The unbreakable lightness of being Kimmy Schmidt
As the second season of Tina Fey's critically acclaimed Netflix comedy launches today, the cast talk big laughs, bad tempers and accidentally peeing on your co-star
In a hotel room high up in the Manhattan skyline, I’m trying not to confuse the actor Ellie Kemper with her Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt character. Kemper plays the title role in the hit Netflix series created by Tina Fey and 30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock.
Like Kimmy, Kemper is chirpy and upbeat, endlessly polite and sincere. Unlike Kimmy, I’m guessing she was not part of an Indiana doomsday cult locked in a bunker for 15 years until she was freed and had to make her way in New York in a classic fish out of water scenario.
There are other real life crossovers in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, however. Her co-star in the show, a brotherly flamboyant flatmate Titus Andromedon is real life Tituss Burgess. His viral sensation song in the show, Peeno Noir (sample lyric “caviar, Myanmar, midsize car”) has become an actual wine brand: Pinot by Titus. The Reverend character in Unbreakable, a dodgy geezer who kept Kimmy captive, is played by Jon Hamm, who was Kemper’s real life improvisation drama teacher at her high school in St Louis.
On Wednesday, Kemper announced on Jimmy Fallon's The Tonight Show that she was pregnant. She had to reveal her pregnancy earlier than desired to her boss, Tina Fey, when a scene she was filming in Unbreakable required a ride on a rollercoaster. Worried about the impact that would have on her in the early stages of pregnancy, they conspired to tell everyone she had a spine injury which therefore prevented her from riding the rollercoaster. Evidentially, a boss like Tina Fey always has your back, quite literally.
There’s a sense of Jumanji to Netflix press days. Like a board game being opened and a seemingly random stampede of animals released, Netflix gathers multiple shows on one hotel floor in New York or Paris, creating a surreal effect as you’re walking down the corridors. Look, there’s Sissy Spacek who’s in Bloodline. Oh, there’s Big Boo from Orange is the New Black. Here’s Ellie Kemper, and the rest of the Unbreakable cast are around somewhere.
When Kemper was a child, her family always gathered together to watch Seinfeld. She also loved David Letterman.
“I don’t know whether it’s because he’s midwestern and I’m midwestern – but his sensibility was so sincere and it was mean but in a kind way, if that makes any sense. He was a wise guy, and that sort of tone was what I found funny,” she says.
Kemper started out in improvisation, working with the People’s Improv Theatre and the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. Her first big television role was in the American version of The Office, before Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt came along.
But it was improv that offered her the skills and basis of her acting career so far.
“I think the lessons that you learn during improv are helpful for life in general, but the primary tenet of improv is ‘yes, and . . .’ so you take what your scene partner gave you and then you expand on it and make it grow.
“In a work environment it’s good training for how to conduct yourself . . . which is to keep in mind that it’s always a group effort. The thing about improv is that you’re always serving the piece rather than just yourself. It is about the whole rather than the individual.”
If Kimmy Schmidt’s abiding characteristics are unbridled optimism and instant indignation, Kemper could draw on her own personality to embody those on screen.
“Luckily I personally think that I have both of those traits. I do tend to think of myself as an upbeat cheerful person, but I have a temper. Redheaded. You’re Irish, I’m a little bit Irish. My mom hates when I say that I have a temper but I do.”
While Kemper does not recommend wildly flying off the handle like Kimmy, she recognises the “sunny outlook” in herself. Where they differ is in what Kemper describes as her character’s capacity for resilience and tenacity. A Kimmy mantra that Kemper has taken to heart is “take it 10 seconds at a time”, something she found “deceptively profound”. Another one would be “keep going”, slightly less inspiring, “This is why I don’t write on the show,” Kemper jokes.
Kemper is 35, Tituss Burgess 37, and in Unbreakable their landlady Lillian played by Carol Kane is 63. This is not their first rodeo. Later, when we talk again with Burgess and Kane in the room, Kemper recalls, “I had this manager in New York when I first moved here who said ‘you’re always going to play the chubby neighbour’. By the way, I was not chubby.”
