ATLANTA, Georgia—I am happy to report that Ellie Kemper, an actress so wonderfully adept at portraying characters bursting with gaiety, who radiate cheer and goodwill, who make your day a little bit brighter, is a total delight off-screen as well. It’s a big reason why, following her stint as receptionist Erin Hannon on The Office, NBC executives tasked Tina Fey and Robert Carlock with creating a new show around Kemper. That show eventually became Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
But the road out of that bunker wasn’t exactly smooth. Though NBC had ordered a 13-episode first season of Kimmy, eyeing it as a midseason replacement, they decided to pass on the absurdist tale of an abducted woman reacclimating to modern life after 15 years underground, and the series was then picked up by Netflix—at the time far from the streaming juggernaut it is today. But Kimmy was an instant smash, with fans warming to Kemper’s kind-hearted, hilariously out of touch “mole woman,” her fabulously gay actor-BFF Titus (Tituss Burgess), their feisty landlord Lillian (Carol Kane), and Jane Krakowsi’s Jacqueline, perhaps the only person as alien to the ways of the world as Kimmy.
Kimmy’s fourth and last season sees her navigating the tech world as the head of HR at Giztoob, a start-up with questionable data-mining methods, taking on men’s rights activists who’ve sided with her captor (Jon Hamm), and still processing the trauma from her years in captivity. Meanwhile Titus is still trying to win back Mikey by any means necessary while dealing with his own lingering PTSD, the result of a terrifying run-in with a creepy plush casting director for Sesame Street; Lillian is settling her late boyfriend’s estate; and Jacqueline has morphed into a talent agent whose prized client is… Titus.
The Daily Beast sat down with Kemper at SCAD aTVfest, where she received the annual Spotlight Award, to discuss saying goodbye to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and much more.
It must be so surreal to have Jon Hamm, your 9th grade drama teacher, act as your captor in this. I can’t even imagine having that sort of reunion with one of my high school teachers.
I think it’s so strange! I haven’t spoken with him about it because I don’t want to appear uncool in front of him, and he’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met.
While he’s sipping a martini…
…Yeah, sipping martinis with that stuff in his hair. What do they call it? Pomade? But this is why I feel like an incredibly lucky individual though, is because I had him as an acting teacher in the first place, and he was a really great teacher, and then he goes on to play this iconic role on this brilliant show and is so supportive the whole way. I emailed him inviting him to come to my one-woman show in Los Angeles, and Mad Men was maybe in its first or second season, and I didn’t think he’d ever remember me or have time to come, and he showed up. He’s very supportive of St. Louis people and people who went to our high school. He always responds to people and takes them out to lunch, so it’s great that he keeps paying it forward.
But he was on 30 Rock so knew Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock] from that, and then he called them up for this part. I was like, are you kidding me?! It feels so surreal. The only thing that would make it perfect would be if he had been a bully to me in high school, then it would have been so perfect. I’d be like, this is my show! [Laughs] No, I would never. I was so nervous doing scenes with him though. I was like, “Be professional, know your lines…” but then everything went out [the window]. In my head I was like, “He’s Don Draper…”
The show has had such an incredible journey. It was made for NBC who then passed on it, and it was picked up by Netflix. There must have been some nervousness on the part of everyone involved when the network passed on it, because that’s usually the kiss of death.
I felt a little nervous when we were about to wrap the season and there was no airdate set, and then the final day of shooting there were these Netflix execs that showed up and I was like, “Oh… I guess we should pay attention to that.” And to be honest, everyone knew what Netflix was, but they didn’t have as much television programming yet. But I get it, because it’s not a traditional sitcom. It even feels weird calling it a “sitcom.” Thank god it streamed on Netflix, because I think we were able to make more shows because of that.”
I read that your appearance on The Office was originally only supposed to last four episodes but they liked you so much they kept you on for the final four seasons. Have you ever thought about what happens if that four-episode arc doesn’t get extended?
I hate to say it because it sounds hopeless but a lot of this does come down to luck. And once that comes your way, you better be ready and have done your homework. If the story had gone as planned, and my character Erin had stayed on for just four episodes as the temporary receptionist, who knows what would have happened from there.
Right. Idris Elba hired you to replace Pam when she left to join the Michael Scott Paper Company.
