Guest of Honor

Ellie Kemper Has Her Own Method

The "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" star reflects on Tina Fey’s genius, the merits of an Ivy League education, when it comes to comedy... and puppy (anti)-love.

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Ellie Kemper got her start on traditional TV, playing the optimistic receptionist in the sitcom “The Office.” She also made a splash as Kristen Wiig’s miserable newlywed pal in the blockbuster comedy “Bridesmaids.” But these days she stars in the streaming Netflix series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

The series, created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock — who also dreamt up “30 Rock” — is about a perpetually upbeat Midwestern woman who spent 15 years locked in a bunker as a member of a cult… and who has now moved to New York City. Despite the dark premise, it’s a rapid-fire comedy which pings back and forth between absurdity and profundity. The show returns for its second season on April 15.

When Brendan spoke to Ellie, he started by listening to a clip. Kimmy played by Ellie, confronts her best friend and roommate Titus. He’s constantly running away from his problems — and his past relationships. And Kimmy worries someday, he’ll do the same to her. You can hear an excerpt from the scene in audio of the interview above.

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Brendan Francis Newnam: So this show is not done in front of a live audience. What is the most tried and true way to know if a joke is hitting or not? Is it like snickers from the cast or… how do you get a gauge? Because you do get energy from an audience.

Ellie Kemper: I know. I’ve heard actors say, “Well you know, when the crew is laughing, that’s when it works.”

And I kind of feel like you sometimes know, but sometimes the crew is tired and not paying attention because they’ve been there for 13 hours. So, I don’t know that that is always the best gauge. But I guess it is. It’s probably about… if you’re entertaining the other cast members… I don’t really know. It’s horrible to deliver a joke and then there just be silence.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well that’s what’s interesting. So how do you stay motivated? Do you have to like dig in, like you just have to hone your own radar, right, be like, “That joke worked!”

Ellie Kemper: This is such a good question. Because the first season of the show, I would get down like on myself because I felt like, “I’m not doing it right!” Because it would just be crickets. Like you’d say whatever you say and then it’s just nothing. And then you go back to your room and you’re like, “Oh well that was… I don’t know why I’m here.”

But then you realize, “Oh it’s work and it’s a business and you’re getting through the stuff.” So you really do have to hone your own radar, I think But also, either Tina or Robert is always on set, which is great, and then you just trust their radar. So if it were not working, they would come and fix it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Do they give you encouraging words after like, “That was great.”

Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kemper in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." (Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)
Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kemper in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” (Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)

Ellie Kemper: No.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really?

Ellie Kemper: But that’s good, because we’re not babies. So I think that, fell like actors-

Brendan Francis Newnam: But you’re comedians and comedians… they need to be fed.

Ellie Kemper: They do need to be fed, but I don’t think that’s healthy. We’ll get into… that’ll be another dinner party discussion. I mean at our actual dinner party.

Brendan Francis Newnam: OK. That comedians are babies…

Ellie Kemper: Actors are babies!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh yeah.

Ellie Kemper: You’re playing dress up and pretending to be someone else, which is great, if you get to do that and be paid for it, and that’s your job. That’s great. But nonetheless, it’s still what children do.

And it’s also, like what I always get confused about, is when people are like, “You really lose yourself in the role,” and actually believe that they are that person. That’s insane.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Method acting.

Ellie Kemper: Method acting. I don’t get it. I’m like, “But you’re not that person! You know that, right?!? You’re you…”

Brendan Francis Newnam: “Your foot works Daniel Day-Lewis.”

Ellie Kemper: “Your foot is fine!” I find that alarming, but that’s why I’m not Daniel Day-Lewis. I guess that’s what you really have to do to become that, but it’s confusing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What about the reverse though, in this instance? Because I’m sure Kimmy Schmidt has such a strong personality, and she’s optimistic, and she’s beaming.

Ellie Kemper: Yes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Does that bleed into your private life a little bit?

