BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – As an admittedly geeky high school senior from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Tina Fey applied for admission to the hallowed ivy halls of Princeton University – and didn’t get in.
So she says there’s a certain delicious irony to her latest starring role in director Paul Weitz’s comedy-drama “Admission,” in which she plays Portia Nathan, a prim Princeton admissions officer who conscientiously shuffles through stacks and stacks of weighty, worthy applications from cream-of-the-crop high school seniors to pluck out those lucky few destined for Ivy League enlightenment.
“Admission” casts Fey in a romantic role opposite the affable Paul Rudd, who portrays a teacher at a rustic, New Agey, alternative high school in upstate New York and is mentoring an eccentric teen math and science prodigy, Jeremiah (Mat Wolff), who may or may not be the illegitimate child that Portia gave up for adoption 18 years ago. In light of this, the usually straight-arrow, dispassionate Portia is tempted to bend the rules to give the offbeat, brilliant Jeremiah a leg up.
“I remember tanking my own college interview – well, tanking implies I did it on purpose,” Fey said during press-day interviews hosted by Focus Features at the Waldorf Astoria. “I remember failing my Princeton interview. My mom wanted me to apply because ever since I was a kid she had this dream that I would apply to Princeton, but it was just not happening.”
Citing a scene from the movie in which the promising but unorthodox candidate flubs his crucial interview badly, Fey ruefully recalled her own experience. “I’m like, ‘nah. This isn’t gonna …’ I had a long plaid skirt on and a suit jacket. I just wasn’t … bringing it. Unlike now, where I’m dazzling.”
Fey has indeed gone on to a dazzling career as a performer and first female head writer for nine seasons on “Saturday Night Live,” creator of the recently ended hit series “30 Rock,” and as screenwriter and star of popular film comedies such as “Mean Girls” and “Baby Mama.”
Despite its lack of ivy prestige, Fey said, her own college experience was rich and expansive.
“I went to the University of Virginia – it was like 1988-92 I was there,” she said. “And the University of Virginia is a great school. For me it was very culturally different. If only because I came from a suburb where everyone was half-Italian, half-Irish, Greek, whatever. And it was the most really white people I had ever seen. It was the most beautiful blonde girls with long ponytails and hoop earrings, and they all had horses and stuff.
“It was entertaining for me, and I felt like I had gone to Sweden or something,” she said. “But I got involved in the drama department there, and that’s where I found the more oddly shaped people and we stuck together.”
Later, on “Saturday Night Live,” Fey said she found herself in a position weirdly parallel to Portia’s.
“One of the things I could identify with was her job, her going through all the applications and having people’s dreams in her hands,” Fey said. “That really reminded me of working at ‘SNL.’ You’d get huge boxes of writing submissions. You’d read them and look for a glimmer of something good. It was a lot of pressure.”
As a mother of two daughters – Alice, 7, and Penelope, 1 ½ – with her husband, the composer Jeff Richmond, Fey has already experienced from an anxious parent’s perspective the hothouse pressure of competition for admission to exclusive educational institutions. Her older daughter attends a private Manhattan school that Fey prefers not to name.
When she’s asked which is harder – getting a child into Princeton or a highly selective and exclusive New York City kindergarten – Fey doesn’t hesitate. “A New York City kindergarten, for sure. There are so many kids on this little island. Plus, how can you possibly evaluate a 5-year-old? What if you take them for an interview and they have to poop? If they have to poop, it’s all over.”
And what did she learn from “Admission” about getting her own kids into Princeton?
“Hopefully, what we learned is that it really doesn’t matter if they don’t get into Princeton,” Fey said with a wry grin. “They will learn a lot in the Army.”