Ellie Kemper: 'I was scared that viewers would be sick of me smiling all the time'
You'll know her face from Bridesmaids and The Office. Now Ellie Kemper is the star of a sitcom by Tina Fey. She talks to Julia Molony
There's a jaunty song during the opening credits of Tina Fey's new sitcom, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, that sets up in a few short lines the premise of the show - four abducted women who have lived in an underground bunker for the past 15 years, where they've been held hostage by the leader of a doomsday cult, are found alive and released, in a flash of blinding sunlight, into the world above. "It's a miracle!" goes the refrain, before adding, by way of explanation, "But females are strong as hell."
The "unbreakable" Kimmy of the title seems, at first glance, an unusual poster girl for feminine fortitude. Fresh-faced, girlish, fond of sweets and sparkly sneakers, she is endowed with a cheerfulness that borders on hysterical. Which seems a blazing contradiction to the dark, creepy and rather disturbing place from which she has come.
But once released, Kimmy resolves to make up for lost time. Instead of following the other women back to the small town from where they were snatched, she decides instead to take herself off to a new existence in New York. The series has been a big hit for video-on-demand broadcaster Netflix, which has commissioned a second series, for release next year, it is rumoured.
According to reports, Tina Fey (who created the show but doesn't appear in it) wrote the character of Kimmy with actress Ellie Kemper in mind. And sitting down with the 35-year-old actress, chipper as a spring day and looking pretty in a floral dress, it's not an enormous stretch to see why. As Kimmy, she smiles so wide and so hard it makes you wonder if cheek spasms are an occupational hazard. And Ellie is not afraid of a wide grin herself. She is immediately warm and solicitous, offering drinks and pleasantries, her face composed into an expression of puppyish eagerness at the start of each new question.
She worried, she says, how viewers accustomed to the current vogue for comedy delivered with a certain amount of acid (Kimmy Schmidt is the anti-Girls) would react to the character. "I thought, oh my gosh, the viewers are going to be so sick of this moon-face, smiling all the time," she says. "I worried that it would be grating. That it would be too much."
But thanks to Fey's sharp writing and Kemper's subtle delivery it stops short of ever being saccharine or twee. And the rest, Kemper says, is easy. "Energy-wise it's actually not that hard. It's not, you know, working in a coal mine. But also in my real life, I probably err on the side of being high-energy, so it didn't feel like that far of a stretch," she says.
Tina Fey first spotted Kemper when she played the goofy, clueless and terminally un-cool receptionist Erin Hannon in the US version of The Office. But it took Kemper a while before the penny dropped that Fey and writing partner Robert Carlock were creating a whole show around her. "I don't know what I thought," she says looking back on it. "I guess you don't ever want to think that something is a sure thing. Not until I read it in an interview did I realise, 'Oh they did write it specifically for me. I didn't have to be so worried the whole time.' In hindsight, she says, it all makes sense. "I really identify with that character. It only makes it a great thing to know that it was written with me in mind, because then I felt like, 'ok, well they think I can do this specific thing so that was a vote of confidence. So then, I will do it.'"
Aside from The Office, Kemper was previously best-known to global audiences for her dazzling supporting role as the prim but sexually-frustrated Becca in box-office phenomenon Bridesmaids. Though she realises now the film represented a watershed in contemporary comedy, she wasn't aware at the time what an impact it would have. "The making of it was so low-key, from my point of view. It just felt like this is a funny movie and I hoped people would respond to it," she says.
But her turn as Kimmy definitely represents a new level of prominence. "The show is sort of in contrast to what is out there," she says. "Not only is it visually bright, it has an optimistic message, it's not cynical, and it offers hope. There's a lot of amazing television out there that is dark and maybe a little bit depressing, so I think this is a nice antidote to that." Kimmy's refusal to be defined by what has happened to her makes her a role model, she says.
In preparation, she read some of the memoirs of "real women who did go through this unimaginable ordeal." She was impressed most especially by the story of abduction survivor Elizabeth Smart. "Of course you are sobbing throughout, but the resilience that she demonstrates is beyond admirable. And so I hope that Kimmy demonstrates the same thing.
"Just the idea that something that will give you a scar will not define what you do going forward - it's a distinguishing feature, but it's not something that you will allow to crush you. I think that would be the take-away from Kimmy and what she embodies." It is, she says, a feminist show. "And the hero at the core of it is this very strong resilient woman. So I hope that people would look to that and draw inspiration."
Kemper grew up in an affluent family in St Louis where her father worked as a banker and CEO. As a teenager, her first flirtation with comedy came when, at the age of 14, she wound up in a improv class led by none other than Jon Hamm (Don Draper in Mad Men), who also plays a cameo as her twisted kidnapper on Kimmy Schmidt. But it was a random, one-off brush with showbusiness in her childhood. "With Don Draper!," she says. "We've all had 'em."
It wasn't until she left home for Princeton, where she studied English and started attending an improv group regularly, that she got an inkling of where she might be headed professionally. "I thought, well I'm in this group now, and I really enjoy doing it, and I feel like I'm good at it and can continue to get better at it, and I think that was when it went, click."
She says she's envious of people like her husband the comedy writer, Michael Koman, who know at a young age what they want to do. "I think it's harder to figure out as you get older," she says. "My husband knew at age eight - he's like 'I wanna be a writer'."
Despite the fact that both she and her husband work in comedy, she insists that their downtime at home is pretty normal, mostly spent, "on the couch, not laughing - it's weird, we find the same things funny, like personally. But we have different tastes in television and what we consume. But then we laugh at the same things on the street," she says, looking momentarily perplexed before deciding. "Maybe that's better."
Certainly, there's a comedy strand in Kemper's family. While she was working on The Office, her sister, a writer, was hired to pen the scripts. "I think my whole family is very funny," she says. "My older brother and younger brother are not in comedy, but they could be if they wanted to.
"My mom and my dad are both very funny in different ways, so I'm sure that had some influence. My sister got married in October and all of the siblings, of course, gave toasts and it's just so funny - my younger and my older brother gave the funniest toasts, and they're in a room full of comedy writers and everything, and those guys are not comedy writers and they brought down the house. So I was like, ok, well, maybe I'm not so good at what I do. They can do it even better." But then, ever positive, she decides with a smile, "It's not a competition."
- Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is on Netflix