Ellie Kemper, the star of Netflix’s latest binge-watch-worthy original series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, recently spoke to undergraduates and members of the public at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It’s hard to think of a character who would appeal to today’s college students more than Kimmy, who without so much as a high school diploma moves to New York City and starts her adult life with nothing but irrepressible optimism. In a conversation with screenwriter Kathleen DeMarco, Van Cleve, and a Q&A with audience members, the Princeton alumna – who also studied at Oxford – dispensed advice to students on finding their passion and navigating the post-college world with humor and heart that would make Kimmy herself proud.
On figuring out what you want to do with your life:
I didn’t really give much thought to what I wanted to do as an adult, not even in college, but I joined my college’s improv comedy troupe … I would say that was when the idea was planted in my head that maybe I would continue doing comedy after college … [I went to Oxford] for a year to study English literature, but then I thought what was I doing … It was great, but I thought I should, I wanted to move to New York, and start doing comedy, and you know, see where that would take me … [I moved to New York] without a job, without a net, and I started taking classes at The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater and The Peoples Improv Theater, and those are such great institutions because you can just take a class, and once you complete the curriculum you can try to put up shows there.
On entering the real world:
When you graduate college – I don’t know what you did your first year out – but it’s sort of … it’s such a strange transition that no one really talks about, because you’ve been in school this whole time, and now you’re an ‘adult,’ and I didn’t know exactly what it was I was going to do … [I had peers] whose path was somehow clearer in some way. Those seemed like enviable positions because there was a clear route … There were many days in New York where it was just like ‘what?’ … I remember in the middle of the day my roommate […] was eating a lunch that was cheetos, and macaroni and cheese, and uh, carrots … and we were both like ‘that’s an all-orange meal’ … He was doing improv too, we were like ‘What are we doing?’ … So yeah. The panacea was just keep going, I guess.
On her big-break on The Office, her not-so-big break on Parks and Rec, and fear of messing up:
So that was great because … that was the direct result of putting together a one-person show. So I did this one person show at the UCB [The Upright Citizens Brigade] in New York and then I went to Los Angeles and put it up there … and that’s sort of how I got my agent, and then my agent introduced me to Greg Daniels and Mike Schur, who adapted the British Office to American television. And I originally auditioned for Parks and Recreation, in like a scene that didn’t contain any characters from Parks and Recreation and, like, wasn’t about Parks and Rec, but afterwards it was just like “that was an audition for Parks and Rec.” I didn’t get it, but I got to meet them, which is great. And then a few months later there was this part of Erin – Kelly, is her real name, Kelly Erin Hannon … It was written as a 4-episode arc, and then the story changed, so I got to stay much longer. And that was absolutely the ‘Woah, that a dream come true!’ … It was very intimidating and overwhelming, but it was such a kind group of people, goodness, I can’t imagine a show that has people as welcoming as that. So it was surreal and also sort of comforting at the same time, to walk into that job. And the main thing was that the show was a hit, and so, I was a late edition to the show, and I just didn’t want to mess anything up, I didn’t want to derail anything, I just wanted to made sure that I, you know, said my lines and did what I had to do to not mess up. … I felt excited when I got the phone call, and then I went immediately to just total dread, just because of thinking of what will go wrong.
On the failure that eventually lead to her discovery:
The title [of my one-woman show] was Feeling Sad/Mad With Ellie Kemper … I remember at one performance of the show there were three people in the audience, and it was a living nightmare … Well, actually, my now-husband was in the audience, but he was not even laughing … and then one of the other members of the audience, I guess, went home and blogged so hatefully about the show, it was bad. But I went home, and my [husband] … who’s a comedy writer said ‘You should watch Tracey Ullman,’ and that was a great suggestion. And then after that show I stopped feeling sorry for myself and thought, how can I make the show better?
On evading the haters and the importance of role models:
I am not on social media, so that helps to not get, like, dragged down in any quicksand … I’ve been extremely lucky in many ways, and all of the projects that I’ve worked on had such great leaders at the helm. And, you know, sort of watching how those people behave, and ‘respond or don’t respond,’ to criticism or whatever circumstances surround them … I feel like I’ve received great instruction by absorbing that. So that’s been very helpful. Someone like Steve Carrell, or Kristen Wiig, who are always very humble, very focused, kind humans, who aren’t, like, you know, showbiz people.
On timing, opportunities, and becoming a Netflix-native ingenue on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt:
It’s just been tremendous. [Executive Producer Tina Fey], a cultural icon, and Robert Carlock, created this show, and she obviously created 30 Rock and Robert was the showrunner … I guess it was 2 years ago, I met them, just to meet them … I was in a pilot for NBC at the time that got passed on, and that was sad, but it turned out to be ok timing because Tina and Robert started working on what is now Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, at that time, and they had me in mind which is just unreal, and they wrote the script, and when they told me the idea, I didn’t know … I thought it was a test to see if I was smart enough to work with them, because the premise of this ‘network comedy’ was that a woman had been kidnapped for 15 years and then was set free, and it didn’t sound like a likely premise. I left that dinner and was like … I remember, I think I took a bath and was like “I think I was just punk’d” … I think what’s nice about the show is that it’s very bright, very hopeful.
In other words, everything every pre-post-grad could need to face the big bad world – or, maybe just finals.