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The Sweet Life of Ellie Kemper

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Jon Hamm We’re both from a small high school in St. Louis and we’re both on really famous television shows and we were even in the same movie together and isn’t that strange? Why don’t you talk a bit about how we met?

Ellie Kemper You went to John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Missouri, and after you went to college you came back and taught theater at our high school, which was a coup for everyone involved…. [Kemper graduated in 1998.] I took a class that you taught, and it was improv.

Jon You were in ninth grade and this is a class that had everyone from ninth grade to seniors in it — so you were on the young end of the spectrum, and yet I remember you being very good. Do you remember being very good or do you remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is something that I’m going to do”?

Ellie That’s very generous of you — I don’t remember being very good, but I remember enjoying it a lot, and I’m not trying to kiss up to you. I think that’s a credit to you and [John Burroughs School theater chair] Mr. Wayne Salomon, because you might like something, but then when you have a teacher who’s fantastic, you like it even more.

Jon You have a pretty impressive academic record as well. Did you go to Princeton? Is that where you went?

Ellie I did! I went to Princeton, and I feel like you’re pointing out everything nice that I’ve done, which is great, but…

Jon Well, I’m not gonna sit here and tell all the s—ty things you’ve done — it wouldn’t be a very good article. I mean, we can certainly talk about that time you got busted and —

Ellie Jon!

Jon Okay. Never mind…. You were on one of the seminal comedies of the decade — The Office — and seamlessly, I might add, assimilated yourself into that cast. I remember when you first came out here, you cold-called me and said, “Come see my one-woman show at the UCB,” and I went, and it was very good. When I went backstage afterward, you said, “Oh my God, I just had an audition for The Office,” and — I may be misremembering, but if I am it’s a better story this way — I said, “You’re gonna get it, you’re perfect for that show,” and lo and behold, you did. Now you have Tina Fey and Robert Carlock writing you an NBC series that’s been picked up for the fall season — how exciting is that?

Ellie Well, it’s incredibly exciting — and I mean that word literally, incredible! Because I’m having trouble believing it because I am such a fan of those two, and the whole thing just seems crazy to me.

Jon Talk to me about your new project. How did this fall your way? Having spoken to Robert and Tina, I know that they had you in mind from a very early point in the development process. The script is very funny, and it’s clearly written for you — what was that like? Did you find yourself just going, like, “Whoa! What’s the what?”

Ellie Yes, what is the what? The genesis of it was that I did a pilot last year that didn’t get picked up — but God closes a door and then he opens a window.

Jon Well, the quote from our show is whenever God closes a door he opens a dress, but you have to be John Slattery to be able to say that and get a laugh. I could never pull that off.

Ellie I did open a dress, and in this case, it was Tina Fey’s! No, I didn’t.

Jon You opened Tina Fey’s dress, and then you made out, and then Carlock filmed it, and that’s what the pilot is, basically. It’s 22 minutes of America’s sweetheart Tina Fey and America’s newest sweetheart Ellie Kemper full-on tongue-macking, and then Robert Carlock comes in and makes a joke, and then there’s a fart sound and credits roll.

Ellie It’s brilliant, it’s really edgy. [Editor’s note: Kemper actually stars as a woman who escapes a ”doomsday cult” and moves to New York City to rebuild her life.]

Jon Have you shot it?

Ellie No, we have not shot the pilot…. It shoots in New York — we love New York.

Jon You must have met with Tina and Robert. Was that intimidating? Was it exciting? Was it awkward?

Ellie I am very high-strung and I get very nervous about things, so for example this call — as I told you, I was very nervous about this call! Now, there’s no real reason because you’re a very kind person, but still, you get nervous for things.

Jon Full disclosure: Tina Fey is not hovering over your shoulder right now, so you can say mean things about her.

Ellie I would never! There’s nothing mean to say!

Jon Oh, there’s mean things to say, trust me.

Ellie I believe you.

Jon No, of course not!… I’m assuming that our guest editors for this issue of EW, Miss Fey and Miss Poehler, are probably two people who you look up to — did you ever run into Amy when you were performing at the UCB Theatre?

Ellie First of all, you are correct. I absolutely admire their careers and I am a huge fan of their work. I never ran into Tina in New York — [my meeting about the sitcom] was the first time I really met her. Well, I saw her once at Zabar’s, but she didn’t see me, so I crept away.

Jon What did you buy?

Ellie It was just a tuna salad sandwich on a bagel.

Jon What was she getting?

Ellie She was just sipping from a cup, like a hot beverage…. Technically, that was the first time we met.

Jon I don’t even think that’s technically — you just saw her. You might as well have seen a poster of her.

Ellie Exactly! And Amy Poehler, yeah, she’s always around UCB, so I saw her a bunch. She remembers every single person’s name at that theater.

Jon Amy and Tina both have this quality, which is that they’re incredibly good leaders because they lead by example. They’re almost always the hardest-working person on their particular job. It’s an inspiring lesson to learn.

Ellie I have not worked with them yet, but from afar you can see that.

Jon We’re coming to the end here, and thank you so much for your time — I know it’s very late where you are.

Ellie You’re welcome, Jon Hamm. Yeah, I just squeezed this in, you’re welcome.

Jon You are in St. Louis, and I know the nightlife is happening in St. Louis. Your fans are probably waiting outside your house and you have to go sign autographs.

Ellie It’s fine — they can wait a little longer.

Jon You are in fact in St. Louis, which is adorable, because it’s just after Thanksgiving, and that’s where you go; you go home. It wasn’t that long ago when I came and saw your one-woman show and you were nervous and freaked out. What would you tell your 17-year-old self if that person wanted to come out here and do this for a living? What’s a good piece of advice? Because I get asked this question a lot, and I often don’t have a good answer for it. But you’re much more intelligent than I am, and I want you to solve my problem for me.

Ellie First of all, I’m not kissing up to you, but have a great teacher like you, because that’s what plants the seed. To get more concrete, really zero in on what you want to be doing as soon as you can because then you can start working toward achieving it. I didn’t start doing improv [right away] — I did nothing for a year and then went to New York and went, “Oh, I wish I had taken that year to get right into it.”

Jon You hit on the most important part of it, which is just do it — work. That’s what you have done so remarkably. It’s been a pleasure to not only watch but to be a part of. We were in Bridesmaids together, which was so cool, because we got to walk the red carpet and your mom was there.

Ellie Now my mom is officially going to be over the moon.

Jon Well, you have a great mom, you have great parents, and that’s the other part of it, too. Surround yourself with great people — only work with people that you find inspiring. I think with Robert and Tina you’ve put yourself in very good hands.

Ellie Oh, I can only mess this up, so I will just try not to mess it up!

Jon Miss Kemper…

Ellie Mr. Hamm…

Jon It has been 30 minutes that we’ve been talking, and it’s been an absolute delight.

Ellie Well, it has been a pleasure for me! Thank you!

Jon I wish you the happiest of holidays. Please tell your mom and sister and family that I said hello. We are also neighbors, actually, which is crazy. I didn’t know that until very recently — congratulations, it’s a nice neighborhood.


An Endorsement from Tina
“She’s so talented and so funny, but she also has a tremendous amount of warmth. She’s beautiful and young and so all-American and fresh-looking, but she also has this fearlessness to go for whatever kind of joke is necessary, and a lot of strength, too. There was a lot to use for us as writers, and she’s a person who you feel like you want to spend time with. You want to root for her when she’s a character in something.”

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