“It’s so nice not to smile,” says Ellie Kemper, with an air of relief. She’s between shots at her cover shoot, dipped into the slinky red dress of a noir heartbreaker and giving the camera her best sultry glances. And she finds an actor’s motivation in her own special way—“Oh, it’s like she smelled a fart,” Kemper says with a giggle—and it’s abundantly clear how little these darkly seductive looks have to do with who Kemper really is. Whether she’s playing the titular cult survivor in the Netflix sensation Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the innocent sidekick Becca in Bridesmaids or even the weirdo receptionist Erin on The Office, she is eternally cute and unflaggingly chipper. Kemper is getting a kick playing against type for once—the Black Widow never, ever grins and waves before swallowing her man whole.
Which isn’t to suggest the 35-year-old isn’t enjoying her sunny successes. She’s featured alongside Louis C.K. and Kevin Hart in the upcoming animated movie The Secret Life of Pets, and she even has her own Buick commercials. And then, of course, there’s the reason for our interview: Kemper’s star turn in Kimmy Schmidt, which Netflix picked up for a third season before the second even aired. To celebrate this good news—a real rarity in TV land—she and her comedy-writer husband Michael Koman (Nathan for You, Eagleheart) bought a place on the Upper West Side. This is great for New York comedy fans who miss Kemper’s cheery, loopy presence on the improv stages of Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where she cut her teeth in the mid-aughts, but it’s also great for me, personally—Kemper and I met and became friends a dozen years ago while performing at the Peoples Improv Theater. I’m saddened to learn that the fame has, indeed, gone to her head. Just kidding—although she’s reveling in embracing the dark side for our shoot, that humble Midwestern charm I noticed back in ’04 is totally intact.
How tiring is it to be happy all the time for your job?
Well you’re a fairly smiley person, and as a fellow smiler, you know there’s one side effect of smiling so much: the wrinkles. As an older woman, I am very conscious of wrinkles on my face. So when I have opportunities to not smile, I grasp at them. Your forehead is smooth; how do you get away with it?
No, no, the wrinkles are there. What’s your smiling threshold? Kimmy must require you to be on like that a nearly intolerable amount.
Luckily there’s so much time during the camera turnarounds, adjusting the lights, that there’s time to reset. I do feel like after we wrap a scene, I’ll go to craft services and not smile. Sometimes I think I’m smiling at full capacity—not really while shooting Kimmy but during a still photo shoot—and the photographer will say, “Okay, a little bigger.” And I’ll think, Are you serious? How could it possibly be bigger? But the problem with always smiling is that when you’re not smiling, people think something’s wrong. You probably have that too.
To an extent, but nobody expects me to be a ray of sunshine. How much do people expect that when they meet you?
That is expected. And then I think, Uh-oh, what if you’re in a bad mood that day? But I guess it’s not that hard to smile. [Laughs]
So what turns you into the Hulk or, you know, the Ellie version of the Hulk?
When I get hungry, my blood sugar gets low, and in a restaurant situation, that’s when I worry. I lose control.
You get hangry.
So hangry I get hurious. I worry because what if someone has seen the show and then…
…they catch you in one of those moments?
Yes, it just happened very recently—every moment of it is disgusting, and I’m ashamed. I went to brunch, and I ordered the lentils and quinoa. What an obnoxious thing to order.
I would order that!
No, you wouldn’t. So when it came, it was mostly quinoa. There were no lentils. So I said, “Excuse me, I thought this was quinoa and lentils,” and right away I was like, Easy, [to myself] because I was hangry. And [the food runner] was like, “We’re out of lentils.” And I thought, Why didn’t you take it off the menu? Then he was like, “I’ll go get your waiter,” but the waiter never came. The next thing I knew, I flagged the waiter down and said, “There’s no lentils, so…” I think I was just waiting for, “I can give you half off,” or, “We have other beans back there?” But he went to get the manager, so I was mortified. This was so stupid to be talking about. So she came over, and she said, “Do you see those disc-shaped circles…?”
And I said, “I know what a lentil is.” So there were lentils in it, but you just needed a microscope to see them. The whole thing was horrifying. I could feel myself getting mad. All I could think about was this manager and how the only thing she knows about me is that I am an idiot who complained about not getting her hipster food. If I saw someone asking that, I’d think, You have no problems in life. And then doubly, if I recognized you were an actor, I’d be like, “Fuck you.”
White people problems squared.
Squared? To the 99th power!
No matter what you do, you’ll always be Ellie Kemper, Lentil Lady to that manager.
I feel upset that that’s even in the universe.
Photograph: Luke Fontana
You mentioned on Conan that you took up smoking for a few days when you got to the city after college. What other vices did you try?
Well, this might not be a vice, but I started drinking coffee.
It’s a drug.
It’s a stimulant, but it might be good for you. I got here, I saw everybody with coffee, and I wondered, What is in there that everybody craves and loves so much? I was never at a loss for energy or felt like I needed it to wake up, but I made myself drink it because that was part of being a professional, and I thought, It’s time to be a grown-up! Now I do rely on it, which is maybe too bad. Did I do anything else? Did I go around speaking in an accent or anything?
If so, you had dropped the cockney persona by the time we met. Can you remember the first time you exhibited some kind of raw, New Yorker behavior?
