“I’m sorry I don’t know more about you!” Ellie Kemper says, baring her perfect teeth in a broad smile as we wrap up our lunch at Little Dom’s, an Italian place near her part-time home in Los Angeles. “That’ll be next time.” But after talking for nearly two hours over bread, salad, and piping hot arancini, she does know about me, because she asked—about where I live, my family, my dog, how I got into writing, how I started at BUST, even what TV shows I like. Listening to the recording of our chat, I’m hard-pressed at first to tell who’s interviewing whom. Which, in the world of celebrity interviews, is an anomaly. In the world of Ellie Kemper, however, it’s a totally normal thing to do. Over the course of our lunch, she banters with the server about the hipness of kale, makes eyes at an adorable baby sitting at the table behind us, and graciously says goodbye to a woman she mistakenly introduced herself to when she arrived at Little Dom’s, thinking the woman was me. By the time we step outside, Kemper’s charmed at least half the restaurant.
“I went as Tina’s guest. I wasn’t presenting and I wasn’t nominated, so that was even a little bit weirder just because it was like, What am I doing here? "ADVERTISEMENT
In real life, the 34-year-old actress doesn’t seem too far removed from the roles she’s best known for. Kemper has made her name playing wide-eyed optimists to hilarious effect, like the affably goofy receptionist Erin Hannon on The Office. (In 2009, she parlayed what was originally a four-episode arc into a recurring character.) Or the sweet and perky Becca in 2011’s Bridesmaids, who, during the movie’s infamous trip to Vegas scene, asks the flight attendant for “a glass of alcohol.” But while Kemper may share their sunniness, it’s clear she’s got a lot more going on in the intelligence department—she did study at both Princeton and Oxford, after all, though her savvy goes beyond book smarts. Her questions are quick and our conversation is peppered with silly asides, evidence of a wit honed by years of improv. She tells me she’s an anxious person, but you’d never know. And underlying it all is a steady sense of drive, a tenacity that took her from begging the editor of The Onion to let her write for the paper and being an unpaid intern on Late Night with Conan O’Brien to climbing the ranks at the Upright Citizens Brigade and finally landing a role on The Office after years of commercial work. And it’s all paying off. Or at least it’s about to.
When we meet, Kemper looks like an effortlessly casual Madewellmodel in skinny jeans, boots, and a striped long-sleeve top. But just days before, walking the red carpet at the Golden Globes, she was the epitome of glamour. It was Kemper’s first time at the famously intimate awards show where guests get drunk and, for the past three years, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have slayed as hosts, leaving no uncomfortable pop culturism untouched. Despite swearing that she doesn’t know how to pose (“I try [practicing in the mirror], but that is so discouraging,” she says), Kemper stunned on the red carpet, wearing a silvery, backless Naeem Khan gown. “I felt so, like, Hollywood,” she says. But feeling Hollywood isn’t the same as being Hollywood. “Those things are just weird,” she continues. “I went as Tina’s guest. I wasn’t presenting and I wasn’t nominated, so that was even a little bit weirder just because it was like, What am I doing here? But also, none of the photographers knew my name. They kept calling me Anna!”
“At first I wasn’t sure if they were joking or not, ‘cause that doesn’t sound like the premise of a comedy.”
Photographers might not have known her name then, but they probably do now. And she better get used to red carpets, too, because Kemper was more than just Tina Fey’s guest at the Golden Globes. She’s the star of Fey’s new show (one that was created specifically for Kemper by Fey and her 30 Rock co-creator, Robert Carlock), something Kemper, with characteristic humility, calls “a miraculous turn of events that is one of the luckiest things to ever happen to me in my life.” In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (which debuted on Netflix March 6), Kemper plays the titular character, a woman who, after spending 15 years underground in an Indiana doomsday cult, is learning to live a “normal” life in New York City. “At first I wasn’t sure if they were joking or not, ‘cause that doesn’t sound like the premise of a comedy,” Kemper says. “And then I was like, I guess they wouldn’t prank me.”
Of course, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is about as “normal” as 30 Rock was. Its storylines have more than a hint of absurdity, and it’s got a cast of eccentric characters—Tituss Burgess plays Kimmy’s musical theater–loving roommate, Carol Kane is her nosy landlord, and 30 Rock alum Jane Krakowski plays Jacqueline Voorhees, the Upper East Side mom who hires Kimmy as a nanny. But the show rests squarely on Kemper’s shoulders. Kimmy’s got Kemper’s bright-eyed buoyancy, and a fierce independent streak balances out her naiveté. (When a construction worker catcalls her with the line, “Hey Red, you’re making me wish I was those jeans,” she perkily responds, “Well, I wish I was your yellow hat!”) Kemper has the ability to ground a character that in the wrong hands could lean toward caricature, and the show takes full advantage of her talent for physical comedy. (When, in the pilot, someone yanks a backpack she’s holding down with her foot, causing her to faceplant in front of a dude she’s flirting with, the result is pure comic gold.)