Ellie Kemper: OK having just made fun of actors everywhere, I will say this: I am one. And so this will sound actory and a little corny. I do think, the great thing about playing this character, Kimmy Schmidt, is her tenacity and resilience really does legitimately inspire me.

So if I’m feeling, in my real life, sorry for myself — I’ve never undergone anything close to what this character has gone through — I do draw strength from that. I think that there’s something very inspiring about her world outlook.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. I wonder if another part of it isn’t like… Tina Fey is like she is one of the funniest people in the world. So Kimmy Schmidt is a vehicle for learning from her in a way. You know what I mean? Like she’s like kind of like a mentor to some extent.

Ellie Kemper: Yes, yes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And what an amazing experience be able to admire someone and then you basically just have this one on one relationship with them.

Ellie Kemper: It is. My heart actually just sped up as you said that because that is… it’s extraordinary! It’s unlike anything that I could have hoped for. Because I mean, I remember like doing improv at the UCB and at that point I think she was hosting “Weekend Update” and whatever.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Writing for “SNL.”

Ellie Kemper: Writing for “SNL.” She was on the cover of Bust magazine. I was like, “That woman is just so cool.” And at first, I was always nervous around her because of her iconic stature and everything that she’s accomplished.

And it is soooo lucky that we have her in the world because she is such a good person and she’s all about the work. She’s very humble, she’s very grounded, and she just wants to create good things.

Tina Fey and Ellie Kemper in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." (Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)
Tina Fey and Ellie Kemper in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” (Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)

So learning from that and seeing how she conducts herself on a set and in real life is endlessly instructive and provides such a good example of how a person should behave. So I feel extraordinarily lucky to be able to, you know?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Does she ever get a little jealous that you get to be the face of her?

Ellie Kemper: I don’t think so!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Because giving away jokes is difficult.

Ellie Kemper: I would think so. A lot of the time I’m like-

Brendan Francis Newnam: But she gave away a whole role.

Ellie Kemper: She gave away a whole role. I’m like, “That is the greatest gift of all time.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: She’s like, “You’re right.”

Ellie Kemper: And she’s like, “You’re right.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: “And someday I’m gonna need a favor.”

Ellie Kemper: What do you think it will be? I’ll do it! But I don’t know what it’s gonna be. But I’m ready. I’m at the ready.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, this isn’t you’re first time working with incredibly talented people, though. You were also on “The Office.” And, I was thinking of this cast the other day. B.J. [Novak] went to Harvard, John [Krasinski] went to Brown, Mindy [Kaling] went to Dartmouth, you went to Princeton. Was that the most educated cast of a sitcom ever, “The Office”? Holy Christmas!

Ellie Kemper: Well that’s very, that’s interesting. I mean, yeah, I guess there were a lot of, I guess-

Brendan Francis Newnam: A lot of Ivy.

Ellie Kemper: …Ivy Leaguers in that cast.

Brendan Francis Newnam: On break were you guys, did you have slippers and pipes and were like, “Murph, going to catch me at the supper club over there.”

Ellie Kemper: What is it a highball, is that a highball glass?

Brendan Francis Newnam: How would I know?

Ellie Kemper: I don’t know. You didn’t Ivy League? Then I can’t really relate to you. No that, as far as a cast goes, because I know of writers, you know, go there.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah “The [Harvard] Lampoon” is like a feeder for it.

Ellie Kemper: It really is.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But it seems like, some people think of comedy for the class clown. Why do you think an Ivy League educated has become a gateway to comedy?

Ellie Kemper: Do you know what’s so funny is: I was about to say something contradicting that. Which is that when I started taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade and the People’s Improv Theater here in New York, I felt like, “Oh it does not matter at all where you went to college here.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: It doesn’t.

Ellie Kemper: And it doesn’t. And it also bears no weight. If you’re funny and good at improv, then you’re funny and good at improv. That is completely independent of where you went to college.

