‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ star Ellie Kemper on Jon Hamm, that big smile & more

Even with 30 Rock partners Tina Fey and Robert Carlock as creators, it’s hard to imagine Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt being the least bit funny without Ellie Kemper in the title role. The show’s backstory – Kimmy was abducted in middle school and held prisoner for years by a doomsday cult leader (Jon Hamm) before escaping and moving to New York to get a clean break from the trauma – is so dark, and so at odds with Fey and Carlock’s silly brand of humor, that it wouldn’t work at all if not for Kemper’s enormous reserves of warmth and joy. When Kimmy flashes that cartoonish, kilometer-wide smile, you understand how she got through her ordeal, and you have permission to move on from thinking about everything that happened down in the bunker.

I’ll have a review of the new season, which debuts Friday on Netflix, later in the week. On my final day of press tour in January – when neither of us was at the peak of our mental powers – I spoke with Kemper about finally working with Hamm (who was her drama teacher in high school), how much she factors Kimmy’s tragic past into her performance, similarities between Kimmy and her breakout role as Erin on The Office, and more.

I forget: do you and Hamm have a scene with each other in Bridesmaids?

Ellie Kemper: No, and I remember being bummed out by that. We”re never in a scene together.

So last season was the first time you had worked with him.

Ellie Kemper: Correct.

What was that like, given your history with him?

Ellie Kemper: I think of that as maybe the best part of the season for me because he is a good person. He has been so supportive. He taught me high school when I was in ninth grade, because he went to my high school also. He has been so supportive of all alumni from our school. Like, I came out to LA and I was doing this one-person show, and I emailed him – I think this was like the first season of Mad Men – and said, “Hey, if you”re free, do you want to come out? I”m not sure anyone”s going to come to this show.” He was there front and center in his St. Louis Blues hat. He”s so avuncular. He”s like an uncle or a big brother to all these people who come from (John Burroughs School) to try to pursue acting. He”s friends with Tina and Robert and was so funny on 30 Rock, and then being in a scene with him was actually very emotional for me. I don”t know why, because it”s not like I was in school with him. That scene where he”s testing me and telling me to go out into the apocalypse, is heavy, and I felt very, I don”t know, it was just emotional for me for some reason, because it just reminded me of childhood and everything, and it was powerful. But it was such a thrill to be able to act with him. I flubbed my first line, of course, with him. I was really ready to show off. Like, “See? Like, you taught me and now I do…” And then the first line, everything…well, he”s very handsome so it”s hard to concentrate.

He’s really disgustingly handsome.

Ellie Kemper: Disgustingly handsome and so easy to be a little flustered, I think, for men and women alike, by the way.

Did Tina and Robert know that you had this relationship with him, or was he in it entirely because of their relationship with him?

Ellie Kemper: No, I think that they did know that, and I feel for some reason, during an earlier conversation, before maybe even started filming, I think that they were aware of that relationship. But I think it”s because he”s so funny in the show.

This is such a goofy, and sweet, and warm-hearted comedy, but the backstory is sodark.

Ellie Kemper: It”s so dark. When Robert and Tina told me the idea at dinner months before shooting, I did think they were testing me to determine whether I was smart enough to work with them. Because I thought, “This is for NBC about a woman who was in a cult… How could this be funny?” But they”re geniuses, so they managed to make it not only palatable for people to watch, but also very funny. It doesn”t dance around what happened, like there are flashbacks to the bunker all the time, but it just accepts that it happened and doesn”t necessarily dwell on it. But I think knowing that Kimmy has had such a traumatic and horrific ordeal, it makes it that much more inspiring to watch her, because she does get through it.

When someone like Krysten Ritter”s doing it on Jessica Jones, that always has to be at the forefront of her performance. With this show, how much, if at all, can you or do you think about that?

Ellie Kemper: I hope that doesn”t make me a bad actor (but) I don”t always think about that. I mean, I think when Kimmy lashes out or has, I don”t know if you’ve seen…

I”ve seen the first three of the new season.

