Ellie Kemper on working with Tina Fey and binge-watching game shows

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She plays a beacon of hope in what would otherwise be a dark satire about a kidnap victim. Stylist spends an enlightening hour with the star of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Words: Helen Bownass
Photography: Corina Marie Howell

“Just take it 10 seconds at a time. Everything will be OK.”

This soundbite might sound like a motivational Instagram mantra. It’s not. It’s a quote from the indisputably upbeat Kimmy Schmidt, the star of 2015’s brightest, weirdest, most surprisingly subversive comedy. It’s a quote about coping and survival, something Kimmy knows a lot about, after being imprisoned in an underground bunker for 15 years by a crazed cult leader (played by Jon Hamm) and enduring “weird sex stuff”. Not typical subject matter for a comedy, let’s agree.

But then Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a unique offering. Fresh from the brilliant and boundary-pushing minds of 30 Rock creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock – back on screens on 15 April – the show is resplendent with candy-coloured comedy signifiers but with an acid centre. The heroine is a caffeinated children’s TV presenter with a fierce steely core. She is that thing TV doesn’t show enough of: a woman who can’t be broken, no matter what she’s endured. 

Putting kidnap and abuse of women at the centre of a comedy is a bold move by Fey and Carlock. While the topics are oft tackled in drama and Scandi-noir thrillers, where women play victims time after time, they are rarely seen through a comic lens – it could be seen as belittling, crass, controversial even. And yes, watching can be awkward but there is always light in the darkness: “You yell in your sleep. You bite my nails. And we still don’t know why you’re afraid of Velcro,” her flatmate Titus brilliantly shouts at her when Kimmy stabs him in her sleep. It really shouldn’t work. Yet it does. And it’s ridiculously compelling.

The woman bringing Kimmy to life is Ellie Kemper. Someone unlikely to ever utter a Kimmy-style positive affirmation with a straight face. When we meet for coffee at Little Dom’s, a low-key bistro in East Hollywood – she lives in the area with husband, comedy writer Michael Koman – on an unseasonably hot day, she strikes me as like Kimmy’s older sister. She is less intense, more worldly-wise, but with a similar zest for life and inner grit.

She’s also friendly, conversational and worried – that I’m hungry/bored/going to get sunburnt. She seems utterly normal, in the pre-bastardised iteration of the word, at one point joking, “Yesterday I went for a hike in Griffith Park – it’s never a walk in LA, always a hike.” The one thing that truly marks Kemper out as a performer though is how expressive her face is – it reveals everything and comes alive when she speaks. “Sometimes I feel like I just need to rest my face,” she laughs. “I don’t want to get Botox so I need to keep those lines rested.”

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not the first time 35-year-old Ellie has played someone similar to Kimmy but it is her debut at the helm. She played the innocent Becca in Bridesmaids and ever-cheery receptionist Erin in the US version of The Office. In fact this role was created specifically for her. “Sometimes I think what [darkness] did Robert and Tina see,” she smiles. “Like they look at that person and they’re like, ‘Oh we’re kidnapping her…’”

One of four siblings, Kemper grew up in St Louis, Missouri. Her sister Carrie is a comedy writer (The Office and Silicon Valley), her dad was a bank chairman and her mother stayed at home to raise them. Comedy was a passion but she studied English at Princeton University – including a year at Oxford University – before moving to New York to pursue a career in being funny, also writing for publications like The Onion and GQ.

It might have taken a while to get her solo turn in the spotlight, but as Kimmy might say of Ellie: she was made for this.

What is so compelling about the show is that it doesn’t shy away from tough subjects. Have you felt trepidation about tackling such topics in comedy?
Yes – they are such serious, indescribably sensitive subjects and I worried about that. How are we going to treat this with the gravity it deserves? In the wrong hands, it could have gone a different way – Kimmy is cartoony, yet she went through this indescribable ordeal and she has this grit. It was about finding the balance for [telling] that [story].

