In the Netflix comedy series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) has decided to reclaim her life and start over in New York City, after living in a cult for 15 years. She’s wide-eyed and ready to take on the world, and with the help of her new boss (Jane Krakowski) and new roommate (Tituss Burgess), she’s making the absolute most of every day.
During this roundtable interview, actress Ellie Kemper talked about why this show is such a dream opportunity, playing such a survivor, why Kimmy Schmidt is a special character, focusing on the brighter side of her while keeping the terrible experience that informs all of it in mind, exploring her backstory through flashbacks, the the storylines and characters will intersect, who makes her crack up the most, and whether Kimmy might ever be tested to the point that she’d lose her optimism. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
ELLIE KEMPER: That’s very generous. Anything that she and Robert [Carlock] would work on is a dream opportunity. They could have described any show, and I would have been on board. It’s been really nothing short of dream-like. I’m such a huge fan of theirs, and then to have that become real was surreal.
Do you know how they first became aware of you?
KEMPER: I think they watched The Office. I came onto The Office at the end of Season 5, so they knew me a little bit from that. But they said that Bob Greenblatt had asked, “Would you want to create a show with Ellie Kemper in mind?” They were mulling that over, and this was the idea that they came up with, which is a funny, dark idea.
Did it surprise you that, when they thought of you, they thought of this character?
KEMPER: Yes, it did. I met with them about two years ago, and then the next time I met with them, they had this idea. They said, “Okay, here’s the idea for the show.” At first, I thought, “They’re joking, right?!” But, what makes the show a comedy is that it does not take what happened to Kimmy lightly. It’s a horrific thing that happened, but it is more about what happens after that and how you survive something like that, and you move forward and get back to life and rejoin the world.
When you were developing this character, how did you balance her optimism with her strength, and still find the humor?
KEMPER: That’s a good question. What makes this character very special is that, sure if you saw her at the post office, you might think, “Oh, here’s a woman in bright pink pants with red hair who’s smiling,” but you never would guess the resilience that lies inside. That union of traits is what makes her so special. She’s not hardened by it. She’s still optimistic and wanting to believe that the best can happen. She wasn’t defeated by this horrible thing.
This show is a very bubbly dark comedy. Did you try to just focus on one of those things, at a time?
KEMPER: I focused more on the brighter side of it ‘cause that’s what the show focuses on. Even the flashbacks we have, at least in the first season, aren’t to the horrible things that happened. They’re flashbacks to the lighter or weirder things that happened during their time in the bunker. So, it was more about focusing on the brighter side of her while keeping what informs all of it in mind. She had this terrible experience, so I have to make sure I keep that in mind. It wasn’t growing up, going to baseball games. It was a horrible childhood, or lack of childhood.
KEMPER: Next season, all of the drama begins!
Will there be fewer flashbacks or more flashbacks, as the series goes on?
KEMPER: I don’t know. I shouldn’t even speculate because I’m not in the writers room, but I think the flashbacks would continue. There’s a lot to explore there, and a lot of her key friendships were formed in the bunker. I would think they would continue, but who knows?
There are a lot of different storylines going on, on this show. Will they all eventually intersect?
KEMPER: As the season goes on, all of the people in Kimmy’s world do meet each other. Those characters interacting is really funny because they’re all weird, in their own ways. They’re lovely and lovable, but to see them come together is pretty joyful.
Is there anything someone has said, or the way someone has delivered a line, that made you crack up?
KEMPER: Yeah, a lot of the time. Most of the things that Tituss [Burgess] says. The things that he has to say are so ridiculous, and then his delivery and performance of it is double ridiculous. When I laugh hard, sometimes I wet my pants, but I’m always relieved because that means I’m having a good time. It was during the first week, and we were in Titus’ bedroom. We weren’t actually doing rehearsal. We were just posing for a selfie with ourselves. I forget what was happening, but it was one of those things where I was laughing so hard, I was like, “It’s happening!” But, it was relief. I knew it was going to be a good job.
Kimmy is a character who wants to focus on the positive of every situation. Will there be times that will be tried to the point that she just can’t find her smile?
KEMPER: That’s a good question. That has not happened, so far. When you think about what happened to her, for so long, and how that must inform any adverse circumstance going forward, you’d be so well-equipped with those tools of coping and survival that you just slip back into that mode. I feel like, if there was something she couldn’t conquer, than the show might end. She would be breakable.
Kimmy has some issues with PTSD. Will we see more of that, even if it doesn’t necessarily break her?
KEMPER: There are several references to her needing to talk about and process this traumatic thing that happened to her, but it’s not played out in any dramatic way, I don’t think. But, it’s there. The fact that it’s mentioned in the scripts means that we’re not glossing over it. How do you recover from something like that?
Will we see the stories of the other women explored more deeply?
KEMPER: Yeah, you will learn more. I won’t give away anything, but the ladies are definitely in the story, and you learn more about all of them. They’re continued friendships, and not just left behind. Kimmy is still in contact with them.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is available on Netflix.