"I’m always amazed at what women will do because they’re afraid of being rude.”
But perhaps what is most appealing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is that it has that underlying current of feminism that Tina Fey is known for. There’s a scene in the first episode of Unbreakable in which Kimmy and her fellow rescued cult sisters, known as the “mole women,” are being interviewed by Matt Lauer on The Today Show. When one woman says she followed the cult leader underground after serving him at her restaurant job, simply because he asked her to, Matt Lauer says pointedly, “I’m always amazed at what women will do because they’re afraid of being rude.” As the camera lingers on Kimmy’s face, it’s like watching a feminist awakening in the span of seconds.
“It’s all about women who are strong as hell. I guess it’s tricky because if you hit people over the head with the issue, then it becomes tiresome. But I think that it is just so obvious in the writing and the action of the show.”
With 30 Rock off the air since 2013, you can’t help but feel that Fey is passing a baton to Kemper, one Kemper seems more than willing to take up. “Oh absolutely, 100 percent,” Kemper says, a forkful of kale in her hand, when I ask if Kimmy Schmidt feels like a feminist show. “It’s all about women who are strong as hell. I guess it’s tricky because if you hit people over the head with the issue, then it becomes tiresome. But I think that it is just so obvious in the writing and the action of the show.” It is obvious. And Unbreakable is the latest addition to the new world order of television that Fey and Amy Poehler, with her executive producer role on Broad City, are helping to drive.
Kemper has a knack for starring in some of Hollywood’s most pro-female projects. As a bridesmaid in Bridesmaids, she was part of the film industry’s most notable gender shift of the past decade. When word of the Judd Apatow–produced, Kristen Wiig–penned, all-female ensemble comedy got out in 2011, male critics collectively lost their minds, and condescending headlines—“Can Bridesmaids Save the Chick Flick?”—abounded. But for the bridesmaids themselves, it was business as usual. And now that it’s been a few years, Kemper can look back with a little distance. “It was so weird preparing for it because to the cast, it didn’t seem like it was going to be game-changing,” Kemper says, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Basically, Bridesmaids showed studios that a movie that stars all women can make a lot of money.” ($288 million, to be exact.) “I mean, it’s not as heroic as we would like to sound,” she continues, “but that’s what it boils down to. I think in its wake, a lot more comedies have been financed with strong female leads. But I don’t think Kristen and Annie Mumolo wrote it with that in mind. Like, ‘We’re gonna set fire to [the industry]!’ It was more like, ‘This is a story we want to tell and it’s a story about women, ‘cause we’re women.’ But it’s so great that it did have that effect.”
It’s an effect that still has a long way to go, though. “In television, the landscape has been filled with shows like New Girl and The Mindy Project and 30 Rock and Parks and Rec. They are all driven by funny female leads and there have always been television shows with funny female leads,” Kemper says. “But in movies, I’ll read scripts a lot of the time where, unfortunately, the lady parts are—the lady parts!” She yelps, interrupting her thought with uncontrollable laughter and slapping her hand on the table. “The roles for women,” she continues after composing herself, “feel like props. And it’s bad, but not all of the time. I just read a script yesterday that has two funny men and two funny women—even Steven. Or...what’s a female name? Even…Stephanie. But I still get plenty of scripts where women are boring people who keep the guys from having their fun.”
“With Bridesmaids, some guys would be like, ‘Hey! That was funny!’ And it is a little jarring cause you’re like, Uhhh, DUH.”ADVERTISEMENT
The most annoying outcome of the hubbub around Bridesmaids was the resurfacing of that old, withering, asinine question: Can women be funny? It’s a notion Kemper is loathe to validate with a response, but she felt it acutely during the movie’s run. “With Bridesmaids, some guys would be like, ‘Hey! That was funny!’ And it is a little jarring cause you’re like, Uhhh, DUH.” It’s a subject she even gave a TEDx talk on in her hometown of St. Louis, but it wasn’t a decision she made lightly (“the importance of sports” was the other topic the former field hockey player was considering). “I actually felt worried once I had chosen the topic of women in comedy,” she says, “because I sometimes worry that if you do talk about it, that makes it sound like an issue that’s up for debate.”
Kemper’s brand of funny isn’t up for debate though. Her jokes can sneak up on you. (When I ask if she got interested in cults while prepping for Kimmy Schmidt, she leans in conspiratorially and asks, “Have you ever done SoulCycle?”) And she draws from a grab bag of droll voices—from an old-school Brooklyn dude to an extra-sassy version of herself—throughout our chat. But being funny wasn’t something she necessarily set out to achieve. “I envy those kids who absolutely know what they want to do from a young age, because then you can go after it and have that goal defined,” she says. “I didn’t have that.”
"Basically, Bridesmaids showed studios that a movie that stars all women can make a lot of money."
