How Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Puppeteer Made a Talking Backpack So Emotional

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Photo: Netflix

In the fourth season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, we learn that Kimmy had a secret friend in the bunker: the purple Jansport backpack that she lost at a dance club way back in the very first episode. That ’90s middle-school accessory was not only a reminder of the outside world, but an inspiration for the imaginary escapes that kept kidnapped Kimmy afloat during her years underground. When Kimmy and Jan S. Port are unexpectedly reunited in New York in “Kimmy Meets an Old Friend!,” they’re both giddy to see each other — until Kimmy begins to fear that Jan is pulling her back into the past. That realization leads to one of the darkest and most absurd scenes in the show’s run, in which Kimmy takes her canvas pal to the Hudson River and prepares to send her off, Virginia Woolf–style.

Of course, when seen through Kimmy’s eyes, Jan the backpack is an adorable puppet. She’s played by Sesame Street performer and original Avenue Q star Stephanie D’Abruzzo, who previously appeared on Kimmy Schmidt as the hands of Mikey’s Italian grandmother Pupazza. (Earlier in season four, she also briefly puppeteered the hand of Mr. Frumpus.) Even by D’Abruzzo’s standards — her Sesame Street characters have included a jacket, a tumbleweed, and a superhero cheese — the role of Jan was an unusual one. D’Abruzzo spoke to Vulture about auditioning to play an inanimate object, why Jan is like “a canned ham,” and her character’s near-death experience under the dragon cloud.

Jan only has three scenes but she makes a big impression. When Kimmy took her to the river, my husband literally covered his eyes.
I was shocked when I read it the first time, like Wow, they’re going to that place. But see, it’s fun to go to that place! You don’t get to do that that much in comedy or television, and definitely not puppetry. But that said, I really didn’t think people would feel as strongly about this backpack as they do. People have been coming out of the woodwork. It’s wonderful.

You were previously the assistant puppeteer on Mikey’s grandmother Pupazza. And you also played a tiny role as Mr. Frumpus’s hand in the season-four premiere. How did the part of Jan come about?
When the Jan role came up, I got a text from [producer] Jerry Kupfer saying, “There’s a thing with a puppet coming up, you’ll probably have to do a voice audition, are you available?” So I did my voice audition not really knowing.

They didn’t tell you that you were a backpack?
I just got the audition sides, which was pretty much all of the scenes with Jan. You’re combing the script for clues, and thankfully that first scene where Jan shows up, there was stuff on the page with the flashback in the bunker. So you’re putting things together. Oh, it’s her backpack. Oh, okay, the backpack’s a puppet. Okay, it’s a Calvin and Hobbes thing.

At what point did you actually see the puppet?
Anney Fresh built the puppet. She also assistant-puppeteered Jan. She did the straps. I couldn’t do all of that, because I had the mouth in my right hand and eyebrow mechanism in my left hand. She was there the whole time, and she built it in record time. It was amazing.

As for the first time I saw it, she had sent me a picture because she was asking a question about the eyes. I’m looking at it and I’m thinking, This is essentially puppeteering a giant canned ham. Annie put a lot of great flexibility in the mouth, but unlike other puppet characters, there’s no neck. You can get a lot of attitude through the neck, through the puppeteer’s wrist, but I didn’t have that. I’ve played solidified characters like that before, but when I’ve played those canned hams, they’re floating in space. Jan was going to be on a surface the whole time, so I had to follow the laws of gravity.

What was the process of creating the character?
The best puppet characters, it’s a very organic match between the way a puppet looks and the way a puppet sounds. She had no nose. One of the reasons why I went toward a more nasal voice is because she didn’t have a nose. You couldn’t really do a laid-out, stoned voice for Jan with those giant wide eyes. It would probably be funny on some level, but it wouldn’t seem genuine. And specifically with this role, if you don’t let the audience believe that that backpack is actually talking, then they won’t get emotional when she gets filled with rocks. [Laughs.] If people just see it as a puppet, they don’t care about it. They have to care about the character. No one cares about a puppet, but they care about Grover. They care about Kermit.

So those were the biggest challenges, just seeing Jan for the first time and thinking, What am I going to do with this canned ham? To be perfectly honest, until I saw the episode, I was worried about how the puppetry would look. So I’m glad that others went on the emotional journey of Jan. [Laughs.]

Were you channeling Ellie Kemper at all? Jan is really a reflection of Kimmy’s childlike enthusiasm.
Yes. I thought a lot about the Kimmy-isms and the influence that Kimmy has on Jan and vice versa. It’s not an imitation of Kimmy, but you can see why they’re pals. That was the way I looked at it. If Jan has been listening to Kimmy talk for all those years, she absorbs all the Kimmyness and it becomes a part of her.

