Tina Fey set to play Medill alumna, former Daily editor in chief in new movie

Tori Latham, Managing Editor

When Tina Fey first started taking classes at The Second City, she worked in Evanston and frequented Gigio’s Pizzeria for lunch. Now, Fey is reconnecting with the city, if not physically, then figuratively, through her portrayal of Kim Baker, a character based on Northwestern alumna Kim Barker.

The film, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” which opens in theaters Friday, stars Fey as a broadcast journalist with no war-reporting experience, who goes to Afghanistan as a way to shake up her life. In reality, Barker (Medill ‘92) was working at the Chicago Tribune when, from 2004 to 2009, she reported from Pakistan and Afghanistan, an experience she wrote about in her book, “The Taliban Shuffle,” which has been adapted into the film.

“I’m a newspaper journalist and I’m trying to treat this (experience) like any other story I’m writing,” Barker said. “(Everyone involved in the film has) been incredibly gracious to me. Tina’s giving the book … a second life. Oftentimes, when I think they do a movie adaption of a book, it’s sort of in the background and they don’t make the person who wrote the book part of the campaign.”

Colin McMahon, associate editor of the Chicago Tribune and foreign editor when Barker was a foreign correspondent, said he recognized the changes made for the film, but still greatly enjoyed it.

“Even though some of the stuff isn’t very realistic, they capture the sense of absurdity in a situation like that and they capture the feeling of wanting to get the story, wanting to be part of the story, writing the story, getting everything you can, owning it,” McMahon said.

Before her world travels, though, Barker worked as editor in chief of The Daily, a job she said prepared her for being “under fire.” Barker recalled a controversial ad — one that denied the Holocaust happened — that ran in only her first week as editor.

She had to defend that ad, as well as handle blowback from people who were demanding she be removed from the job. Barker said she also received criticism for a column she wrote during her tenure that criticized sorority girls who wore Malcolm X hats as a fashion statement.

“It was kind of like everything I did got me in trouble there for a little while,” she said. “So I guess that helped prepare me for the reactions of people and having to go to parties with people who just didn’t like a thing I had to say in my columns. That prepares you for being in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Despite her somewhat contentious time at The Daily, Barker’s professors saw a strong journalistic future ahead of her. When Barker graduated, she received a Medill sweatshirt from professors Roger Boye and George Harmon with the number one on the back, signifying she graduated first in her class, all while handling her duties as editor in chief. When the two told Barker they had something special to present to her, she didn’t immediately think she would be receiving a tangible gift.

“What, a job?” she asked them for all of the graduation attendees to hear.

Although she might have graduated without a job, Barker quickly found her place in the professional world, landing positions at several smaller publications. However, her entry into the film industry has been a great change of pace.

The process of turning her book into a movie happened very quickly, Barker said. The New York Times, where she now works as an investigative reporter on the metro desk, wrote a review of the book when it came out in March 2011. Michiko Kakutani the reviewer, wrote that Barker “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character.” Fey read the book and loved it, causing her to push Lorne Michaels, Paramount Pictures and Robert Carlock to work with the movie, Barker said.

From the beginning, Barker was told this did not necessarily guarantee the book would actually ever make it into theaters. It wasn’t until February 2014 she knew for sure the movie was being made, she said.

“A lot of people there were suprised I wrote a book, let alone that this was getting made into a movie because it’s nothing I talk about,” she said about her colleagues at The New York Times. “I focus on the stories that I’m working on and the journalism I’m doing.”

Rachel Reid, regional manager for advocacy at Open Society Foundations, an international grantmaking network, was based in Afghanistan for the BBC at the same time as Barker, she said. Reid added that the two were friendly as journalists but became better friends when Reid moved to New York five years ago.

When it became clear the movie was going to happen, Reid said she was worried because of Barker’s previous anxiety when she first published her book. Reid said Barker would remember the one or two people who didn’t love everything about it, which led her to be a little hesitant about the film.

“She refused to read the script for the longest time because she was worried they would turn it into Hollywood nonsense,” Reid said. “She asked me to read the script, which I did, and was relieved.”

Overall, Barker said she was fairly hands off for most of the movie-making process. She met with Carlock, the screenwriter, quite often, but was not involved in the writing of the script herself. Barker said she visited the set for two days but grew tired of watching the same scene being re-shot multiple times. Yet, she remembered her visit fondly.

“Every meal, Tina and Robert would have with me,” she said. “The directors were so great. Glenn (Ficarra) and John (Requa) have been so nice to me. You know, I’m joking around on set with Billy Bob Thornton about ’30s slang, and it’s been an amazing experience.”

And that Medill sweatshirt? Barker would still have it if it hadn’t been the victim of water damage when being shipped back from India during her time as a foreign correspondent.

“In all the winnowing and all the sort of moving back and forth, that sweatshirt was unfortunately lost,” she said. “But I loved being in Medill. They were good to me there.”

A previous version of this story misstated Kim Barker’s quote. She said she joked around on set with Billy Bob Thornton about ’30s slang. The Daily regrets the error.

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Twitter: @latham_tori