It never seems like Fey is trying to make such subjects palatable though – what do you think she is trying to say?
Bad things happen all the time and you can’t shy away from them or pretend they don’t happen. Instead, you have to weave them into your life.

Does that make it a brave show?
Yes, it’s not a recipe for a comedy. I was worried how it was going to be received because I don’t know that this is the trapping of a traditional comedy and in that way, you are taking a risk.

And ultimately it shouldn’t be funny, yet it is.
I know. But then using humour to deal with tragedy and darkness is nothing new. Also I keep thinking of the movie Room. That’s the same situation, but with two totally different treatments. I think this is just one way of coping with all of the trauma and craziness in the world.

There has been some critique of racism in season one, that the non-white characters were stereotypes – do you think comedy is doing enough about representation?
That is a tricky question. I hesitate to weigh in on it because I’m a white girl so what do I know about someone else’s experience? But the more you can represent different kinds of people on screen, the better – and that’s just the bottom line.

Could anyone other than Fey have pitched this and got the green light?
Maybe Shonda Rhimes [laughs]. 

What is it like working with Fey?
She is someone that gets things done. I hate it when people are like, “How does a woman do it all?”, so I don’t mean it that way, just that she is so accomplished. Sometimes people ask what’s the best advice she’s ever given? She doesn’t dish out advice every day at 11am but in the first week I said [to her], “Does this seem too much like Erin [from The Office]?” And all she did was look at me and say, “No”. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s the answer’. She never appears worried.

Are you a natural worrier? And perhaps a people pleaser?
Both of those, yes [laughs]. I worry about the most mundane stuff. Yesterday was my sister’s birthday and I was printing out an old photo of her to make a card and the cartridge wasn’t working – honestly, how are you still listening to this? – and I was like, ‘I can’t go and get one because there’s no gas in the tank but I can’t wait… maybe my husband can bring one home but if not, her birthday is going to be ruined!’ I catastrophize.

I’m a worrier too, but mine tends to be based around other people – what they think of me, for example.
Yes, that’s a huge one for me. I’m often like, ‘Urgh, that was a stupid thing to say’.

Is that a challenging trait for a comedian?
I guess so – you can’t really be polite all the time in comedy and I worry about politeness a lot. You don’t have to be mean to be funny but you can’t always be polite.

When I interviewed Amy Schumer I got the sense that she doesn’t care what people think of her, which I found fascinating.
That is so foreign to me, I could never not care about what people thought. I’ve met her a few times and I could see that. And it certainly comes across in her work. She deserves every second of praise she is getting, I love her. 

Female comedians are often lumped together, yet actually, you are as different from Amy Schumer as you are from, say, Jerry Seinfeld. Is that ever frustrating?
When people are writing or talking about people in comedy, there’s that sense that “Well, the hook is they’re all women – like Mindy Kaling, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler!” It’s a strange way to think in terms that they’re all the same, ‘the funny women’. I thought that was going to die out but it’s still going.

When you were growing up, who always made you laugh?
I should preface this by saying my husband is a comedy writer and was a complete comedy nerd growing up. I was the opposite. He’s always flummoxed by the things I don’t know. And I’m like, “I was playing sports, interacting with humans, doing suburban things”. But the thing we all watched as a family was Seinfeld. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the queen! My favourite movie was The Sound Of Music. It’s one of the greatest comedies of all time. My brother and I played out the scene at the dinner table between the captain and Maria; it was our party trick.

What’s Missouri like?
[Laughs] It’s a very warm and friendly place to grow up, people are huge sports fans. Jon Hamm went to my high school so think of him when you think of St Louis and that says it all. I often think I would love to move back there and raise a family but I don’t think my husband and I would find any work there.

Growing up in that sort of environment, what made you want to perform?
My mum stayed at home and raised four kids and my dad is a banker, so it wasn’t ‘I’m going to go into showbiz’. But as you grow up, you realise, ‘Oh, this could be something. I’m not really sure where it’s going to end but I do know that I love improvising so I want to see what happens.’