Ellie Kemper: Does she burp in one of those?

I don”t think she”s burped. I think I would remember the burp.

Ellie Kemper: I think you might remember the burp, because there”s a lot of burping and it”s something trying to get out, you know? And I think that in those moments, it”s like, “Okay, yes. This has had a powerful impact on her psyche.” But day-to-day, like when she”s asking Tituss about the Kardashians, I think that it”s like, “No, I don”t always think about that.” But just like any person, I think, who”s been through something horrible, it”s not like you”re always thinking about that the whole time.

When you have interactions with people who have seen this show and they liked it, does that aspect of it come up at all?

Ellie Kemper: I have been surprised by how little it comes up because I thought for sure people would talk about that more. Mostly, just person-to-person, if someone I don”t know comes up on the street and mentions they like the show, if the conversation goes anywhere, it”s often about how they watched it during a difficult time, like a break-up or an illness, or whatever it was, and how it helped, and that”s so wonderful to hear, because you would hope that you”re making something that helps other people. So that”s as close as it gets to talking about challenges and ordeals.

Kimmy and Erin are very different characters, but Erin has a very dark backstory and has come out of it being Erin, and Kimmy has done the same.

Ellie Kemper: Yeah, exactly. They are different, but they”re definitely similar. Erin bounced around from foster home to foster home. I don”t know whether their cheeriness is in spite of what they”ve been through or how they managed to get through those horrible moments. But I think that something like that has to be innate, because I think both characters are strong, but for that optimism not to be shaken is pretty impressive.

My understanding is that Erin was originally written differently from that, and a bit more dry, and then they saw you and were like, “No.”

Ellie Kemper: I think so. In the audition, she was more sarcastic and a little cooler and I think they met me and were like, “Well, she”s not cool.”

What were you doing in the audition that would make them think that?

Ellie Kemper: I was reading with Ed Helms and I don”t really know what it was. If you go back and watch the first appearances of Erin, she is a little cooler. Like, I think Dwight is flirting with her at the front desk, and she has dark brown hair and she”s a little cooler. But then very quickly, I think, she gets a little weirder. That must have been from talking with Greg Daniels or something, which I don”t know whether to take as a compliment or an insult.

(Kemper smiles very widely.)

I was going to ask if the Kimmy smile is your smile, and I”m just watching you do it, and it is.

Ellie Kemper: I think it is. Some people ask, “Does your face hurt by the end of the day?” I”m like, “Well, I”m not smiling all day. I”m only smiling in the scenes. There”s time between the scenes.” But I will say, I always feel when we are between lighting setups, and I”m just standing like this, people will be like, “is everything okay?” And I”m like, “Wait, yeah, I”m not smiling that big all of the time. I”m a person. Yeah.”

Before you wound up on The Office, when you were going in to read for parts, what was the sense you were getting from both casting directors, your agent, etc., about what it was people were seeing in you that was leading or not leading you to get jobs?

Ellie Kemper: I think it was like Erin: just a sunny person. I think that was close to Becca in Bridesmaids and as close to Kimmy in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Some people say, “Oh, does that bother you?” But I have no problems with that. I think if you”re known a certain way, that”s fine with me, at least for the time being. Maybe in a few years” time, I will want to play darker characters, murder…I guess you can”t play a murder victim, can you? But before…you could just…

You can, you”re just not having a lot of dialogue.

Ellie Kemper: Which is just all so fine with me, because my brain is fried from trying to memorize lines, but for the time being, I”m fine with that. Like, I think I sort of, I don”t know, I kind of…I don”t want to say…I feel grateful for that fine sort of prototype for me. So. Was that even the question?

It”s my last day of press tour. I don”t even know anything anymore.

Ellie Kemper: I know! You guys must be exhausted. What is it…17 days?

Something like that. Your name is?

Ellie Kemper: It”s Ellie. Ellie Hamm.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com