When Ellie Kemper joined The Office in season 5, her character Erin Hannon wasn’t intended to be one of the show’s primary characters. However, Kemper won producers over with her portrayal of the cheerful, naive receptionist and Erin was heavily featured in the series’ final seasons. Her portrayal also impressed 30 Rock producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who cast Kemper in the lead of their new series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a comedy about a young woman who moves to New York City after escaping a doomsday cult. Though originally slated to air on NBC, the first season of the series instead debuted on Netflix on March 6. Kemper spoke to Vulture about how she was cast in the series, what studying doomsday cults taught her about her character, and what she envies about Tina Fey.
Kemper remembers that she felt that her first meeting about the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with Fey and Carlock was too good to be true. She recalls, “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.”
When asked if she actually did research into women who are in cults like the one her character was in, Kemper says that she did and found it helpful. She explains, “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.”
As for Fey, Kemper admits that she doesn’t understand how the actress/writer/producer manages to get so much done with her time. She points out, “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.“