She did have a love of performing, however. “We didn’t grow up watching a lot of comedy,” she says. “It was more, without sounding too Brady Bunch or something, we just put on a lot of plays and stuff. We would make a lot of home videos.” Kemper’s life does sound kind of Brady Bunch,though. She and her three siblings (one of whom, Carrie, is now a writer on Silicon Valley after working with Ellie on The Office) were raised Catholic; her mom was a homemaker and her dad was a bank CEO. In high school, Kemper played field hockey in the fall and ran track in the spring. Though she says she wasn’t a drama nerd, she always performed in the school’s winter play. And, to the delight of pop culture trivia geeks everywhere, her ninth grade drama teacher was none other than Jon Hamm. “He was very serious about teaching, I remember that,” she says. “And also, it wasn’t like Don Draper was teaching you, because Don Draper didn’t exist yet. So it was easy to pay attention to what he was saying.”
It was the future Don Draper who gave Kemper her first taste of improv, which she later fell hard and fast for as an undergrad at Princeton. “Every improv group is named something totally embarrassing. Ours was Quipfire,” she says with an affectionate eye roll. For Kemper, it was love at first, well, quip. “I felt like I was good at [improv]. I understood it,” she says. “You can’t really mess up because there’s nothing memorized or prepared. I find that more relaxing. But also, it’s because all you have to do is make sure that the scene goes forward. So it’s just like having a conversation; you just want to make everything keep moving.”
“Especially with acting. It’s so easy to just sit and wait. It’s that realization of, ‘Oh, no one’s thinking of us.’ You have to think of you.”
After she graduated from Princeton, Kemper spent a year studying English at Oxford then moved to New York City, where she continued to work in the trenches of improv and indie comedy. Though she attributes her pretty stellar track record to “a lot of luck” and “being at the right place at the right time,” it’s clear Kemper worked her ass off, performing at Upright Citizens Brigade, interning at Late Night with Conan O’Brien (where she met comedy writer Michael Koman, whom she married in 2012), and bugging The Onion’s editor for a year until he finally accepted one of her pitches (“Dog in Purse Stares Longingly at Dog in Yard” was the headline that convinced him).
Before landing her role on The Office, Kemper did commercials to pay the bills, for DSW (she still shops at the one in N.Y.C.’s Union Square), Kmart, Tostitos, and Wendy’s. An episode of Unbreakable even pays homage to her commercial past when Jacqueline Voorhees’ housekeeper compares her to the Wendy’s old-fashioned hamburger girl, “which is maybe true,” Kemper says with a self-deprecating laugh. It might have taken awhile for Hollywood to discover her talents, but it’s not like she was twiddling her thumbs, listening for the phone to ring. She was out there making it happen. “I started writing sketch shows because it was like, ‘Well, I want to be on stage and there’s no one putting me on stage,’ so that’s a way to take it into your own hands,” she says. “Especially with acting. It’s so easy to just sit and wait. It’s that realization of, ‘Oh, no one’s thinking of us.’ You have to think of you.” She even auditioned for Saturday Night Live, doing a Renée Zellweger impression for Lorne Michaels. “Just because my face…well, my face used to look like hers,” she says. “I obviously didn’t get it.” Which is just as well, since she’s clearly doing fine without that notch on her comedy belt.
"I’ve had a couple of meetings where they’ll talk about a girl role when they’re really talking about a grown woman."
In a few weeks, she’ll return to New York to film the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which Netflix has already committed to. In the meantime, she’s binge-watching David Letterman, hanging out at Tina Fey’s place (“Oh, that definitely sounded like I was namedropping,” Kemper says after telling me about the night they spent watching Peter Pan Live and eating donuts), and auditioning for movies. Movies whose executives better get their acts together if they want to keep Kemper’s interest. “I don’t normally get upset when someone uses the word girl,or like, refers to you as a girl. But since I’ve been back here, I’ve had a couple of meetings where they’ll talk about a girl role when they’re really talking about a grown woman. Don’t you think that’s weird?” she asks as the server clears our plates. “I don’t know. It struck me more than it ever has. I’m a grown-ass woman.”
This story originally appeared in the April/May 2015 print edition of BUST Magazine.
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By Lisa Butterworth
Photographed by Amber Mahoney
Styling by Priscilla Polley
Hair by Christopher Naselli
Makeup by Tina Turnbow
Manicure by Fleury Rose
Props by Josie Keefe
1. Top and Skirt: Beckley
2. Jacket and Pants: Joseph; Shirt: Valentino Red
3. Sweater: d.ra; Necklace: Thea Grant.
4. Shirt: Orla Keily; Skirt: Nina Ricci; Bracelet: Dinny Hall
5. Sweater: Marc by Marc Jacobs; Pants: Joseph
6. Top and Skirt: Beckley; Shoes: Zara; Felt pigeons by Tina Pina Trachtenburg a.k.a. Motherpigeon
7. Sweater: D.RA; Shorts: Charlotte Ronson; Shoes: Zara