Cover Story: That’s What She Said
“The Office” space cadet, comedienne Ellie Kemper, on funny coincidences, holding on to area code 314 and the two “supporting roles” set to elevate her career to serious new heights.
It’s not to say that Ellie Kemper is “always a bridesmaid.” Her acting resume—which may or may not include the many self-taught musicals she performed for her parents in their St. Louis home—consists of multiple starring roles, including a number of one-woman plays. Still, no budding actor consistently earns the spotlight, and when one career-maker (“Saturday Night Live”) fell through, another (“The Office”) happily entered the picture and catapulted the quick-witted comedienne into the spotlight.
After graduating from John Burroughs School, where she was active in theater, Kemper sharpened her skills in improv and musical comedy at Princeton University. Immediately following, she moved to New York City, where she connected with People’s Improv Theater and Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and regularly performed shows with the house teams of both. Her work with UCB earned her a rare face-to-face audition with “Saturday Night Live” executive producer, Lorne Michaels; she wasn’t cast (a decision she now calls “a blessing for America”). Just a month later, however, it was her time to shine. Though it was meant to be a four-episode role, she signed on as a regular on “The Office” and now plays lovable and naïve secretary, Erin Hannon.
In the wake of a brief appearance in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” her movie stardom certainly appears to be on the brink. This month, she can be seen in “Bridesmaids,” which, coincidentally, is heavy in SNL-bred names. Now able to call herself a title character, she’s very much enjoying her moment—proving she may have worn the bad dress, but she definitely caught the bouquet.
ALIVE: Looking back, when did you first get bitten by the acting bug?
Ellie Kemper: My sister Carrie, my friend Katie and I were always putting on really bad plays in our front hall when we were growing up, and we’d make our parents watch them over and over. And then, when I went to middle school and high school, I just sort of continued on. I do remember that I loved “The Sound of Music.” I imagined that I was a very good singer, which I’m not, and thought that I wanted to be in a musical or on television.
ALIVE: And you were lucky enough to have “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm as one of your acting teachers!
EK: Yes, and I wish I had a better anecdote for this. But, honestly, when you’re a ninth-grade student, and this tall, handsome man is teaching you acting, it’s like straight out of a wonderful dream. He taught my improvisation course [at John Burroughs School, where he is also an alum], and now that’s what I really love. But all the girls just went gaga; I know that’s not so profound, but it’s true.
ALIVE: What made you veer toward comedic roles?
EK: They were always just so much easier for me. You know, my parents are really funny—not in an overt way, but we’ve always joked around a lot in our family—so maybe that’s why [comedy] came easier. When I have to do a dramatic or a serious part, which is rare, it’s very difficult for me. I think it’s easier for me to make fun of something than to treat it seriously.
ALIVE: Speaking of family, what is it like to work with your sister [writer Carrie Kemper] on the set of “The Office”?
EK: It’s really lucky, especially because we get along so well. We don’t see each other that often—maybe for a few minutes at lunch—but it’s nice. The joke is that she’ll write me off the show; she definitely doesn’t have that power—there are other people in more control than she is—but I do find myself being nicer to her.
ALIVE: What was it like joining the cast of “The Office” at the end of the fifth season?
EK: It was another instance that was dreamlike because I watch “The Office” all the time. It was very familiar, and suddenly being there and among everyone was so surreal. I really think they are just an exceptionally nice cast and crew; as intimidating as it was to go on a show that was so established, they could not have made it any easier to feel that I was instantly a part of everything. Just a couple of weeks ago, we filmed the last episode with Steve Carell … ever. That was just a crazy, crazy experience. A comedic genius who, like, anchored the show, is leaving. I was like, “How on Earth did it end up that I’m a part of this?”
ALIVE: Seeing as you both grew up in St. Louis, did you feel a fast bond with cast mate Jenna Fischer?