Well, in terms of what New York brings out, I realized it’s okay to get angry sometimes. I do remember there was a man on the subway, and he was looking at me in a way that made me uncomfortable….
Lasciviously, let’s say. So I caught his eye and said, “Can I help you?” And he said, “Hey, man, I’m just riding the train.” And I said, “Yeah? Well your eyes were doing something else.” It was a fairly crowded train, and instead of feeling at all intimidated, I think the guy just felt embarrassed for me. I moved to the other side of the train. His eyes were filled with pity, like, Your eyes were doing something else? Who is this farm girl? That was the first time I remember sticking up for myself in New York. You have to look out for yourself, Midwestern boy!
Ask me about the time I “peed clean” on the train for a parolee trying to pass a drug test.
Did you get paid?
No. I just have that open face, that gullibility.
Try not smiling.
Got it. How well would Kimmy Schmidt work if it were set in another city?
I do think it’s specific to New York. It immediately sets the tone. It’s a tough place in a way other cities aren’t, and it can be a jarring experience to start over here. New York is dynamic, invigorating and energizing—but it is also kind of gray. So the idea of this Muppet coming to town to brighten things up, that does resonate.
Annie isn’t Annie without old Daddy Warbucks. Kimmy needs the city to push against.
Yeah, it doesn’t care if you succeed or not. It’s up to you to navigate that, which is cool, and it pushes you to do that.
So many people in comedy are out West now.
Oh, yeah, and Michael and I are like, We have to get some friends. They’re all gone.
Are you and your husband like Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman, always trying out bits on each other, giving each other notes?
No, it’s weird. We have the same sense of humor, and we make each other laugh but not in a comedy way—in a life way. We don’t have a lot of overlap in our tastes in comedy, books and movies. Sometimes he’ll laugh at things, and I don’t know what he’s laughing at. Do you ever have that?
There are funny people whose opinions I profoundly respect who still like Family Guy.
On the other end of things, and this doesn’t happen often, but when someone’s not a fan of David Letterman—and Michael loves Letterman—but when someone says, “I don’t really get him,” I’m like, “Well, I won’t really see you again in this lifetime.”
Photograph: Luke Fontana
Coat by GEORGINE
So Tina Fey and 30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock get commissioned by NBC to create a show for you. They pitch it to you, and you get ready to make the pilot. When did you really feel it sink in?
I’m not sure if there was ever a moment of, Wow, because you’re worried about the moment it could go wrong. It was like, “They’ll notice that you can’t act, and then the whole thing will go away.” There was one moment when I read the script, and it was like, “Kimmy walks down Fifth Avenue,” and it reminded me of [the ’60s sitcom] That Girl, and I thought, This is too much! And that wonder lasted five seconds before I realized, Don’t worry, [the show] will go away. Even when we were filming the pilot, I was like, They’ll see the pilot, and there’s no way they’ll [air] it.
The circumstances that help create the show, the abduction, and the abuse of Kimmy and the other women are always quietly in the background. How much did you think about the way to address this serious thing without glossing over it?
I am not in the writers’ room, but I am sure that was discussed at length. It’s not in your face, but no one is trying to deny that something serious happened. If you think about it, if your mind wanders while you’re watching, it’s right there. Most of the flashbacks highlight the, I guess you could say, frivolous times in the bunker, and it’s not that horrific. But I did talk to Tina and Robert over the course of the pilot: “Am I treating this too lightly? Am I throwing this away when I shouldn’t be throwing it away?” I never wanted to be sarcastic or glib or to trivialize something that is incredibly serious. Knowing that Tina and Robert were taking care of it was a great comfort.
Will you be doing more improv now that you’re here semipermanently?
As you know, improv is a muscle and it does get flabby. I wasn’t doing it while we were filming the show, but I started doing it again last year, and I realized I’m out of improv shape, as dorky as that sounds. I’m hoping to do a lot more. Whenever I get scared, thinking, I haven’t done any of it in so long, well, that’s the whole reason I started doing any of this: Because I love improv. It’s just daunting to jump back into it, but I have to remind myself of that.
How have improv’s principles helped you in the world of showbiz?
The spirit of improv is generous and selfless. You have to keep in mind that there’s a whole production here, and you’re a piece of it. I’m sounding like a Communist, but I think that’s incredibly helpful for keeping your sanity because everyone starts to think they’re the most important person.
But you are pretty important. You just gave a talk to students at Ohio State University about Kimmy. How’d it go?
It was fun. I did feel old, so old. When the thing was over, I was like, “What are we doing now?” I think I was waiting for an invite to a campus party or something.
What? I thought college kids loved to smoke pot with their TV idols.
Yeah, don’t you always hear stories about Willie Nelson speaking to Dartmouth and all the kids getting high with him or something? I did the Q&A, went home and watched the rest of the [Republican] debate.
It’s no passing out on some person’s floor.
[Laughs] My glory days are gone, I guess.
They’re just starting! So you’ve played lots of happy people—is there another different kind of role you’d like to tackle?
I think it would be fun to play someone who is not nice and not likable and doesn’t have many redeeming qualities. There are so many antiheroes on television, and not to get too artsy-fartsy, but as an actor you have to find someone in them to like. I’m not in a raging hurry to do it, but I think it would be fun to play a despicable person.
Let’s get someone to write you a part like Walter White.
Season two of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt streams on Netflix April 15.