Ellie Kemper on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
It’s hard to imagine American sitcom actress Ellie Kemper as being anything but sweet. She stole our hearts with a Samantha-like twitch of the nose in her breakthrough role as secretary Erin Hannon on NBC’s The Office.
Today she exudes persistent positivity in the titular role of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a cartoon-like affair from 30 Rock creators and SNL alum Tina Fey and Robert Carlock that recounts the tale of a young woman re-inventing herself in the Big Apple after 14 years of captivity in a doomsday cult.
Which doesn’t sound funny, admittedly, but with an ensemble cast that includes comedy vets Jane Krakowski and Carol Kane, and a slew of familiar TV faces, Kemper’s excited grin, down-home naivety and optimistic charm brings light to the darkness. In fact, the show is as lighthearted and warm as a classic sitcom, and Kemper’s comic chops put her in league with the bygone genius of Lucille Ball and Elizabeth Montgomery.
We caught up with Kemper by phone before she touches down for her first-ever trip to Montreal as host of a Just For Laughs gala this Friday. Originally published in shortened form in this month’s issue of Cult MTL, here’s the full conversation, wherein we further discover, among other things, what classic comedy show she didn’t watch, how she keeps a straight face around Carol Kane, not making the cut on SNL and which Office weirdo she’d most like to invite on her new show.
Darcy MacDonald: What kind of kid were you, Ellie?
Ellie Kemper: I was pretty outgoing, I think. I was pretty theatrical, I liked performing. I was — well, I was red-headed. I still am. I made up a lot of plays, and we would make home videos, my sister and I, and my best friend across the street, Kate Purcell, we did a lot of videos, and plays and musicals and stuff like that.
A lot of that was just being with each other. There wasn’t so much, like, consuming television so much as creating it.
DM: That ties into my next question actually. What made you laugh when you were growing up, in terms of TV or comedians, or books and so on?
EK: It was a lot of…um, how can I even say this, now… stuff involved. We made up games and made each other laugh, as dorky as that sounds.
But I will say that the one show that my whole family and I watched together, that just brought us together every Thursday night, was Seinfeld. We just laughed.
DM: Do you think that’s maybe where your sensibility comes from, being less influenced by outside things? I mean so many people in our generation would just say The Simpsons or whatever.
EK: (slightly lowers voice) I didn’t watch The Simpsons growing up, I have to tell you this! But you know what? I did just fine, even without it!
But you know, I’m always surprised when I think of how much of a hit Seinfeld was, just because it does seem like an unlikely hit, but it was. And I don’t know what it was that resonated with me, but I mean, I dunno — how do you describe why something’s funny? It’s just funny!
DM: I’m gonna make you describe why you’re funny, Ellie!
EK: In 50 words or less!
DM: But to that end, then, when did you realize you were funny? And what came first: making people laugh or enjoying making people laugh?
EK: Everyone in my family is very funny, so I think that it was just laughing with each other, that, you know, provided a sense of pleasure for me. I was not the class clown or anything like that. If anything it was more that my mom is funny, my dad is funny, my older brother, my younger sister, my younger brother — everyone is funny! This is how we bond, we joke about things. So it was more a sense of enjoyment of that than like, “Oh, I like making my classmates laugh!” Yeah.
DM: Are you considered the “funny one,” or do you think of your siblings more that way?
EK: My big brother is the funny one, and my younger brother….and my younger sister is also funny. But I feel like the funniest people are often not in comedy. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that, but it’s like, there’s a lot of funny people who just didn’t choose comedy as their career.
My older brother John and my younger brother Billy both gave the best toast at my sister’s wedding earlier this year. And it was just, like, ‘Oh, right’. They’re in a room full of comedy writers and comedy actors — because my sister (Carrie Kemper) is also in comedy — and they just, you know, it was no problem. They took the cake!
DM: I have noticed that. Like, Norm Macdonald’s brother is a reporter and renowned newscaster up here.
EK: He is?
DM: He’s the CBC’s Washington correspondent, and he’s like, a serious dude. And Norm says Neil is the funny one.
EK: I didn’t know that! Well see, it’s those guys that are the real funnier ones. And the more secure ones. They don’t need the validation like we do. Which is fine, right? Like, “We’re gonna do real jobs, and be funny on the side.”
