Ellie Kemper has filled many roles over the years: redhead, daughter, improviser, bride, mom, receptionist, Kimmy.
But sitting down to read through My Squirrel Days, Kemper’s collection of personal essays, readers get a much warmer sense of the actress: an insanely talented and hilarious writer who you will immediately want to call your best friend.
Known for her break-out role as Erin Hannon on The Office and leading role on the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kemper has found a niche playing characters that are exaggerated versions of herself: cheerful, wholesome optimists who are quick with a smile. It’s a label Kemper doesn’t seem to mind.
“It comes naturally, so in that regard, I know what my strengths are and how to play to them,” she said. “I think Becca [from Bridesmaids], Erin and Kimmy Schmidt, they’re very different but share an optimistic view of the world which I hope I have.”
Kemper plays the titular character on Kimmy Schmidt, a woman making a life for herself in New York City after being kidnapped and held in an underground bunker by a cult leader for 15 years. It’s a dark premise, but one that creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock have been able to infuse with comedy and hope.
“They did such a brilliant job of creating this character. It’s such a bright show and it’s beyond admirable how [Kimmy] has remained cheerful and optimistic, even having undergone such an ordeal like that,” Kemper said. “She went through one of the most horrific things and still chooses to think the best in people.”
More than just assuming the role, Kemper notes that she draws from Kimmy’s strengths. She adds that the world seems completely different than it was when they filmed the pilot four years ago and that playing Kimmy has helped her find her footing.
“The show has taught me about remaining tough and tenacious and relentless, because that’s who Kimmy Schmidt is. There’s been a lot of upheavals and changes in the world and it’s been nice for me to have this character to turn to,” Kemper said. “I think she’s such an emblem of strength and she’s taught me to be tough in circumstances that are really difficult. Playing her has been such a help.”
The second half of the fourth and final season of Kimmy Schmidt premieres in January, with rumors of a movie already circulating. Fans can expect the show to end with happy endings for all the characters, Kemper said.
“Everyone’s story wraps up so beautifully,” she said. “And Kimmy does something very concrete that improves the world. It made me so happy that we could send her off in that way.”
Kimmy Schmidt has allowed Kemper to work with some of the most famous names in comedy; in addition to creators Fey and Carlock, Kemper spent her days shooting with series regulars Carol Kane and Jane Krakowski, as well as guests like Jon Hamm (who was Kemper’s high school drama teacher), Andrea Martin, Amy Sedaris, Fred Armisen and Lisa Kudrow. In fact, Kemper’s career has been marked by working with comedy royalty; she’s done improv with Aubrey Plaza, Kate McKinnon and Kristen Schaal, starred alongside Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids and spent years working with Steve Carell, Mindy Kaling, Ed Helms and so many others on The Office.
Not only did Kemper get to work alongside these comedy icons, but she got to learn from them as well, noting that Wiig, Carell and Fey have been some of her biggest influences.
“Those three are all models of how a person should behave. Not specifically related to comedy, but more on how to be a good person,” she said. “They are all exemplary people and led by example and I thought they were all kind and selfless and worked very hard.”
Kemper is currently busy promoting My Squirrel Days, a personal look at everything from her childhood staging Christmas plays in St. Louis to her early days in improv. The book contains other gems as well: her failed attempts at communing with nature, the horrors of communal showers and the love she has for SoulCycle.
Kemper is no stranger to writing; she’s previously penned pieces for satirical sites The Onion and McSweeney’s, as well for GQ and The New York Times. But My Squirrel Days provides a collection of smart, hilarious and endearing essays that gives readers insight into a woman who wears many roles and wears them all well.
“I hope the book is entertaining, a funny book for people that takes their mind off of things,” she said. “I want it to be a nice break. I think the world is very tough right now, so I hope it serves as a respite.”