And there’s that amazing scene where, since my character’s name is Kelly, Mindy’s Kelly keeps saying her name out loud to Charles to try to trick him. “Yes Charles, you wanted me.” [Laughs] That was actually one of the first scenes we shot.
It is crazy how popular The Office has become because of Netflix. I was having a chat with [former showrunner] Paul Lieberstein who said that it makes up seven of the top ten most-downloaded TV shows on Netflix.
A lot of times it will be twelve-year-old boys and girls who don’t recognize me from Kimmy Schmidt but do recognize me from The Office, and I’m like, “Wait, you were in the womb when this was on, and you don’t go to a workplace, so how does this show resonate with you?” And it occurs to me that it is sort of a schoolyard or family atmosphere, and everyone has personalities like that at their school or in their family. I wasn’t aware of how popular it was until people started recognizing me as Erin, and I’m like, “That show ended years ago! Why now?” And it’s totally Netflix.
And you all did that cute reboot bit fairly recently on SNL.
After watching the SNL thing, people now think there’s going to be a reboot and I’m like, no, he was saying that there won’t be one. [Laughs]
I spoke about this with Paul but I do think a one-off episode would be fun, perhaps a Christmas special or something, to get the gang back together and see where everyone’s at—with Michael and Holly raising their kids in Colorado, etc.
That would be a blast, a one-off. That way all the actors only have to commit for a week and you film the one episode. That would be so much fun, and a nice celebration. I think doing a reboot would take away some of the magic but if somebody told me Steve Carell was in for a reboot I’d be so in.
It’s pretty fascinating how Kimmy Schmidt predated the Weinstein revelations/Me Too movement and also much of the cult docuseries craze when it debuted in 2015.
It started with being appalled by how men keep kidnapping young women in this country. I think that was the general inspiration for it. But with the Me Too movement, it did seem timely. It’s notable how all that overlapped.
If Erin was an exaggerated version of yourself then Kimmy is you shot into the stratosphere. How did you get into this character who’s constantly bouncing off the walls?
It required a lot of not smiling during lighting setups—just being very still—but she has a passion for life and you’re constantly surprised by that because of all the darkness she’s seen. She’s just seen the worst of humanity and yet continues to think the best in people going forward. I think you have to be born with that; I don’t think you can acquire it. She emerged as the leader of the mole women, and that’s just a natural trait. Erin started off as a pretty normal kind of person. She got jokes, was being hit on by Dwight and Andy, and then she got less cool as the show went on. And with the Kimmy stuff, I’m like, what in my face screams bunker victim? But they saw it, and it went from there.
Not just Dwight and Andy—it seemed like Charles might have been into her as well.
Is that what we do for the spin-off? Charles and Erin? I’m available, Idris Elba! I’m in.
The final season of Kimmy does a clever job of exploring why, even though they’ve sometimes been played for laughs, Kimmy’s had these occasional rage-bursts—the lingering effects of trauma, both on Kimmy and Titus with his sexual harassment by a Weinstein-like predator in Mr. Frumpus—even though he’s a puppet.
That episode specifically, with Mr. Frumpus, in my storyline Kimmy’s falling in love with the parents of the guy she’s seeing—which ends up pretty heartfelt, because she didn’t have parents—but while we were shooting that they were doing all the Ronan Farrow stuff, and it wasn’t until I saw all of it pieced together that I thought, “Oh my god, this is such a sharp analysis of everything that’s going on.” I think it was smart of the writers to have Titus speak up about it, because it has been mostly females speaking out and it shines a light on how unacceptable that behavior is in any capacity. What emerges is, no one’s making light of anything but we’re just bringing the situation to light and exploring it in this absurdist fashion.
Kimmy does tie things up cleanly but did you know going into Season 4 that this season would be the last? Or did that come as a bit of a shock?
We were told that the show was ending in the middle of the last season, so I’m not sure it was planned, but the writers did such a phenomenal job of wrapping up the stories in the amount of time they had. It really is a polished conclusion to everyone’s journey. I was surprised that the show was ending and thought that it would go on for a bit longer, but I also think it’s a good time to finish. In the streaming age, I think we had 52 episodes? That’s like a thousand in network time, so it felt like we had a good chunk of time to see these characters and live in their world. And… there might be a movie, so we might see more of them. It’s not confirmed yet but there are rumors. I’m adding to the fire.
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