And I felt like… oh, I felt a sense of relief because then I felt like, “Now I don’t have to worry about where my eventual children go to college. They can do whatever they want and it will be fine.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: So here is something that’s not unique. Our two standard questions.

Ellie Kemper: Oh yes, OK.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So the first question is, what question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

Ellie Kemper: I don’t want to say I’m tired of being asked because it sounds ungrateful, but I think this is confusing. People will ask if I ever get in a bad mood because I play these sunny characters. And it’s like, what?!?

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s acting 101. Like you are performing, you are pretending to be someone who’s optimistic.

Ellie Kemper: And what person have you met who doesn’t get in a bad mood? Of course I get in a bad mood. And the other thing is I’m like, “You know I get in a bad mood. So why are you making me talk about-“

Brendan Francis Newnam: “You’re getting me in a bad mood talking about this. Thank you.”

Ellie Kemper: “I’m in a bad mood now.” Exactly.

Brendan Francis Newnam: No that is funny. It just shows that you’re doing such a good job that people really can’t distinguish.

Ellie Kemper: OK but as a host, what answer would you be hoping to get from asking someone if they ever get in a bad mood?

Brendan Francis Newnam: I guess they want to hear an anecdote. “Bad mood? Last night. I did a mountain of cocaine and drank a bottle of vodka and you know, my husband was hanging my feet over the balcony.”

Ellie Kemper: Yes! That’s what they want.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But don’t give it to them.

Ellie Kemper: I’m not going to.

Brendan Francis Newnam: They want clicks.

Ellie Kemper: I’m not going to give them what they want.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Everybody wants clicks.

Ellie Kemper: Everybody wants a click these days. All right.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Next question.

Ellie Kemper: OK.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Tell us something we don’t know. And this can be a personal fact you haven’t shared in interviews, or it can be an interesting piece of trivia about the world.

Ellie Kemper: I… I don’t like puppies. I don’t get it. I feel like I’m the only person I have ever met who doesn’t like puppies.

Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt acting like puppies are adorable. (Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)
Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt, who actually does find puppies are adorable. (Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)

Brendan Francis Newnam: You actively dislike or just you’re like, “Everyone goes crazy for them. What’s the big deal?”

Ellie Kemper: Yes, the second one.

Brendan Francis Newnam: OK.

Ellie Kemper: I feel nothing. When people stop on the streets and gather around an animal, any animal, particularly a puppy, I absolutely do not get it. And it makes me wonder if I-

Brendan Francis Newnam: There’s… you’re missing something.

Ellie Kemper: Yeah. And I didn’t grow up with animals and that probably has something to do with it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m on thin ice with pets on this show because we have an etiquette segment and I’m often a little bit… I can come across as anti-pet. But I’ll say this…

Ellie Kemper: I think it’s not a great thing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: …Because what upsets me more than how people make themselves fools in front of a puppy, is the owners of a puppy act like they’ve done something.

Ellie Kemper: Oh, yes. What did you do? You bought it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, you paid $500, and I’m supposed to celebrate that this thing is urinating on the tree in front of my house.

Ellie Kemper: And how old it is?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, exactly.

Ellie Kemper: “Six months. Six months!” And it’s one thing if you were talking about a baby. I’m like OK… well that, you did have more of a hand in. Because you know they never adopted these dogs. They’re always bought. And so all you did was gift yourself this dog.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s like the dog in “Kimmy Schmidt.”

Ellie Kemper: Jacqueline’s dog.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, Jacqueline’s dog.

Ellie Kemper: Abattoir.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, Abattoir. You’re taking him on a walk and it’s like, you’re concerned. It’s like, he didn’t go to the bathroom. She’s like, “Oh we bred that out.”

Ellie Kemper: Exactly! That’s what happens. It’s all for the convenience and vanity of the owner now. Abattoir. That was a cute little, I will say… Oh shoot! I just contradicted everything I said! But that was a cute little thing.