Walk me through that almost-murder scene. Where was it shot?
The location was only a few blocks from the studio in Greenpoint. It was the coldest day in April you could imagine, and we were on the water, so the wind was just insane. And poor Ellie — you know, I’m older than Ellie, but all of a sudden I felt like I was her mother. I’m just like, “She’s not even wearing a scarf! She’s gonna catch her death! This is a national treasure!” She’s got layers on underneath the thin coat, but still, I’m thinking it’s not enough!

All those rocks you see along the water, that’s what I was on. At least I could wear a scarf, but I was in a contorted position. With Annie behind me, I couldn’t even see what position she was in. The television monitors were precariously balanced. It was so cold I had nose snot dripping on the monitor. [Laughs.] We were not glamorous at all, but people were just great. You know, like whatever it took to make it happen.

And might I add, the prop department made those rocks in the backpack out of foam. They look real. The props department never gets their due, the stuff that they make happen on a regular basis that you would never notice. Because you just assume, Oh, you got a bunch of rocks there? No, they couldn’t, because they have to be clean and couldn’t interfere with the function of the actual puppet. Those rocks were fake, but they look amazing.

Was the scene emotional to shoot? It’s so absurd, but it’s also such a high-stakes moment.
I was not emotional because I had to do my job. In the moment doing the performance, there were so many things that I have to concentrate on, that if I let myself go to a different place, I would never be able to focus on the puppetry, the monitor, the glare on the monitor, what I’m physically doing, whether it looks good, and the vocal performance. There’s only enough room in your head. But I will say, it couldn’t not be emotional, just via the fact that it was so cold. I had cold tears running from my eyes. The snot, the yelling, and the rocks — it becomes visceral. I think it was more visceral than emotional from Jan’s perspective too, because it was about self-preservation.

“Tell the cops I’m under the dragon cloud!”
Exactly, the self-preservation. That’s what I really love about those lines. Now that I really think about it, the things that she said — she was negotiating with Kimmy. Her first response wasn’t about “Think of all the good times,” it was about, “Look what I can do for you! I can give you the half a pack of Starburst! You can put pornography in me! You can work with me!” It’s interesting to think about this after the fact. If Jan is an extension of Kimmy, then we’re seeing a part of Kimmy we haven’t seen before.

That’s a really good point.
Jan’s got those anything-to-survive street smarts. Maybe it’s from Kimmy, or maybe it’s the time that she spent at the club. It depends on how deep you want to get about whether this backpack existed without Kimmy. [Laughs.] See, these are the conversations that I don’t let myself have, because if I let myself have this conversation before I did the job, I don’t think I could have done the job.

You don’t have the luxury, because your entire body is working and you have all these technical elements to consider.
And not just that. I played a superhero cheese once, for Sesame Street. And I actually said to my husband, “Should I sound more like a superhero or like a cheese?” You know, these are things that other actors don’t have to think about. [Laughs.] That said, ten different puppeteers are going to play it ten different ways, so I’m not implying that my way is the way.

Some people might say, “Well, how do you play a backpack?” And I’m just like, “I don’t know, the way you would play a toaster.” I’ve played a teapot, I’ve played a tumbleweed. I played a talking jacket on Sesame Street, multiple times! You’ve seen that jacket if you’ve seen Elmo’s World. I love that jacket character! It’s one of my favorite characters that I’ve ever played. But other people would look at that and just say, “I don’t know what to do with it.” You just try something and see what works. If I thought about it too much I’d be in the fetal position, not able to function.

Did you have any fun bits that didn’t make it into the episode?
I did some ad-libbing as one does, both when the cameras weren’t rolling and when they were. We always play around between takes when we puppeteer, and that really helps solidify the character. There was a run that I did, where, when Ellie said, “Some say the greatest adventure of all,” and I had Jan be totally oblivious to that very serious moment. “The greatest adventure of a-all! Yeah we’re gonna go on an adventure today-ay! Why is your butt still on the couch Kimmy, let’s go!” Just absolutely oblivious.

We did different versions of what the silent giraffe would be, whether there will be any sound at all, whether with there will be an attempt of a sound, or whether Jan just opened her mouth and nothing came out. And there were a couple of lines that got cut. One of them that I miss the most is Kimmy says, “I’m changing,” and Jan says, “Into what? A meatball? [gasp] What if we lived on a meatball planet?” That’s a line that’s very Kimmy. You get that sense of, “Oh, this is why they get along so well.”

Kimmy Schmidt’s Puppeteer on Jan the Talking Backpack