Burgess has his own tales of rejection. “I had an agent tell me that I would never work on television because I was too dark. It was clearly because she didn’t have the outreach and couldn’t get me auditions, so just blamed it on me. But talk about the power of the tongue – it was something that I thought about for a very long time until I finally decided she was wrong. Rarely has anyone telling me ‘no’ stopped me from doing something. And that gave me a pause. That was a terrible thing to say.”
Kane has similar experiences. She was in Taxi in the 1980s, playing Simka, the wife of Andy Kaufman’s character, and earned two Emmys. She has some cracking films on her CV – Dog Day Afternoon, The Princess Bride, Scrooged – and was nominated for an Oscar for Hester Street.
But over the years, people have tried to pigeonhole her, and she says she wasted many years trying to “be more like other people, just to try and homogenise myself a little, so I would be more sellable. It did not make me more sellable, it just made me less than [others].”
Eventually, an unlikely source snapped her out of that funk. “You know who’s the one who almost sort of yelled at me about it first? It was Bette Midler. I ran into Bette Midler at one point and I was trying to have my hair sort of straight and being more normal with this and that. And she just said ‘what are you doing? Just be yourself.’ ”
When a prospective agent eventually told Kemper that she needed to bet on herself, she initially thought that sentiment was the “grossest thing I ever heard and just so corny”, but then realised “he was right, because you do [have to bet on yourself]”.
Kemper and Burgess bonded early on in the show’s production thanks to an on-set accident, “I was sitting on Tituss’s lap because we were between scenes taking a selfie,” Kemper said, cringing at the memory.
“This scene got cut from the show, but he was in a bathrobe, and the way I was sitting on his lap made him look like he was naked. And Titus is gay, so it wasn’t like a romantic pic, but it looked like I was sitting on his naked lap.
“It looked so funny that I started laughing so hard that I wet my pants. I hopped up and told him what had happened and this was when I knew everything was going to be just fine with him. He was not grossed out. He gave a simple ‘ew’ and that was it. He was totally unfazed.
“Also, if someone can make me laugh that hard and we’re three days into filming and I’ve known you for four days, then this is going to be good.”
Burgess favours rather grandiose language and sentence structures (“The lack of what was around me ambushed me into ignoring what could possibly not happen and start to pay more attention to the possibilities. It’s with that thought process that I sort of came more into myself.”), but all three actors speak about the precise nature of the writing and delivery on the show. There is no improvisation, Kemper describes the lines as “pristine”, and everything is very tightly honed. “You don’t want to mess with it. They will correct us if you’ve said ‘a’ instead of ‘the’.”
But there is plenty of room for learning, particularly for Kemper in the more serious moments that the character of Kimmy offers.
“I’ve played a lot of comedic characters and I think of myself as a comedic actress, but I think there’s some extremely heavy stuff in this show that Kimmy has to deal with.
“I remember one scene with Jon Hamm last year in the bunker, Kimmy is having a confrontation with the Reverend. There were moments of levity, but it was on the whole dark. I felt upset afterwards because it was moving. That’s been a challenge in a good way to play.”
You’d have to think the new season also offers a challenge for the character of Kimmy, who is no longer just a fish out of water. Now she must unpack other things that happened to her, and develop as a person. One of the mechanics used to drive that character development is something Kemper is enthusiastic about. When she mentions it, you can already imagine the comedic value: “She starts seeing a therapist, which I think is great because I’m a fan of therapy.”
Despite a tight work schedule, the atmosphere on set is collegial. Kemper puts this down to the show’s creators.
“As anyone in any workplace knows, your co-workers get on your nerves.” Not so on Unbreakable. “I think the luck is extraordinary.” She stops herself. “Actually, it’s not luck. I think Tina and Robert are good enough at their jobs to know what kind of people they want to work with . . . a lot of the crew is from 30 Rock, which I think is a testament to Tina and Robert as bosses because I think people wanted to go with them to their next show because they liked the way they run their ship. I think about that all the time when I’m going to work, that this is the lottery. Not only is it a spectacular show, but everyone who works there is very cool.”
Later there is a discussion about what other brand opportunities the cast could expand on given the success of Burgess’s wine, which is apparently flying off the shelves. Kemper thinks for a second, rejects the ice-cream proposal and then decides: “pink pants”.
The second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is available to stream now on Netflix