While producer Kerry Kohansky-Roberts and director Paul Weitz coordinated on the initial pitch with screenwriter Karen Croner, they simultaneously approached their top choice for the lead role in ADMISSION. Kohansky-Roberts notes, "We had heard Tina Fey was interested in doing a comedy/drama, and we thought the combination of her wry humor with the more serious undertones in the story would make for a movie that was substantive and also entertaining. Once we thought of Tina in the role, there really wasn't a second choice for us."
Weitz's longtime Depth of Field production partner Andrew Miano adds, "In addition to her comic timing, Tina conveys heart and depth; we all felt that she could access the dramatic and emotional places Portia would progress to."
The multi-award-winning actress and writer sparked to the pitch, and first read the novel and then a screenplay draft. She conferred extensively with Weitz and Croner, also met with ADMISSION novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, and committed to the project in the fall of 2010.
Fey reflects, "When I told friends, especially those with children, about the film, there would be an instantaneous reaction and I would get peppered with questions. There's a sense of panic in every parent who is about to go through that process. I found the story compelling, and I wanted to take on the challenge of playing this character at the center of that process.
"Portia is a woman who is living in a judgmental and strict world, and she comes unraveled - but she also loosens up. When she takes a maternal interest in Jeremiah, she is trying to give something to him and help him realize his potential. Her story is so beautifully told in Jean's book, and Karen did such a great job translating it into the screenplay."
With Fey in mind to incarnate Portia, Croner continued working on the script. The filmmakers all felt that the strength of the adaptation would lie not only in the vivid characters but also in the detailed backdrop of academia and the machinations-laden admissions process.
The screenwriter talked to admission officers at some of the country's finest schools. Croner notes, "First and foremost, I wanted to know who the people were who were making these important decisions."
Kohansky-Roberts notes, "There has been an escalating parental obsession with this process - whether for nursery schools or elite universities. Kids are being groomed and nurtured for a greatness that may well be unattainable, and they are trying so hard - and pushed so hard - to be all that they can be to secure entrance into a top Ivy League university."
Croner elaborates, "To some parents, their children's college acceptance becomes a referendum on their own parenting skills. In essence, the parents are applying. Competition is fierce. Kids can spend the last three years of high school being pressured by their parents to excel in school and in extracurricular activities: can you get published in The New Yorker, or develop an intense passion for cutting-edge molecular biology? By the time they do enter college, they may be burned-out and unsure of who they really are."
The filmmakers soon had their own stack of applications to sift through - from agents and managers keen to have actors cast opposite the leading lady. The role of John Pressman, the former college acquaintance of Portia's who reappears in her life and both blindsides her and opens her eyes, called for an actor who could hold his own with Fey.
Miano notes, "Paul Rudd was the ideal actor because he is so versatile; he goes from indie films to laugh-out-loud popular comedies to edgy stage work."
Kohansky-Roberts adds, "When they were at school together at Dartmouth, John perhaps had a crush on Portia. She's taught herself to forget a lot of what went on for her there. Now, though, there's a spark between them as John wants Portia to make the maternal connection with Jeremiah. We knew that Paul Rudd partnering on-screen with Tina Fey could make these emotional sea changes persuasive."
The two actors were already acquainted. Rudd remarks, "Tina and I had done some sketch comedy on Saturday Night Live, but working with her starring in a movie was amazing; she had such a handle on the part of Portia. Coming into this, you know Tina is going to be funny, but she deflects all of her jokes. She's not schtick-y; that's not her style. Instead, she plays into what's funny in the situation and the character, making sure that the humor emerges naturally.
"Before filming, Paul Weitz and I had met to talk about who John was - including things that weren't necessarily in the script, like his history with Portia as he would remember it. In speaking with Paul, I knew this was a character I wanted to play."