Tina Fey and Amy Poehler talk sisterhood, women in comedy and the death of dinosaurs

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler talk sisterhood, women in comedy and the death of dinosaurs

There is a moment in the new film Sisters where fictional siblings Kate Ellis (Tina Fey) and Maura Ellis (Amy Poehler) are deep in their plan to dial back the clock on their lives, and are hurtling towards the promised land of their high school selves, when they were cool and life was simple.

Things, of course, do not go to plan, both for the sake of the film's (very funny) comedic narrative and, perhaps, to acknowledge that on such journeys they rarely do.

But there is also something poignant about their attempt, a sense that the audience is living vicariously through them. We all want to go back, to some extent. And we share their pain along the way.

"The thing they learn is that you don't have to be locked into who you were at that time," Fey says. "I think a lot of people do lock into that ... I'm the person that never wins or I'm the cool one so I've got to keep doing stuff that makes me seem cool. I think you can change that."

Amy Poehler (Maura Ellis) and Tina Fey (Kate Ellis) in Sisters.

Amy Poehler (Maura Ellis) and Tina Fey (Kate Ellis) in Sisters.


Adds Poehler: "I think that parties are wasted on the young. We need it more. We're better at it."

Sisters, directed by Jason Moore and written by Paula Pell, seems to be that rare film that sits in perfect calibration. It plays brilliantly to the friendship and chemistry between Fey and Poehler. Moreover, it strikes a rarely found balance between lighthearted frivolity and the kind of pathos needed to pull off some of the film's more emotionally ambitious moments. Perhaps rarer still, it's genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.

As the film opens, Kate and Maura are told by their parents (Dianne Wiest​ and James Brolin) that the family home in Orlando, Florida, is for sale.

The elder Ellises, relieved their little chicks have flown the nest, are planning to scale down. But the younger Ellises are still tethered to their pasts by a metaphorical umbilical cord, and a couple of childhood bedrooms that require emptying before the new owners take possession.

The trip home to clear those rooms sets the stage for a turn-back-the-clock reunion with the old school gang, including Brinda (played brilliantly by Maya Rudolph), who is Kate's high school nemesis.

Things get complicated, however, when the girls' real lives catch up to them, including their parents, and a daughter who expects a whole lot more, when they're basically undies-deep in the past.

A teen movie for adults: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler don't act their ages in Sisters.

A teen movie for adults: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler don't act their ages in Sisters.

Photo: K.C Bailey

Important disclosure No.1: both Fey and Poehler have bedrooms that are "somewhat preserved," reveals Fey, "in our parents' homes".

"For me, I know the one thing that made it easy to not so much change who I was in my hometown or high school, but to go beyond it was to physically move away," Fey says. "If I had stayed there it would have been much harder to be like, 'Hey, how about me, everybody? How about I'm a big deal?' People are like, 'You're not a big deal'."

Important disclosure No. 2: neither Fey nor Poehler peaked in high school.

"I think that can be a tough road," Poehler says. "I think we were impatient in a good way. I remember when I was graduating from high school, my friends saying, 'This is going to be it'. I was like, 'Yeah, I know, hurry, let's get out of here'."

Fey graduated from the University of Virginia with an arts degree and headed to Chicago. Poehler graduated from Boston College with a media and communications degree and also headed to Chicago.

Both were headed to Second City, the iconic improv company that has cranked out a long list of A-list alumni, including Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, Betty Thomas, Eugene Levy, John Belushi, Shelley Long, Mike Meyers and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

It was there that Fey and Poehler slowly formed a natural partnership. "We were often the only two women in a group of men, which kind of naturally would sometimes pair us up, just even creatively," Poehler says.

Later they migrated to American television's rusted-on sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live and began doing the fake news segment, Weekend Update, together.

More recently they were the critically exalted double act who hosted the Golden Globe Awards and, importantly, took no prisoners.

"We spend a lot of time doing separate projects, but it's very nice to feel the love that happens when we get back together," Poehler says.

"Women in general are often grouped together, whether they like it or not. But it's nice to be in control of that grouping, to be able to decide who your dance partner is for a project and it be someone that you're so close to and you know so well. I think it just came also naturally from usually us being the only two women in a room."

To some extent that's an old story, particularly in comedy. British comedians Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders were fused together for the same reason. More recently, Saturday Night Live also successfully paired Kristen Wiig​ and Maya Rudolph.

"I know I really like working with women in general," Poehler says. "It more often came from a proactive feeling of wanting to just write, work and be around other funny women. I was really lucky to come into SNL during Tina's tenure because it was a plethora of incredibly talented women that were there, and remain there. We were always surrounded by the funniest women and continue to be."

Fey says that once a female comedian is in the room, she's often on an equal footing. The challenge is getting into the room in the first place.

"It's about getting to that fair playing field," Fey says. "If you can't get there because someone won't put you up on a stage or you won't be heard in the classroom, that's where there's probably still inequality. Same with diversity. If we can all get up on stage in front of the audience, the audience is very, very clear about what they like. They don't care who it is. They really don't care."

Fey recalls, during their tenures at Second City, hearing a director say the audience doesn't want to see a scene with two women. "I remember thinking, 'That's you saying that. You can speak for this group of people that's not even here yet?' Just the fact that someone thought that, one, made sense and, two, it was like kind of fly to say out loud or whatever. That's a problem, you have to try to get past that person just to get to the audience."

Adds Amy: "But those people are dying. They're dying out."

Tina: "They're literally dying."

Amy: "They're literally getting old and dying."

Me: "They are, that's very true."

Amy: "The dinosaurs are raging a little bit at the end, but they're dying."

Tina: "They're dying, yeah."

Sisters is out now.

Michael Idato

Michael Idato is a Senior Writer based in Los Angeles for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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