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Ellie Kemper was a fan favorite as Erin Hannon, The Office’s optimistic and off-the-wall receptionist. Now the Missouri-born actress is the star of her own Netflix series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as a woman who has that same positive outlook on life, despite circumstances that kept her from venturing out into the world since the Clinton Administration.
We meet Kimmy as she is rescued from a cult, where she’s been living literally underground in Indiana for 15 years. On emerging from the darkness, she decides to take a bite out of the Big Apple, and restart her in life in New York City.
“Kimmy’s whole thing is that she does not allow outside circumstances to dictate her own choices going forward, and, I think, that that is what’s key for anyone, no matter the degree of difficulty they’ve been through,” Kemper tells Paste.
At the Netflix Television Critics Association press day, Kemper talked about the 10-episode first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, her connection to The Golden Girls, The Office, her fantasy of having her own TV talk show and more.
Paste Magazine: How would you compare Erin Hannon and Kimmy Schmidt?
Ellie Kemper: I don’t want to question Erin’s strength and resilience, but I know that Kimmy’s tenacity is such a huge part of who she is that you can’t describe her without describing that. I think there may be more of a rough edge to Kimmy, just because of what she’s been through.
Paste:To what extent do you think you are like Ellie? ?
Kemper:? I hope that this show plays on my strengths. I think I am upbeat and tend to have an optimistic outlook, but I think that this character is very inspiring to play. She has a resilience and a fierceness to her that I hope, personally, I might aspire to have. It’s not too far a jump for me to play her.
Paste: How do you balance the optimism and the bad things that happen to Kimmy, but still find the humor for the character?
Kemper:? Well, I think bad things happen to all people, so it’s a question for any person. Of course, this is a more extreme set of circumstances. I hope no one would ever come close to experiencing something as dire as what Kimmy went through.
I think that [creators/executive producers] Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock]’s idea of the show, to tackle something that is horrific and unimaginable but to treat it with comedy, is a very smart way to go about reacting to something like that.
Paste: What changes were made to Kimmy Schmidt when it went from being an NBC comedy to streaming on Netflix?
Kemper:? No jokes were added because we finished filming everything, and then it was announced that the show would premiere on Netflix. Nothing was filmed after that moment. Most of the edits—any scenes or moments—were put back in because we now had more time.
The Office now is in your rearview mirror. What’s the takeaway from that?
Kemper:? I can say this because I watched the show before being on it—I love that show. It was beloved when I watched it. It was a cast of characters that people cared about and loved. A lot of people will tell me they watched that show when they were sick, which—I’m joking, but I’m not joking—is a testament to its healing power. I think it will stand the test of time.
Paste: Do you ever find yourself wanting to play darker roles?
Kemper:? I think that would be fun. I think it’s like watching Jon Hamm play the reverend [His Emmy-nominated Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt guest-star role]. That was such a funny performance, but I do think it could be interesting and cathartic to play a dark character somewhere.
Paste: You’ve said that you want to have your own talk show. Is the idea still a little scary to you?
Kemper:? A talk show, to me, seems like it would be an amazing thing. It would be a regular job, with good, civilized hours. You would be able to talk to people, have conversations with people. I’m not sure, depending on whatever show it is, you could have comedy in there. You could have human interest stories. I think it sounds wonderful.
Paste: What types of questions would you ask?
Kemper:? I don’t think it would be investigative journalism. I wouldn’t want to make my guests uncomfortable, so I think that it would be a morning talk show-type vibe—more like a Kelly Ripa or Ellen-type thing than David Letterman. Even though David Letterman is the greatest talk show host there ever was. I don’t think it would be anything too controversial or upsetting.
Paste: No politics or religion?
Kemper:? No politics or religion. I am also talking about this like it’s happening. It won’t happen for years.
Paste: If a talk show wouldn’t scare you, what takes you out of your comfort zone?
Kemper:? I find that doing improv shows now scares me more than they did 10 years ago when I started. I’m not sure if that goes to the issue of, “Oh, you’re more recognizable now. If you mess up, people are going to really notice.” It’s like you’re held to a higher standard.
Paste: With Letterman gone, who is going to be your 11:30 go-to guy?
Kemper:? I am very excited for Colbert. That will be wonderful. I have been watching Letterman on my DVR. It has been a mourning process. I laugh because if I don’t, I will cry. I’m very sad he is off the air. That Thursday, the 21st, there was just a hole. It was over. The last show was gut-wrenching. He was so great.
Paste: When you guest hosted on Today, you named The Golden Girls as a favorite show. What did you love about the show?
Kemper:? I remember in third grade, we had to list our favorite show and I said The Golden Girls. And my teacher, Ms. Graves, was like, “Your parents let you watch The Golden Girls?” It’s not that racy, is it? It is so fascinating to me that it did resonate with a third grader. Maybe it was just the female bond, the friendships. It was one of my favorite shows. And thinking about the time when I did watch it, it’s a comfort. You’re a child, so I think there’s a little creature comfort there.
The complete first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is available on Netflix.