Ellie Kemper is as charming as one of the heroines in a Woody Allen film–fast-talking, genuinely affable, quick on her feet with a deftness for physical comedy—not unlike the cutups that Mia Farrow portrayed in Radio Days and Broadway Danny Rose. The Princeton grad propelled herself through New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and soon gained industry recognition with her multi-character one-woman show Feeling Sad/Mad with Ellie Kemper. She auditioned for Saturday Night Live but didn’t make the cut. But just like the sunny disposition Kemper shares with her on-screen personality in Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as one door closed, another opened for the actress. She landed a role as secretary Erin Hannon on NBC’s The Office, a job that lasted 102 episodes. Kemper’s pocket of sunshine continued to overflow with her turn as a sexually naive wife in Paul Feig’s hit film Bridesmaids. Not only did the pic break the dam for femme-driven comedies, but Kemper became a fixture in a number of features including 21 Jump Street, Laggies and Sex Tape.
Kimmy Schmidt creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock said the series came together when they were instructed to develop a project around you.
That is correct. I had met with Tina and Robert for a general meeting regarding potential future projects. The next time I heard from them was a few months later. When they told me I’d play an escapee from a doomsday cult, I wasn’t sure they were serious.
One of the ways you landed on NBC’s radar coming out of the Upright Citizens Brigade is that you auditioned for Saturday Night Live, but not when Tina was head writer.
That was an exhilarating experience. After my showcase at UCB, Lorne Michaels called a few days later (for me to audition). There were characters from my one-person show I was going to do, but I wasn’t sure if they were appropriate. I did an imitation of Renee Zellweger, but only because I looked like her, not because I’m good at doing imitations. Then I impersonated Miley Cyrus and then there was a character who was like Maureen Dowd—a smart character, which might have appealed to Lorne’s sensibility.
Kimmy Schmidt is such a zany twist on the “single girl in the city” premise. How did you connect with her?
What’s exciting about Kimmy is that she’s optimistic. Relentlessly so. Cheery, upbeat. I like characters like Kimmy who have a sunny outlook on life. She came from a difficult background. She endured a nightmare for 15 years and emerged intact. Sure, her circumstances were extreme, but anyone moving to a big city and becoming an adult has to go through that necessary change. At its core is something people could relate to: not letting your past define who you are.
How did you prepare for the role of a girl who was part of a doomsday cult?
First, I binge-watched 30 Rock, so that I was immersed in the world of Tina and Robert. Intellectually and to have an understanding of these strong women, I read Michelle Knight’s memoir and Elizabeth Smart’s book. These stories were incredible, inspiring and personified what human strength is.
Kimmy has these great physical tics, like whenever she’s done something right she’ll give a quick nod of assurance. How did you arrive at these?
I wanted to make sure that I was portraying this character differently from the one I played on The Office. Once I realized Tina wasn’t worried about that, I felt comfortable. The show is bright, with vibrant pinks and purples and the movement and the physicality of Kimmy goes with the tone of the show. She’s not using the tics to express herself. She’s girlish, and as an adult, her growth has been stunted.
What was one of your takeaway moments from season one?
Performing with Jon Hamm (who guest-starred as Kimmy’s former cult leader Richard Wayne Gary Wayne), who was my acting teacher. I was very nervous during the scene. Not because, “Oh, I’m acting opposite Don Draper,” but this was my acting teacher. He was an authority figure. He went to my high school, and when I was in the 9th grade, he came back to teach acting and improvisation in St. Louis.
Four years after the success of Bridesmaids, are you still feeling the resonance in landing feature roles?
I think it will always be a lovely thing to be associated with Bridesmaids. It was groundbreaking, especially for the studios and female ensemble comedies. It changed the way the studios looked at comedies. It’s always a combination of things (in one’s career), but it certainly didn’t hurt.