Ellie Kemper is surprisingly small and compact, and surprisingly red-haired. Not shockingly red; that would be too flashy for the St. Louis native. But the energy, the enthusiasm, the politeness you'd expect of the publicly sunny actress and writer, those are present in abundance. She is every inch the high school crush who seems just the same at the reunion and is doing extremely well, thanks so much for asking.
But there's another layer — she's warm and engaging but always aware she's being interviewed. Despite her self-admonishments, she's no rube. She analyzes questions and her own responses. It's the Princeton grad who writes for McSweeney's and the Onion; it's that improv-honed performance intelligence that makes her comic timing so sharp. And when her face turns serious, one could almost believe she actually is 35.
That mix of Missourian bonhomie (rudeness is her pet peeve) and stealth smarts is likely what Tina Fey and Robert Carlock picked up on when they created the titular heroine of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" for her.
"I can go largely based on what I've read in interviews with Tina and Robert," says the newly minted Webby winner. (Her mandatory five-word acceptance speech: "So excited. Live-streaming my pants.") "I know that they watched 'The Office,' and they took a lot from the character of Erin — not the character, but what I brought to it. Maybe there's a cheerfulness but a strength as well. But that sounds like I'm bragging about myself."
Kimmy Schmidt survives 15 years in captivity in an underground bunker under the "protection" of a self-styled guru/DJ (Kemper's real-life former drama teacher, Jon Hamm, as an actual madman). Once freed, Kimmy decides to start a new life in New York City, where her post-traumatic stress disorder should fit right in. It's comedy gold!
"When I read the pilot script, I thought that Tina and Robert were testing me, that I was smart enough to know this was not the actual premise of the show. I came home and I took a bath and I was like, 'I wonder if there were video cameras in there,'" says Kemper.
"Then when I realized this was not a test or a prank, I thought, 'How are people going to respond to this?' But the focus has not been on 'How do you make comedy out of a subject like that?' Because it does it so seamlessly, I think."
Seen largely through Kimmy's eyes, Manhattan is a candy-colored bundle of wonder where her initially conniving roommate (Tituss Burgess) becomes her best friend, and her borderline-dangerous landlady (Carol Kane) is really just a more-or-less harmless kook.
"Honestly, I think it's a bit of a weird show, and that's one of its strengths," says Kemper. "Tituss is singing about … ," she hesitates, then: "black penis, and Carol Kane is cracking car windows because yuppies are moving in."
"I'm just delighted people are responding to it.... She's come out of this bunker and she's essentially the same age as when she went in, which is 14. So she's having these experiences with love that people usually have when they're 16 or 17. So I think maturity in that department will be very interesting to play and see."
Kemper's crack timing fuels episodes such as "Kimmy Goes to a Party!": She poses as what she thinks a very rich person is like during a dinner gathering, shifting gears at Looney Toons speeds.
Throughout the season, hints of Kimmy's battle-honed edges poke through, as when she and her employer take a Spin class run by a trainer/guru. Kimmy realizes, "'This is just another example of a man telling me how to run my life and not allowing me room for thought.' When she shatters the glass of that class, even though it's silly on one hand — again, this is artsy — but it's so defining, I think," Kemper says with an embarrassed titter.
When told there's no need to apologize for "artsy" answers, she says, quickly, "Well, I'm from the Midwest."