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The Many Levels of ’Admission’

by Jim Halterman
Contributor
Friday Mar 22, 2013
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Ever wonder what the intricacies are behind being accepted to a prestigious University, such as Princeton, the Ivy League school that is often on the top of the list of prestigious institutions of higher education? Just who are the people that make decisions that can truly change lives?

That’s the starting point to the new Paul Weitz serio-comedy Admission, which features Tina Fey as Portia Nathan, a Princeton admissions officer on the fast track to replace the retiring department head; that is until a love interest (played by Paul Rudd) and an incident from her past intercede.

The film, written by Karen Croner, is from the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, who based her story on her own experiences as an applications reader at Princeton. Portia, her fictional counterpart, may be a shining star in her department, but her life is pretty much on loose-ends. She’s in a lackluster relationship with a Chaucer scholar (Michael Sheen) and a strained one with her Feminist mother (Lily Tomlin). Her life gets thrown into further disarray when she visits a small college where she connects with a former classmate (Rudd) and meets a gifted student who could actually be the son she gave up for adoption years before.


All About Parenting

"This movie is very much about parenting," said Weitz, best known for co-directing (with his brother Chris) "About A Boy" as well as acting as the object of Mike White’s affection in "Chuck and Buck." "It’s about somebody (Fey’s character) who has avoided being a parent. (As for) Paul Rudd’s character, the only certain thing in his life is his love for this kid he’s adopted. Parenting is why the couple relate in the first place; and when they fall in bed together, is the topic they discuss and stress over, unable to grasp what the heck it is."

What was most important for the director was to find the right actress to play Portia. "I think it was great to have the character played by Tina Fey," he explained, "who plausibly has decided she doesn’t want to be a mother. There’s no particular value judgment assigned to that, but she also has set up a life where she’s essentially not vulnerable.

"It’s very similar to ’About A Boy,’ in that it’s somebody who’s constructed a life that is appealing, but fragile." he added referencing his earlier film in which Hugh Grant became a parental stand-in for the (then) teenage Nicholas Hoult.


Casting Tomlin

It was a happy coincidence that led to the casting of Lily Tomlin as Fey’s mother, an ardent feminist with a Bella Abzug tattoo. Fey had told Weitz how nervous she was when she met Tomlin on the set of ’Saturday Night Live,’ and it was that mix of shock and awe that he was looking for in this conflicted mother/daughter relationship. "Fey understood that it wasn’t only good that she admire the person she was going to act opposite but that she be slightly intimidated by her. The character has been steamrolled by her mother and that’s why she hasn’t told her this huge secret that she has."

For Tomlin, who has been playing mothers on TV series such as "Web Therapy," "Eastbound And Down" and, currently, on ABC’s "Malibu Country," it was easy for her to get into the iconoclastic character of Susannah. "Maybe I’m just getting really good at playing mothers or something," she surmised with a smile. "But it was very easy to be with [Tina] and to relate to her. Many times when I play these roles I feel like that person is my kid, you know? And I think ’Oh what have I done to that poor kid?’"


Mother and daughter

While Weitz talked of Fey’s admiration of Tomlin, the legendary comic actress clearly is just as impressed with Fey. "I love that she was very self-possessed," Tomlin said. "I felt that she is a real creative force as a female in this industry, particularly in comedy. Look what she’s accomplished. She’s written movies, starred in them, and she’s created ’30 Rock.’ At the same time she kept a family, has raised two girls..."

The conflict between Tomlin’s Susannah and Fey’s Portia stems from both keeping secrets about motherhood, but Tomlin sees this as emblematic of the film’s larger themes. "The whole metaphor of the movie [is about] letting someone in. Who’s admitting what, and how these admissions help these women return to a more authentic selves."

Tomlin further said that until Susannah "was honest and authentic, she couldn’t be close and bond (with Portia.)... This lie was separating us for all this time."

Susannah’s issue, according to Tomlin, is that she’s constructed a past that wasn’t entirely true and had repercussions, which is something the comedy legend can relate to. "I knew what it was like to cling to a philosophy to the letter. I feel this is something so many humans do. If they fall off that philosophy, they create a mythology and revise the history so they’re closer to their ideal. That’s what Susannah’s done."

She further explained that Susannah "had a fling with a guy on the train that she was attracted to, then she created a mythology (in which) as a feminist she chose him and deliberately got pregnant... (Subsequently) she imposes that mythology on her daughter (Portia)."

As it turns out, Portia also became pregnant by accident while in college; but instead of keeping the baby, she puts it up for adoption. "She doesn’t want her mother to know that she’s not up to that empowerment and self-determination," Tomlin concluded. Getting to the heart of that truth is what helps the characters come to a level of understanding.


Weitz said that once the cast was on set, he realized just how different Fey and Tomlin were in their approach to the material. "I feel like with Lily there’s a direct line to the Robert Altman school of acting, that’s very instinctive - where you’re just saying whatever is coming to mind. It’s not script-based but truth-based."

However, Fey has a different way of working, which was something Weitz had to adapt to. "Tina is very used to running her own show so she’s calibrated how things are going to work. They (Fey and Tomlin) have utterly different approaches, which is also fun and challenging in a way since you want them to have conflict while the cameras are rolling but you want everybody to be comfortable."

One challenge for Tomlin was a scene where her character is putting together a bicycle. Tomlin laughed when it was brought up. "I learned it!" she exclaimed, obviously happy with herself. "Listen, it took me a couple of days to learn how to put that chain together and put it on the sprockets and then make it catch and break but I did have to work at it a little bit."

One thing she didn’t have to work hard on was holding a shotgun, which she does to ward off Rudd’s initial advances on Fey. "You don’t have to be that bright to shoot a shotgun," she said. "It was mostly the weight of it, it’s pretty heavy, but I had shot one in ’Beverly Hillbillies’ so..."

For Weitz, having a cast with big names like Fey, Rudd and Tomlin (as well as Sheen, Wallace Shawn and Gloria Reuben) was not the reason why he wanted to adapt the novel to the screen. "I’m interested in doing films where I’m going to learn something, where’s there some element of uncertainty that I have in my own life."

For more information on Admission, visit the film’s website.


Jim Halterman lives in Los Angeles and also covers the TV/Film/Theater scene for www.FutonCritic.com, AfterElton, Vulture, CBS Watch magazine and, of course, www.jimhalterman.com. He is also a regular Tweeter and has a group site on Facebook.

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