‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Star Ellie Kemper on Her Former Improv Teacher Jon Hamm and Audition for ‘The Office’
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has fast become one of Netflix’s most popular original shows. The comedy focuses on the titular character, played by Ellie Kemper, who makes her way in New York City after being locked in an underground bunker by a cult leader for fifteen years. The show’s popularity is largely attributable to the charming sweetness of its central character, coupled with the wit and madcap behavior of Kimmy’s roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess) and her employer, Jacqueline Vorhees, played by Jane Krakowski.
Written by husband and wife team Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a very funny comedy, but also a show with real heart. It was also written specifically with Kemper in mind for the central role, which is either a massive compliment or basically saying she’s naive and annoying, depending on how you view the character.
“In terms of playing Kimmy’s naive side, there is always a danger of that being grating or obnoxious for people to watch,” Kemper says. “So I think it’s just a balance of she is so sincere in her lack of knowledge, I guess, and she’s so determined to catch up on it, I think that playing it very sincerely helps to alleviate the risk of appearing grating or obnoxious in the fact that she doesn’t know a lot of stuff.”
Kemper’s approach has certainly worked well; after NBC passed on the project it was picked up by Netflix, and Kimmy Schmidt has found a happy home there, with the show being renewed for a second season and then a third before the second season had even been released. It’s made a household name of Kemper, who before was only really known for her role as Erin on The Office.
“I had met with [Parks and Recreation creators] Greg Daniels and Mike Schur, who ran the ship at The Office, the American version of The Office, and a couple months later they called me in to read a part with the casting director Allison Jones, but then my manager called me a month later to let me know I hadn’t gotten [the role of Aziz Ansari‘s character’s wife on Parks and Rec]. …
Then, I think, in the following February, they called me in for this four-episode arc for a temporary receptionist who was filling in when Pam went to the Michael Scott Paper Co. [on The Office]. So they called me in to audition and I read with Ed Helms [of The Office]. … [Erin, the character] was more serious and a little bit more sarcastic, I think, at the beginning, and then I fear that as the writers got to know me, they sort of made Erin weirder, so that’s sort of how she morphed into the weirdo rube that she became.”
During the course of seasons one and two of Kimmy Schmidt, the show has seen some great guest appearances and cameo roles, including Tina Fey and Jerry Minor as a couple of lawyers, heavily implied to be Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, the lead prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson trial. Also guesting, is Mad Men‘s John Hamm, as the cult leader who kept Kimmy in the bunker. In a bizarre twist, Kemper was actually taught improv by Hamm in high school.
“He attended my school, my high school, John Burroughs, and then went to college and came back after college and taught theater at our high school for a year, so I was a freshman taking a ninth grade … Introduction to Theater course, and he taught the improv portion of that class. …
It was so crazy once we started seeing his face on buses and billboards as Don Draper [in Mad Men], which was just like, “Wait a minute, that’s Mr. Hamm? He’s this arresting matinee idol.” … It was so cool to see that. By the way, I have to tell you, that I came out to Los Angeles to put on this one-person show I had been staging, trying to get an agent and a job, and I was in Los Angeles doing it and this was, like, the first season that he was on Mad Men, and I emailed him just to see if he might remember me and if he would come support me at my show, and he wrote right back and he was front row in that show, wearing his St. Louis Blues hat. … I will say, he sort of stole the spotlight a little bit, everyone was like, “Jon Hamm is here,” but that was fine with me.”