EK: I mean, whenever you see someone from your hometown, there’s an instant bond. It‘s like, “Oh! We understand each other!” And there’s not only Jenna; Phyllis [Smith, who plays Phyllis Lapin] is from St. Louis, and so is Rusty [Mahmood], our assistant director—so there’s quite a St. Louis representation there. We don’t talk about it that much, but it’s always nice when you have a friend from St. Louis—and from the start, Jenna has been so nice to me. Phyllis and I actually shared a plane ride home once; it was so funny because everyone recognized Phyllis, and I wasn’t really on the show yet.
ALIVE: And now you can’t go anywhere, right?
EK: I’m getting recognized more. The thing is, I’ve always been inclined to run errands when I’m in the middle of doing something else. I’m not only in sweatpants, but I’ve got a Biore pad on or something. I’m more conscious of it now; I’ll think to myself, “What if someone watches ‘The Office,’ and they see you? Don’t have your zits showing when you go to Duane Reade!” It’s exciting [to be recognized] because it means people are watching the show, but it’s a little weird because I’m just not used to it. I have no idea how a movie star goes about their day.
ALIVE: You seem to be a lot like [your character on the show, secretary] Erin [Hannon]. Would you agree?
EK: I unfortunately think I am like her, and I think the writers play a part in that. For instance, I’ll say something at the craft services table, and then it’ll show up, reconfigured, in a script. I inevitably think, “Oh gosh, I’m as weird as this character!” I think Erin is naïve, but I don’t think she’s stupid, and I do think she and I share a sort of weirdness that I can’t deny.
ALIVE: I won’t call it “weird,” but your personality definitely comes across in your writing. What’s in the works on that end?
EK: I’m a contributor to “The Onion”—it’s just so funny, and I am so honored to be a part of it. I’ve also written essays and fictional stuff for McSweeney’s. Someday, I would love to write
a collection of personal and satirical essays. At some point, I would also love to develop some sort of a TV show. With a series that you revisit every week, I think there are so many stories that are possible to tell in a way that you can’t tell them in movies.
ALIVE: The movie “Bridesmaids” comes out May 12—what an amazing cast! What was it like on set?
EK: I have never worked with any divas or egos, and “Bridesmaids” was no exception. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo wrote the script. I was such a fan of Kristen because of “Saturday Night Live”— she’s crazy-talented. With the other ladies in it— Maya Rudolph, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne—I couldn’t believe it was a job, and a job that I got to do all summer. These women are so funny and so smart, and everyone was so interested in making a smart movie. I have been a bridesmaid many times, and the wedding industry is out of control. There’s a good heart to the movie, but it shows how tough the whole experience can be, and how women in that situation actually behave.
ALIVE: And Jon Hamm is in it!
EK: I totally thought it was freakish! When I first heard that he was gonna be in it, I said to the director, “You know that he went to my high school, right?” I use that as my claim to fame, that Jon Hamm went to my high school. John Burroughs has this Jon Hamm corner set up. I hope that maybe a newspaper clipping with me in it will go up next to it if we’re in a movie together—though it may have been the female teachers who put the shrine together.
ALIVE: What else do you associate with St. Louis?
EK: I really love St. Louis. I still have family there, and I have a lot of friends there, too. This may sound weird, but I miss the seasons. Nothing puts me in a better mood than a nice, fresh fall day in St. Louis. And I, of course, miss frozen custard, Imo’s Pizza and toasted ravioli—not that I ate those all the time, but I liked knowing they were there. Luckily I have happy memories of St. Louis, so whenever I go back—which is sort of a lot because I guess I’m homesick or something—it’s nice. And I love that my cell phone is still under 314.
ALIVE: What would be your ultimate acting gig?
EK: Of course, this is probably what every actor in the world says: I really want to be in a Woody Allen movie—like, I really, really want to. Every two weeks, I email or ask my agent or manager, “Guys, are we working on it?” I feel like it’s a semi-impossible dream, but you never know what’s gonna happen. Maybe Woody Allen will love “Bridesmaids”!
“The Office” comedienne Ellie Kemper
Photo credit: By Mattias Segerholt