DM: I’m gonna get to questions about Unbreakable, but what puts you in a bad mood, Ellie? It’s kind of hard to imagine you, like, “Oh fuck!” What pisses you off?
EK: Well, it’s not that hard to imagine. You know, I get very cranky — and it’s very obvious — but I get very cranky when I don’t get enough sleep. That is probably the most basic answer you could imagine. I know some people can kind of just coast by and be fine, but I need to be a little bit rigid about it. Because I don’t do well when I don’t get my ‘Zzzs’! I think it’s a bit of a chemical imbalance. I dunno what’ll happen when I have kids. I’ll just be a monster all the time.
DM: So you don’t have children?
EK: I don’t yet.
DM: So I guess that means you want to have kids?
EK: I do! I wanna be cranky with them! No, I do want them.
DM: So I read this interview you did with Deadline about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. You said that “At (the show’s) core is something people could relate to: not letting your past define who you are.” And I liked how you framed it that way.
So I’d like to know, what kind of adversity have you overcome in your life? Or do you feel you’ve had a relatively easy go about it, if not maybe compared to Kimmy?
EK: Well, I have been very blessed. I’ve had a lot of opportunties come my way. I was born with a lot of advantage, so first and foremost, I am a very lucky person. But of course as with any person there is adversity, and I won’t get into personal ones, but I can certainly relate to Kimmy on that level.
Luckily not as severely as the ordeals she’s been through, but to a lesser to degree, I think it’s about giving up the idea that you can control your circumstances and understanding the concept that you can’t control them, but you do have to manage them, and then how you get past them. So that’s my answer!
DM: That’s awesome. That’s basically what they teach in the 12 steps.
EK: As I was giving that answer, I was like, “I’m gettin’ a little Zen right now!” I dunno if the 12 steps are Zen but it all intersects at some point. I don’t think we’re helpless but we can’t control it all.
DM: With the benefit of hindsight, do you wish you had made it to SNL or do you think you’re happier than you may have been in the long run?
EK: Referring back to my earlier statement about how I get cranky with no sleep, I do think about that, like, I don’t know how I would stay up till 11:30. Were I lucky enough, that is my greatest concern, like, if I had gotten that.
Things always find a way of working out, or I guess not working out, but in this case things worked out. Even auditioning for that show is such a thrill and an honour, and in a very practical way, what happened with me was that I started getting even more opportunities even from just auditioning, so then casting directors and producers had heard of me because they knew (I had) auditioned for it. So that was a wonderful result. And talk about one of the most terrifying, exhilarating days of your life. It felt good, like a great feat in itself. It just felt really nice. And then, I didn’t get it! But that was the year I got the part on The Office.
You know, though, they don’t call you to say you didn’t get it. So I might still be in the mix!
DM: It’s pretty impressive that you went from a late-coming character on a smash hit ensemble TV series to the titular character in another. I’ve read that NBC’s Bob Greenblat commissioned Tina and Robert to write a show based around you. Any thoughts on why you?
EK: Oh, um, oh…you know, I had…I guess I don’t know. I can’t think of any answer I might give! I can only imagine I was not the only person pitched to them, so I’m sure there were many other people that he had in mind. But I’m glad that they said yes to thinking of an idea for me, and I’m glad that this is what came of it.
DM: So here comes my big Charlie Rose question: You aren’t like, a rubber-faced mimic, or one sided…you’re quirky, and you play weird well, and you play naive well, but despite the cartoonishness of Unbreakable, you still don’t really play over-the-top — the scenarios may be, but you are kinda the straight woman, in a way.
Two scenes from Unbreakable stick out to me in terms of the sheer, honest physicality of your comic chops: one is at the top of the first episode where you discover the automatic sink, and then later in the series when you explain that you don’t use a mirror because you just look at your face really fast.
EK: Well, these funny situations are written for us, so first and foremost, (the writers) create these scenes.
And yet, I was channelling — you know that Pretty Woman moment, where Richard Gere closes the necklace case, and Julia Roberts lets out this huge laugh? It was in all the previews. I was thinking of that moment. And the idea of the mirror is just absurd in itself, and that’s just funny.
Thank you for saying that it is somehow grounded because you’re right. In a very kind of unexpected way, Kimmy is the straight person of that show, with so many ridiculous beings around her. And somehow she anchors the realism of the show, the realism and the reality of that world. And I guess I jumped in before letting you ask the specific question.
