jeremy: Did De Niro give Kermit some dap afterwards?
Fey: I don't want to speak for him, but I think they really loved being together. I remember they hugged at the end, which was really cute.
Jeremy: Is there a bit of a push-pull in terms of your movie and television careers?
Fey: I really want to write another movie. I've only written [MEAN GIRLS]. But TV is so appealing for writers because it's immediate and fewer hands get on your writing before it is filmed and aired. My writing partner, Robert Carlock, and I are writing another TV show, but I definitely want to write another movie.
Jeremy: I'm hoping THE TALIBAN SHUFFLE will happen soon.
Fey: Yeah, that's Robert's script. That's one I want to film before I get too old.
Jeremy: That book was described as having a darkly comedic sensibility, and there's always been just a bit of a dark edge to your comedy. While your onscreen persona is such that we think of you as this really sharp and really nice person, I feel like you've got an inner Michael O'Donoghue trying to get out.
Fey: (Laughs) Oh, my god. I don't think I'm as dark as O'Donoghue. There's not that death and drugs and more death. But I do like to get in areas of discomfort. I do like to see, like with 30 ROCK, "At what point are our characters racist?" I mean, why talk about nice areas when you can talk about areas of discomfort?
Jeremy: Well, that's what we like.
Fey: (Laughs) It's what we like.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED hits theaters March 21st.