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Tina Fey on Why ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Wouldn’t Exist Without Ellie Kemper and Her Contagious Optimism

Tina Fey on Why 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Wouldn't Exist Without Ellie Kemper and Her Contagious Optimism

More than two years after the series finale of her NBC hit “30 Rock,” Tina Fey’s latest creation is being considered for the 2015 Emmy Awards. Indiewire writer Sara Stewart remarked in a Women in Hollywood post, “The new Netflix show from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock […] is in many ways Fey’s old show dressed up in a new outfit.” Fey even joked on the red carpet of a Netflix For Your Consideration event, when asked if there could be a “30 Rock” and “Kimmy Schmidt” crossover episode, that “Dean Winters has volunteered to walk through the background.”

However, the premise behind “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” does not resemble that of most TV sitcoms. As the opening credits depict, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) and her three “mole women” companions are rescued from an underground post-apocalyptic cult in which she has lived for the last 15 years of her life. Now pushing 30, Kimmy chooses to start her life anew in New York City, where she learns about everything she’s missed in the last decade-and-a-half, including selfies and not saying things like “word up” and “neat.” 

“I think it exists in a similar but not exactly the same universe [as ’30 Rock’]; it’s a little bit more candy-colored and sunnier,” said Fey during the post-screening Q&A at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. Robert Carlock — who first worked with Fey as a writer on “SNL’s” “Weekend Update” — added, with regard to the aesthetic cheeriness of the show, that they had pitched it as “‘Elf’ meets ‘Silence of the Lambs.'” Or, alternatively, he described the world of “Kimmy Schmidt” as a fairy tale New York and Kimmy a Disney princess. “Messed up stuff happens to Disney princesses. They give up their voices to get legs?”

Fey and Carlock were joined on the panel by cast members Ellie Kemper, Jane Krakowski, Carol Kane, Lauren Adams and Sol Miranda. James Corden of “The Late, Late Show” moderated the panel. Kane, who plays Kimmy Schmidt’s loopy landlady, also brought her white miniature poodle, Jack, to the red carpet, where she said that, despite her character being more of a cat person, she’s going to “push Jack for Season 2.” 

Renewable Kimmy Schmidt: On Season 2

Speaking of what’s to come, the cast members denied knowing anything about their characters’ storylines for the upcoming season — set to start shooting in August — and suggested that all such questions be addressed to the co-creators. Sol Miranda, who plays one of the Mole Women, had a theory for her character’s future, saying, “I think what Robert Carlock and Tina and the team of writers did is they opened the door for an infinite amount of possibilities… for Donna Maria to come and start speaking English in the very last episode.” 
Gretchen, another Mole Woman, “is going to be in the mix somewhere, but who knows how she will be mixing,” said Lauren Adams.
Kane plainly said, “I know nothing, nothing at all,” but Carlock assured the audience that we will be seeing more of her. “The one [character] that I really wanna make sure we grow this year is Carol’s character, Lillian.” 

Fey hinted that we may be meeting some crucial characters next spring, such as Titus’ estranged wife and Kimmy’s mother, and that we will see Jacquelyn (Jane Krakowski) getting in touch with her roots. As Carlock told Indiewire on the red carpet, “We left a lot of things up in the air, a lot of open threads, so we’re going to pick them all up and keep them moving forward. There’s a lot to do.” One thing’s for sure: there will be more songs to look forward to, a la Titus’ sexy music video masterpiece, “Peenot Noir.” 

Post-Apocalyptic Kimmy Schmidt: On Living in a Bunker

When asked what the cast members drew from in their portrayal of something as niche and painful as the Mole Women, Kemper brought up two memoirs she had read and related to closely: those of Elizabeth Smart and Michelle Knight, two kidnapping survivors. Adams, too, had read books on the subject and found a treasure trove of related documentaries on Netflix. Miranda commented that she relied heavily on production design to help her relate to Donna Maria. “The art department did such a great job that it was instrumental, while there, to really take it in and make Donna Maria richer and fuller.” She fondly recalled the scene for which the art department had to teach her how to knit with human hair.
Kemper turned the question around by emphasizing how relatable something as seemingly alien to most people as kidnappings and doomsday cults could be. “Everyone has been through something difficult and everyone needs to move on from those things in order to keep on living.”

“We couldn’t reconcile our minds to the idea of this extreme experience that she had without some understanding of how we thought it was universal,” Carlock said. “Every character has his or her baggage. Some of them are weirder than others, some are gilded cages [referring to Krakowski], some are cages of the mind [referring to Kane].”

The unique approach of the show is that it explores this kind of trauma from the empowering perspective of the recovering victim. As Fey said, they wanted to explore the question “Is it possible to champion the survivor, instead of to study the mind of the criminal?”

Inimitable Kimmy Schmidt: Ellie Kemper IS Kimmy 

If we learned anything from the panel, it was that the show would be nothing without Ellie Kemper. In talking about how the premise of the show came to be, Fey said, “The idea initially came about out of using Ellie as the inspiration; just thinking about what characteristics Ellie had as an actress. She has this sunniness and this strength combined, and that led us to a few different premises — and then we chose the least marketable one.” 
Apparently, the other candidates for show’s premise included Kemper falling down a well and Kemper waking up from a coma. Carlock joked, “It’s that blank slate thing that Ellie projects,” as Kemper played along, appearing hurt by the backhanded compliment. Carlock added, more sincerely, “Ellie brings such a different kind of lightness and heart to [the show.] We couldn’t have done the show without Ellie and I think that that just reframes everything we do.”

Everyone seemed in awe of Kemper’s remarkable character, Kane not the least: “I adore Ellie, she’s the kindest, sweetest girl.” 

“It’s a huge honor and responsibility and I think that’s the biggest compliment,” Kemper said about the development process. “This lady is so strong and resilient, and to think about the ordeal that she’s been through and to emerge with as much faith in humanity is, I think, beyond admirable.” In fact, Kemper had been convinced that Fey and Carlock were pranking her when they approached her about the show. “They’re testing me to see if I’m smart enough.” 
Kemper is not the only actor whose characters were written for or heavily influenced by the real people on “Kimmy Schmidt.” Tituss Burgess’ character, Kimmy’s roommate, was also written for Burgess, although he was still asked to audition. Burgess was unfortunately ill and couldn’t make it to LA for the panel, but James Corden related how Burgess had sunk to a very low place after his audition for Titus. He “didn’t hear back for about a week […] and he said he ate around three pizzas in a day.” By the time he got the call with the good news, he had given up on his acting career and almost didn’t pick up his phone.
Carol Kane, on the other hand, got the part of Lillian after a simple lunch meeting — no audition (despite Kane’s deep suspicions that Carlock and Fey would attack her with sides hidden inside the menu, or under the table). “But they did make you audition for Titus?” joked Tina Fey. 

Jane Krakowski was also approached directly by Tina for the part, when she had no previous knowledge concerning the project. “I said yes right away,” she said. “I literally sent just ‘yes’ as my email reply.” When asked what distinguishes Krakowski’s character on “Kimmy” from Jenna Maroney on “The Office,” Fey said simply, “Jacquelyn is a kind person and Jenna is a sociopath.” 
Finally, Fey told the panel that Jon Hamm had been a last-minute casting choice which came together thanks to the friendship between the two. “‘You get to play the worst person ever,'” she told him. “‘You get to play the part of a horrible monster.’ He did say ‘give me a night to think about it.'”

READ MORE: ‘They Alive, Damnit!’: How the Unbelievably Catchy ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Theme Song Came To Be

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