Kim Barker: That Afghanistan Flirt Is Tina Fey - Not Me

Kim Barker: That Afghanistan Flirt Is Tina Fey - Not Me
Frank Masi/Paramount Pictures and Broadway Video/Little Stranger Productions via AP
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Kim Barker has no problem with watching herself enjoying awkward alcohol-fuelled sex of the variety that is rued in the mortifying first fog of a hangover.

That’s because, she smiles, it isn’t really her engaging in ill-advised warzone frolics in a grimy bathroom but Tina Fey. Moreover, it’s not Barker’s friend Sean Langan, the English documentary maker, who’s also involved but Martin Freeman, playing a Scottish photographer called Iain.

Fey, the undisputed queen of American comedy, is the star of the new movie Whisky Tango Foxtrot, adapted from Barker’s multi-layered and darkly comic memoir Taliban Shuffle, which chronicles her five years in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a Chicago Tribune correspondent.

“I never and sex over there and I never dated anyone over there,” Barker deadpans, before breaking into a smile. “It’s the character Kim Baker having drunken sex.”

It’s true that there is a missing “r” from the middle of the surname of the Kim played so engagingly by Fey. And Kim Baker is a television rather than a print reporter. In her book, Kim Barker does no more than snog Langan in a kitchen.

But these are mere details, I venture. Nearly everyone watching the movie will assume that this is what Barker – now a New York Times investigative reporter – got up to.

We are enjoying brunch in a chic café in Brooklyn, replete with woven chairs and reclaimed wood, and I find myself wanting to defend her honour.

What about your parents, I ask? “They’re very liberal,” she laughs. “Free spirits. They didn’t care.” Far from being concerned about the on-screen sex portrayed by Fey, Barker’s father is worried that her 45-year-old daughter might not be getting enough in real life.

“So, are you having a lot of sex?” he asked her recently. There’s a scene in the movie in which Baker is told that because there are so few eligible females in Kabul she’s “like, a six, seven in New York” whereas “here you're a nine, borderline 10”.

Perhaps her father thinks Barker may have gone up a couple of numbers after being played by Tina Fey. Barker, who has none of the po-facedness that can afflict some much less accomplished American journalists, finds the whole subject hilarious.

“Eww!” was her response to the paternal query. “Number one, you’re not allowed to ask that, and number two, I’ve been way too busy publicising this movie,” she told her father firmly.”

Barker’s old translator Farouq was much more shocked. “During the sex scene between Tina and Martin, he was covering his eyes with his fingers and said, ‘Kim, that really happened between you and Sean?’, says Barker. “I was, ‘No! Farouq - it’s a movie’.

“Farouq [who left Afghanistan and now works for the Canadian government in Ottawa] thought it wasn’t acceptable. It took him a while to adjust to it. Then he was going to the premiere and hanging out with Christopher Abbott [who plays him in the movie].”

None of this is going to the Barker’s head. Among the dilemmas she’s experienced have been where in her flat to hang her signed movie poster and what to say when asked at the premiere what dress she was wearing.

With the poster, she settled for a half landing because “if you had it in your bedroom, that’d be creepy”. At the premiere, she said it was impolite to ask, hiding the fact that she had no idea what the label was.

Barker grew up in Montana, the daughter of marijuana-growing hippies, her father an architect and mother a nurse. “I think they got the divorced the first time when I was six,” she says. “Then they got back together when I was 10 and they finally got divorced again in ‘92 when I graduated from college.

“It’s probably why I’m not married. But I don’t care because I’m happy the way I am. And I never wanted kids so it was never really a big deal for me. As soon as I found journalism, it felt like a gift to be able to write about the world.”

Unusually, the film ends ambiguously and Barker is pleased it wasn’t the clichéd “woman goes overseas for adventure and finds what she really wants is love and a baby". She says: "I think women should get more narratives then that."

Five years ago, a glowing New York Times review of Barker’s book noted that she “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war”.

Fey read Taliban Shuffle and within weeks had committed to putting it on the screen. But even when a script, written by Robert Carlock, Fey’s collaborator on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, arrived more than two years ago, Barker never read it.

“I was like, ‘If somebody tells me that I don't have control over something, what’s the point? Worry about things you have control over.” Eventually, a friend read it for her. “She was like, ‘It’s good but you're not going to like parts of it though.

“I asked why and she said, ‘Because you come off really heroic.’ That’s the opposite of me. I’m more of a chicken. I wasn’t running towards explosions. That was other people [most notably Langan, who ended up getting kidnapped by the Taliban and was held hostage for 12 weeks].

“I was never that front-line reporter who was out in search of the 'bang-bang'. Those are fine stories to do, but I was always more drawn to stories of how people lived through decades of war, rather than the death.”

Barker had no say in the Whisky Tango Foxtrot [military slang for What The F***k] script. “People say, well, Cheryl whatever her name is from Wild did it, and the woman who wrote Gone Girl wrote the script. Yeah, but they are best sellers. My book wasn't a best seller.”

A little over 18 months ago, on the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that were to result in Barker ending up in Afghanistan, Barker was invited to have lunch with Tina Fey at Brasserie Cognac in Manhattan (she can’t remember where the meal but consults her cracked iPhone to find out).

Fey peppered Barker with questions about whether she’d been scared and, how she felt when she first went to Afghanistan and whether she’d had a sense that her life was in danger.

Last month, Fey joked: “I slept in Kim’s bed with her for a year. She didn’t know. I got in before she was asleep and I got out before she was up.” But in reality, the two did not meet again until filming in New Mexico last year.

“I do have her email address,” Barker says. “I’ve never emailed her except for a selfie I have which she had me take on set. She took that and gave me her email address so that I could yell at her when, she said, ‘I totally destroy your life’.”

Which was not the case. “She gave the book a second life and made it best seller,” says Barker. “She was so generous to me throughout the entire process - every time she was on a late night TV show or a comedy show she mentioned my name and the name of the book.”

Barker watched some of the military scenes been filmed but not the high jinks at Kabul parties. “I wish I had been out there for the journalist party stuff because I could have technically advised on that, could have said there wasn’t cocaine available that freely,” she quips.

She adds: “I was at this party were everybody was doing it but I talk enough as it is and drink enough coffee. I think cocaine would be the wrong mix. I need downers.”

When she first watched the film, with her “younger but seems older” brother, a lawyer who also lives in New York, Barker found herself gripping the chair while he hit her periodically when something amused him.

“I was just like the journalist. You know, ‘true true’ and then ‘false false’,’ oh I would never do that’, ‘element of truth’, ‘truthy’. It wasn’t until I was halfway into the movie that I started to actually enjoy it.”

Barker jokes that she “was hoping throughout this entire process somebody would be, like, ‘You deserve your own late night comedy show’ - never happened”.

But doors have opened. “I’m supposed to be writing a sitcom right now,” she says “Who knows if anyone will buy it but a couple of people who want me to do that. But I love my job want to be able to stay in journalism.

“My agent and editor are, like, ‘You need to find the time, the iron’s hot’. And I’m, ‘Fine! Find me a sugar daddy who will pay for my health insurance and pay to support me.”

Barker hopes the film will highlight how Afghans have suffered and now been forgotten by the West. Fey manages to capture brilliantly her joie du vivre and initial greenness but also her earnest determination to document the human cost of war.

“I'm very much a foil for America’s misadventures in Afghanistan and the naivety of which you go into a place and you don't understand the local customs by which things are done,” says Barker. “Well, neither did America.”

Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.

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