DM: Well, so many people are trying to be a thing, and you have a sort of classic, I wanna say like, Bewitched-quality about your presence that I think is just kind of gone nowadays. But that said, what distinguishes your ability to transcend absurdity through the relatively pedestrian, everyday scenarios that play out for Kimmy?
EK: I don’t know that there’s a lot of irony in that show, and that’s sort of nice. It’s a sincere show, and I hope that’s what people are responding to. I mean even down to the colours, it’s literally a bright, vivid show. And one of Kimmy’s strengths is her sense of hopefulness. So if what you’re talking about is that sort of sincerity, that it comes through because that is her view of the world, and she’s not jaded.
And yeah, there’s a lack of despair in the show that I think is nice (giggles).
DM: You’ve done some writing and yet I’ve heard you say you weren’t in the writers’ room either for The Office or, more surprisingly, to me, on Unbreakable. Do you ever get your own ideas in? Do you ever wish you could be in the writers’ room?
EK: That is not something…I don’t want to be in the writers’ room, so that’s good that I’m not, because I don’t want to be, but certainly in terms of input, Tina (Fey) and Robert (Carlock) are so open to ideas that actors might have , and what they want to bring to their character. And especially at the beginning of creating a show, like, I’d never been on the ground floor of any show, with naturally The Office being the only other television show I’d had a part in.
(So) I was concerned about two things: One, that I wasn’t treating the subject matter lightly, and two, that I was not regurgitating some sort of Erin character, Erin from The Office. So I talked to (Tina and Robert) about both of those things, and they allayed any fears that I had. And so there is, luckily, a dialogue going on, so even though I’m not in the writers’ room, I certainly feel like I have a say in what goes into the character. But when it comes to jokes, characters or even like, names of characters, I leave that to them! (laughs) They know what they’re doing.
DM: How do you keep a straight face around Carol Kane?
EK: A lot of the time it just doesn’t happen, and luckily there are more takes to be had. When I met her in person, you know, she is just a delightful woman, she’s so warm and welcoming. And we did a panel recently and she said “You know, I get so nervous with people watching, and I’m gonna say something (silly).”
I said to my husband afterward, like, “She’s Carol Kane!” Everyone else should be nervous around her. She is so funny. And the way she delivers those lines, you can’t imitate that. And her big eyes, and you’re just looking into them and she’s being absurd. One of my favourite scenes is that Jeopardy scene, and she keeps guessing the answers, and she’s just so deadpan. She’s wonderful.
DM: The cast of Unbreakable is so strong and has so much potential, but if we keep it female-centric; what have you learned as a comic from working with Tina, Carol and Jane, respectively?
EK: I think all of those women are brilliant, but they work well with others — they are serving the whole. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from improv comedy (is that) you’re serving the ensemble. So you’re not going to steal a scene and you’re not going to do something you wanna do just because it serves you. You’re trying to create an entire scene.
So I think those ladies are that notion in action, and…all three of those women are living legends! Not to put too fine a point on it but you wouldn’t guess it from the way they behave, which is by taking care of their cast members, and taking care of their writers and crew members. If asked to give a lesson I’ve learned from them, it’s that you make sure everyone around you is being taken care of as well as you.
DM: If you could pick one guest from the cast of The Office to bring on Kimmy, who would it be?
EK: Oh, that is hard with only one. But in the world of our show I think it would have to be Rainn Wilson. I don’t know what the character would be, but it would be funny to see in our world.
EK: He’s a weirdo…oh wait, did you say “Creed” or “agreed”?
DM: I said “agreed”, but Creed would also be amazing.
EK: It’s weird that Rainn came into my head…well, no, what am I saying, they are both very weird people. Creed or Rainn, two weird people.
DM: Creed could just like, walk by on the sidewalk and it would be funny.
EK: Exactly, like, give Kimmy a slice of pizza and go “Have a good day!” No explanation. ■
Ellie Kemper hosts a Just for Laughs gala featuring Michael Che, Pete Holmes, Reggie Watts, Chris Hardwick, Margaret Cho and Debra DiGiovanni at Place des Arts’s Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier (175 Ste-Catherine W.) on Friday, July 24, 9:45 p.m., $29.73-$64.27