Interview: Ellie Kemper, Actress In 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' The new Netflix comedy series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, co-created by Tina Fey and starring Ellie Kemper, offers a harrowing twist on the "small-town woman moves to the big city" story.
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'Kimmy Schmidt' Finds Optimism (And Jokes) In Dark Premise

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'Kimmy Schmidt' Finds Optimism (And Jokes) In Dark Premise

'Kimmy Schmidt' Finds Optimism (And Jokes) In Dark Premise

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

One of Netflix's latest acquisitions debuted yesterday - the new comedy series "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who gave us "30 Rock," teamed up again to create the show, originally for NBC before Netflix picked it up. The lead character Kimmy is played by Ellie Kemper. You might've seen her in "The Office" or the movie "Bridesmaids." Kemper recounts the meeting where Fey and Carlock pitched the show with an unexpectedly dark premise.

ELLIE KEMPER: We sat down to dinner and they said OK, well, we did come up with an idea for this comedy. You are a young lady who has been trapped in a bunker for 15 years and you've just escaped. And so I thought, I don't know. Are you - really?

RATH: Yep. Kimmy Schmidt is the young survivor of a doomsday cult, rescued after being abducted and imprisoned for most of her life. She moved to New York to restart her life and lands a job as a nanny to a super-rich family. Here's Ellie Kemper as Kimmy, getting instructions from the mom, played by Jane Krakowski.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT")

JANE KRAKOWSKI: (As Jacqueline Voorhees) You'll need to be here by 6 every morning to get Buckley up for school. Then get me up at 10, but don't wake me up.

KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) Can I just say how grateful I am for this opportunity?

KRAKOWSKI: (As Jacqueline Voorhees) I'm sorry, what is your name?

KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) Oh, it's Kimmy.

KRAKOWSKI: (As Jacqueline Voorhees) Kimmy. Are you are you good at braiding hair?

KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) I'm awesome at it.

KRAKOWSKI: (As Jacqueline Voorhees) Fantastic. Of course, you'll have to meet the horses first. Also, it's Buckley's birthday tomorrow, so you'll need to make a cake that's cute, but also paleo.

RATH: It's funny, but I asked Kemper if she was nervous about making comedy out of horror?

KEMPER: I think it was a risk. But I think that we all did the job correctly and I hope that people appreciate and like the finished version. Something that I've - I already knew but that was reinforced is that bad things happen in the world. And the answer is not to shy away from them, but instead to address them.

RATH: Well, I kept thinking watching pretty much every episode that in just about every detailed account of - I hate to say it - but, you know, atrocity, there are moments where people do just kind of get caught up in moments of laughter about the absurdity of the horrible situation.

KEMPER: Yeah. And I think that we have all been in situations like that where something is just so - is so terrible or seems so terrible, I mean, that you have to laugh. I'm specifically thinking about something, which is admittedly much less serious than being trapped in a bunker for 15 years, but something like a family reunion where you're like oh, this is awful. But you have to laugh because I don't know how else you can deal with it. And by the way, my family members will now no longer be talking to me. They're like I didn't know that was so difficult for you, Ellie, to be with us.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: So that's what you're laughing about.

KEMPER: I - yes, so that's why you're in a corner with your gin laughing about - no, I don't drink gin.

RATH: You know, the show - the ark of the character in the show - it's a comically extreme version of this classic story - the young naive comes to New York to reinvent herself. Does any of that resonate with your own experience moving to New York?

KEMPER: Yes. I - I grew up in St. Louis and I moved to New York after college. And I am absolutely not comparing St. Louis to an underground, post-apocalyptic bunker - I'm going on record not saying that. But no - but certainly, New York is unique and it's overwhelming and it's exciting and it's difficult and it's vibrant. And I think adjusting to that can be tough, so I certainly felt like that.

My very first - I don't know if it was my first day, but certainly my first week - being in the city, a lady on the sidewalk stopped and asked me if I would be interested in getting a free blowout. For guys, that's like when you get your hair blow-dried. So I said of course. And she said all I need is your credit card. And I whipped out my credit card and, like, gave it to her on the street. And she did one of those old-fashioned, like, Xerox copies of it. And afterwards - I don't know why she needed my credit card if it was a, you know, reportedly free blowout - but strangely, nothing happened. I did get my free blowout. I don't still know why she needed my credit card. But I learned my lesson quickly, like, you don't have to be nice to everyone who asks for your credit card on the streets of New York.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: We were talking about the unflappable optimism of this character in spite of what she's been through. And that seems to be a theme with some of the characters you played recently, you know, on "The Office" as well. How much of that is you or how much of that is the character? Is there a reason they're going to you for these characters?

KEMPER: Well, I will say, I think one reason is I do have a large face. And when I smile, it's like a big smile just because it's in proportion to the rest of my face. So there could lie a naturally sort of sunny go-to image because I have a big moonfaced smile.

But I also - I do hope that I share some of the optimism in real life of these characters because I think - I played a character Erin on "The Office" and Becca in "Bridesmaids" - and these were both very sunny, upbeat women. And with Kimmy, I think what's very cool about her is just the toughness that's inside. And I would hope that I share some of that. I don't know if I do. But just that there's a tenacity there that I think without it, a woman would not have been able to endure a situation like she has endured.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT")

SARA CHASE: (As Cyndee Pokorny) Kimmy, what are you doing?

KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) I'm not going back.

CHASE: (As Cyndee Pokorny) What?

KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) I'm staying here.

CHASE: (As Cyndee Pokorny) Kimmy, that's crazy. You have a middle school education. You won't make it here.

KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) It's like Reverend Richard always says...

CHASE: (As Cyndee Pokorny) We're just garbage, Kimmy.

KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) That's not true. We're not garbage. We're human beings. I have to get my life back. Everybody in Durnsville is always going to look at me like I'm a victim and that's not what I am.

So while Kimmy is totally unjaded and invigorated and optimistic and inspired by this new world she has before her, she also is very fierce and tough.

RATH: That's Ellie Kemper. She stars in the new Netflix original series "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." She joined us from New York. Ellie, I'm going to get back to watching. Thank you so much.

KEMPER: Oh, thank you very much for having me.

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