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Looking back on Ellie Kemper’s most memorable characters, they all share a certain wide-eyed naïveté that belies a somewhat darker underbelly. As Erin on The Office or Becca in Bridesmaids, the bright smile and sunny disposition make any cracks in the façade that much funnier and unexpected. Now with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, premiering March 6 on Netflix, we’ll see Kemper anchoring a show created by one of her heroes, Tina Fey, along with 30 Rock and SNL alum Robert Carlock. After a last-minute move from NBC to Netflix, this new comedy about the remarkably optimistic survivor of an underground cult seems poised to send Kemper into well-earned star status. Vulture spoke to Kemper over the phone on Wednesday from New York City.
Are you stationed at some weird hotel right now?
No, I’m actually at home. Yesterday I had all these international interviews, and it was so difficult, between the accents and the static, I was just answering questions that weren’t even being asked.
Just sort of guessing what the question was.
Exactly, I was just talking and hoping I said things that made sense.
Do you remember when Tina Fey and Robert Carlock first presented the idea for Kimmy Schmidt to you?
Yes, I met with Tina and Robert at a general meeting like a year and a half ago. And then a few months later we met again for dinner and they had the idea, and I absolutely thought they were pranking me. They said their idea for this comedy was that you’re the victim of this underground cult, you’ve been kept there for six years, and you’ve just escaped and have been released into the real world. And I didn’t know them that well, I knew their work well, but I certainly thought, This is a test, and they think I’m not smart enough to work with them. But then I realized they weren’t joking. And I read the script and I thought, Oh, yes, you are able to make a comedy from a premise like this.
Was that an intimidating dinner?
Oh, yeah. I just ordered what they ordered and then wondered, Do I eat more or less than they do? What am I supposed to do here?
It’s so stressful at fancy dinners, knowing when you’re supposed to eat and when you’re supposed to just listen.
Yes, especially with a salad. Because what if a leaf is too big? Do you cut it? I just said to myself, When they’re done, I’m going to be done, too.
Initially, did you worry that the show’s premise would be too inherently dramatic?
My very first thought was yes, this is such a serious subject, very sensitive, and it’s terrible what these women in real life had gone through. And I thought, Okay, I have to be careful in how I treat this. But I did know that Tina and Robert were writing it, and I think if anyone can make comedy out of a tragic situation, it’s those two writers. My fears were alleviated knowing it was in such good hands.
Did you research the experiences of other cult survivors and kidnapping victims, or was that unhelpful since the tone of your show is so much different?
Yes, I did. And you’re right, it is a different thing from what we’re doing. But I read a lot about the women in Ohio, and that horrible situation, and in terms of the survivors of cults, I do think there’s a theme of, when they get out, it’s a feeling of optimism that’s very real. The women emerging from those situations aren’t defeated, and what carries them through ordeals like that is an inner toughness and a refusal to give in to despair, and that’s a quality [Kimmy] has for sure.
Was it nerve-racking when you learned the show wouldn’t be on NBC? Did you know it would still have a home?
It wasn’t nerve-racking for me, because I had no idea what was going on. [Laughs.] We wrapped the show on NBC, and then a few days later we found out it was moving to Netflix. So I think the only difference between the show as it would have been on NBC and the show as it is on Netflix is that Tina and Robert were able to go back and put in scenes that would have been cut only for time. But the actors didn’t really know that the Netflix thing was happening.
So you never had that moment of fear.
No, luckily, we were like the children. We were like, [surprised intake of breath], we didn’t know. My point being we were blissfully unaware of any confusion [over] where the show might air.
Did you know any of the cast before the first read?
No, I didn’t know anyone beforehand. I knew Jane [Krakowski] from 30 Rock and was a huge fan of hers. So that was an enormous Christmas present. And of course I know who Carol Kane is, and I knew Tituss [Burgess] from 30 Rock.
I love Carol Kane.
Me, too. And Is Carol Kane 15 years old or 50 years old? Nobody knows. She is this ageless beauty, I love her.
It always seems like Tina is doing a million things at once, but was she on set a lot?
I know she only has 24 hours in her day. And I know I only have 24 hours in my day, but she seems to accomplish so much more in that amount of time. But yes, somehow she was always there. I remember there was this one strange … I guess it’s a love scene, but also a wrestling scene? But she had a very specific way she wanted it choreographed. She had her hand in it every step of the way.
I wasn’t sure where that last sentence was going.
You could really feel her touch in that scene. [Laughs.] No, I’ll just say her footprint was there. I’m using many weird expressions just to say yes, she was there very often and always gave great notes.
So now that you know you’re on Netflix, do you take the character in a different direction for season two?
Kimmy is going to go from wearing pink pants all the time to no pants all the time.
Gotta do it.
I’ve heard Robert and Tina talk about that a lot, not the “no pants” thing but the Netflix thing, and I actually don’t think it’s going to change that drastically in the second season because the tone has already been set. I think they like working within parameters. So I don’t think it’ll be that much wilder, you know, unless the fans demand it.
Unless they write those demanding letters.
Write those letters.