The Unbeatable Ellie Kemper
With the starring role in her very own Netflix show, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the ever-endearing Ellie Kemper is unstoppable.
You probably know Ellie Kemper as the charmingly clueless secretary Erin from “The Office” or as the Disney-loving, dress-donning friend in “Bridesmaids.” But the St. Louis-born comedienne can kiss her “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” supporting role status goodbye.
The Princeton University-trained actress is getting her big moment as the title character in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a new Netflix comedy that launched on March 6. The best part? The show was written specifically for Kemper by comedy royalty Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (the dynamic duo behind “30 Rock”).
Known for her endearing and oftentimes hilarious wide-eyed naivete on screen, Kemper gave us the scoop on the oddball premise of her new show, why May 20 might be the saddest day ever and her future career as a plumber.
ALIVE: Congrats on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt!” Tell us about the show and the character you play.
Ellie Kemper: The show is about a woman who has been kept underground in a cult for 15 years and is rescued by the FBI and goes to start a new life in New York City. My character is very wideeyed and optimistic but with a very tough center, which is what got her through the last 15 years.
ALIVE: It’s a very different kind of premise. Where did it come from?
EK: From the brains of Robert Carlock and Tina Fey. It’s certainly darker than you would think for a comedy. You are leaving behind your past and trying to make a new go of it. Also, the set of obstacles that get in Kimmy’s way are more severe than you would expect to see on TV, but at the core, it’s about overcoming those obstacles to create new opportunities for yourself.
ALIVE: It sounds like a fish-out-of-water kind of story. Have you ever felt like that in your real life?
EK: When I first moved to New York, I did. It’s a big city and different than what I was used to in St. Louis. In a broad way, I relate to that adjustment: I probably felt like that at any mixer in eighth grade. I remember going to a bunch of Chaminade mixers and just thinking, “Boy, I’m not good at this.”
ALIVE: We heard that Tina Fey basically created this character for you. What was your reaction to that?
EK: It was a dream come true because she’s incredible, and I’m so grateful to both of them for creating this show. Basically I got to meet them about a year and half ago in New York, and they were very broadly tossing around show ideas. I wasn’t sure if the meeting was a show with me in mind or if there might be a project down the line. We met up again later that summer and they had this fully fleshed-out idea. I just think they are the smartest people in show business.
ALIVE: The show is now streaming on Netflix. How do you think that compares to being on broadcast TV?
EK: I think it’s a really important thing that happened. Logistically speaking, the show can be a little bit longer, which is great because we shot so much material. On broadcast TV, a lot of good stuff would have been cut. I asked them, “So, now is it just going to be swear words everywhere, and we can just go wild?” but they said “No, I don’t think so.”
ALIVE: Which do you enjoy making more, TV or movies?
EK: I enjoy TV because you have more space to tell a longer story. This has been exciting because it’s the first season and we’re creating everything together while it’s happening.
ALIVE: You also kicked off this year as the first-ever guest host for “Ellen.” How did that come about?
EK: That was awesome and incredible. Her production called that morning and said Ellen is sick, and I definitely thought it was a prank because she does a lot of those. They called at 10:30am and the show taped at 3pm. In a way, that was better because there was zero time to worry about it. When I got to the stage, she was there and very sick. So I knew it was real.
ALIVE: Were you freaking out?
EK: I wasn’t as nervous as I was when I am a guest, but I knew it was last-minute, and I was flying by the seat of my pants, and it felt more fun in a way. I was like, “Alright, I don’t know what’s about to happen,” and improvising. I had a blast.
ALIVE: Did they give you questions to ask the guests or did you have to improvise that?
EK: Thank goodness they gave me the questions on note cards. I didn’t conceal any attempt that I was just reading from the notecard. And luckily, the guest was Neil Patrick Harris, who is a seasoned professional and probably should have been hosting the show instead of me. He was great to roll with everything.
ALIVE: Who are some of your comedy heroes?
EK: Julia Louis-Dreyfus is incredible because she’s been able to have such a long career; she’s played such distinctly different characters. I don’t think you can be as funny as she is without really understanding human behavior. Also David Letterman: I just love him. I will be so sad for May 20 (that’s his last show). After he announced he was retiring, I couldn’t watch his show for a few weeks because I was so sad.
ALIVE: What’s the hardest part about doing comedy?
EK: Figuring out if something is funny or not. Sometimes I’ll think something is really funny if I’m writing something or doing it. If I show my husband or a director and they don’t laugh, I second-guess myself and wonder if I’m funny after all.
ALIVE: Do you have any strange talents we should know about?
EK: I am very good at fixing toilets. I learned at a young age because the upstairs bathroom was often broken, and I taught myself how to fix them. Granted, I don’t think it’s that complicated. I don’t have any plumbing training, so I would call that a talent.
ALIVE: And that’s a great fallback career too.
EK: You and I are thinking alike. If it turns out the answer to the question, “Am I funny?” is “No,” then I can turn to my toilet-fixing.
ALIVE: Maybe that could become part of Kimmy’s journey—becoming a handyman in New York.
EK: No joke! I think that’s a fabulous idea because it would take her into the homes of a lot of new characters. I sort of love that. If they use that, I think they have to pay you, so put that in print.
Photo credit: Brian Bowen Smith for Netflix