The notable thing about Ellie Kemper’s casting on Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is that she wasn’t cast. It was written for her. Fey and Carlock were approached by NBC Universal to come up with a premise that might suit Kemper’s talents, and the story of a young woman discovering the modern world after 15 years trapped in a bunker was what they came up with. But while Kemper is the show’s endearing heart and soul, that doesn’t mean she’s exactly like the eternally optimistic young woman she plays.
Indiewire sat down with Kemper just as Season 2 of the Netflix comedy was wrapping up production, to find out just how this particular role affects her; from the occasional digs thrown at her in the scripts, to the fact that sometimes she just isn’t as upbeat as Kimmy is, to watching similar narratives over the last year — like the Oscar-winning film “Room.”
Oh, and to start things off, we talk a little bit about one of the show’s most enjoyable guest stars (who Kemper first met when she was in school)…
What did it mean to you to have the opportunity to work with Jon Hamm?
It was so special to me, without sounding corny. Because he’s from St. Louis, I think a lot of people feel they are responsible for producing this prince. He taught me theater when I was in ninth grade. He was 10 years older and had gone to my high school and came back to teach for a year. I have an older brother, and he is so avuncular. He’s like an uncle, big brother kind of person. So to be in a scene with him felt special. It felt like, “Oh wow, things can work out. You can take a class in ninth grade and then go on to be in a professional show written by brilliant people starring alongside brilliant people who used to teach you theater.” So the whole thing felt very special in that way. Especially the scene where he is daring me to go out into the apocalypse. It was a very serious moment. I know it’s very tempered by Cindy, who comes out like a dove, but I felt emotional, is all.
In terms of “Kimmy Schmidt,” how much of your life is the show right now?
It does feel quite all consuming. It’s sort of intense. It’s just a lot of good work. I don’t really see my friends at this time. I see my husband. We just wrapped on Friday and I feel like I have eight dinner dates ready to go. It is a big part of your life when you are doing it.
It’s a six-month shoot?
We made 13 episodes in five months.
Is the character hard to let go of, when you end work at the end of the day?
It’s so funny because in real life when I’ll complain about something at work… I’ll be like, it’s freezing outside, and I’ll always feel silly. It’s just funny to play this relentlessly optimistic person. I imagine it’s similar to seeing me smoking and talking in a voice like [gruff] this. I almost feel I’m not allowed to do that because it’s so embarrassing. It’s not hard to let go, I guess. If I’m not smiling at work, people are like “What’s wrong?” And I’m like, “No, I’m just not Kimmy right now. Nothing’s wrong. I’m just relaxing.”
The character is written for you, but that doesn’t mean she has to be you — which I imagine is a hard thing to reconcile.
I think it maybe plays on strengths of mine as an actress. That maybe might come out in a performance. But in real life, no one is relentlessly cheerful.
In Season 2, there are a couple weird digs at your optimism — stuff like, “She’s like a cartoon character.” When you hit those moments on the page, is it like, “Whoa, hold on”?
No, because I think every character receives digs. I hope it’s not abrasive. It can be irritating to always be around someone who is always optimistic. Kimmy is, in a lot of this season, kept in check with realities of life. That is sort of her trademark. Her roommates and friends and employers are gonna pick up on that. There’s something about Kimmy’s trapezoidal face. In reality, l know I have a wide face, but I was like, wait a minute. But everyone gets a dig, so it’s equal insults.
It’s been a year filled with stories about women being traumatized. For you, what’s it been like seeing these other stories come out, like “Room” and “Jessica Jones”?
“Room” was so good. I think I’m glad it’s being talked about and being portrayed and is something that is in the zeitgeist. I think it’s something that needs to be talked about. I think the message, which is in our theme song — females are strong as hell — is important and deserves the acknowledgment. It’s good to be a part of that.
When you were watching “Room,” how much were you aware of the comparisons?
It’s such a different organism. It’s not a comedy. It’s very much a drama about this horrible thing. Also what’s interesting, which I think is similar, is half the movie is spent in the room. Then there is the after story and how people adapt to that. I think Brie Larson’s character has a very defeating moment where she feels she can’t go on after this horrible thing. Kimmy has not experienced that sense of hopelessness. Even this season, when she’s feeling frustrated and verging on hopeless, she never gets to the point of despair, which is lucky for her.
Do you have a sense, as the person playing this character, that she would ever hit that moment of despair? That she would ever hit that bottom?
Everyone has those moments. I don’t think it would be something insurmountable. I think something would set her back in a way that might feel in the moment I can’t get past this, what’s the point. But I think the tenacity– I can’t imagine how many times she must have thought that in the bunker, but there is a resilience in this character that I think that’s what it would be. A moment. I think it would pass. That’s her whole thing about 10 seconds at a time, which is, “This was a horrible 10 seconds. I’m going to get through the next one and figure out the next 10 seconds after that.” I think she has devised a coping mechanism, which is not a bad thing, that would bring her out of any rock bottom.