Typically, the nature of showbusiness is that there are as many downs as ups – how did you get through that?
I remember one night, I was doing a one-woman show and there were 10 people in the audience and the response was nothing. So I was sobbing afterwards and someone wrote the meanest blog post about it. But then I watched this Tracey Ullman comedy special and that lifted me back up. I thought she was exquisite and I thought, ‘OK, just keep trying’. But it can be so confidence-shattering. Especially being rejected over and over again.

Are you able to put rejection to one side?
I think I’m now actually OK with it. It’s funny because when your agent calls to say you didn’t get a part, it’s like they think they’re dealing with a baby. They’ll say, “They love you but have decided to go a different direction.” I’ve said, “You do not have to sugar-coat it!” I’ve also worked enough that I feel confident in my ability.

Are you an optimist?
Unlike Kimmy, no. Whenever something good happens, five seconds later I’m like, ‘Oh, but it carries this dark risk as well’. So it can never just be a joyful moment.

It’s often seemed like you’ve used your sunny demeanour to deliver a critique on society – for example with your TED talk about how women can actually be funny.
I don’t think anyone responds well to a woman screaming, and I noticed that in my own relationship with my husband, if you’re calm people are going to listen to you. It is still the trend that women are often cast in these roles of being the shrew and so I think if that’s what you’re doing how is that going to be received?

What makes you angry?
When people don’t follow the rules. Something as simple as parking in the middle of the curb and not leaving enough room for two cars. I think that is so spoilt and thoughtless [laughs].

It’s a lack of regard for others, isn’t it?
Yes! Also now that I’m an old woman, I’ve noticed the young ’uns talking a lot and there’s no admission of wrongdoing. It’s “I know what I think and I won’t apologise for it.” I want to say, “No, apologise and listen to what the older people are saying.” Confidence is a good thing but sometimes I think: ‘Be a little scared, feel a little insecure.’ 

The US is in the public eye now more than ever with the leadership campaign – is this something you’re following closely?
I’ve been following it more this time. It started for the pure entertainment factor with Trump and the circus that surrounds him but now the whole thing is baffling. It’s worrying how we’re being perceived [outside the US]. I’m too scared to ask what people are saying in the UK.

Let’s just say many of us are not his biggest fans, we can probably agree on that.
Right, we can all agree on that!

You studied English. Are you a big reader?
No, it’s appalling! I feel like there’s so much TV going on right now and I’m watching that instead. Although I did just get back into Richard Yates, a great American realist novelist. I’m reading Cold Spring Harbor and I can feel my brain reforming. It’s like oil getting rid of the rust.

There’s a real pressure to watch everything and know about everything, isn’t there?
I couldn’t agree more. Especially being in the industry where you’re responsible for knowing [about new shows]. I do wonder, ‘If I watch this whole series, am I going to feel better afterwards?’ But if my husband and I are binge-watching anything right now, it’s [US quiz show] Jeopardy!

Does that tally with the fact you’re not on social media too?
I’ve thought about joining Instagram and Twitter but I think that what I get out of not being on it is better than what I’d get by joining. And Tina Fey isn’t on it! [Laughs] I go by that!

Would you like to write more yourself?
I’d love to write a book of essays and I’m telling you that so I’m on record – I’ve been saying it for like 10 years. I’m trying to write every day; there’s a one-hour window in the morning where my brain works. 

What will that fulfil in you?
I think it’ll show a different side, demonstrating that I can do things other than act. I feel a real urge to do it. But you should never write just to demonstrate that you can do something else.

What sort of work ethic do you have?
The people who are at the top are working all the time – it’s so admirable. I don’t want to lose a job but I do love to have balance. I want to work hard for the hours that I have to and then go home and watch Jeopardy!

Season 2 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is available exclusively on Netflix from 15 April