The actress reveals how Kimmy gets into college and her favorite new guest-stars
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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - Ellie Kemper
Credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

Kimmy Schmidt is moving on up!

In the third season Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy’s (Ellie Kemper) delayed journey through young adulthood continues as she sets her sights on getting into college — which she does, but in the most Unbreakable-way possible (i.e. absurd). However, before devoting to her studies, she must first deal with that pesky season 2 finale cliffhanger: Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) wants a divorce because he’s getting remarried.

In April, EW sat down with Kemper at Tribeca Film Festival for a discussion about all things season 3, from the highly anticipated Beyoncé parody to Kimmy’s struggle in the season and Kemper’s favorite guest-stars. Read on below!

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Last season was about Kimmy working through her trauma, and the other characters realizing they had their own metaphorical bunkers. What is season 3 about, then, thematically?
ELLIE KEMPER: I would say it’s a continuation of that. There’s a Lemonade video, and I think that sort of encapsulates a lot of what’s going on, which is that all of these characters who had things happen in their past that they’re not happy about and that they’re trying to — sorry for this metaphor — weave into the fabric their lives going forward. And, just like any person, how do you deal with that? How do you not turn your back on what happened in the past, but instead, incorporate it into what’s happening in your current life?

I think every character is doing that. With this season, I know that Kimmy is still coming to terms with the fact that she can’t save the world, she can’t fix everything, and that there are shades of gray. There isn’t always a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do. I think that’s very hard for her because she’s a tenacious, driven, smart person who wants to promote good and make everything bright, and she can’t do that. There’s an episode I love where she’s taking a philosophy class and she’s trying to figure out what is right, what is wrong. She’s basically debating whether to share her story of the bunker with a very large audience. She finally decides that’s not something she has to do. She can help people in other ways. I love that because the solution that she finds is to protect herself in addition to helping other people so that she doesn’t have to be a martyr, give over all of herself entirely in order to help other people. I think that’s important for her because that’s important for any person to know that you do have to take care of yourself, to a degree, before you can help other people. That’s her whole journey so far in the show: Figuring out how to cope and how to self-soothe because she had certain coping mechanisms that got her through this time in the bunker, but I think a lot of that was bearing now and just sort of white-knuckling it. That approach isn’t going to help throughout.

How does that journey with Kimmy play out with the reverend coming back into her life?
That’s, of course, an un-welcomed guest who shows up in her life again. “Oh, I thought he was gone and now he’s back.” On a personal level, we were all happy because who doesn’t love Jon Hamm? But she thought that chapter was closed and then he calls at the end of season 2 and wants a divorce, which is a great cliffhanger.

At first, she basically tries to torture him — that’s a horrible, light use of the word. Obviously, he ruined her life for 15 years, but she’s trying to withhold this favor that he’s asking, which is to grant the divorce. She and Jacqueline [Jane Krakowski] have fun doing that, [seeking] revenge, and getting him angry. Then again, Kimmy realizes, through the wisdom of Robert Durst [Fred Armisen], that this is not necessarily turning the tables on him. You can play these games forever, but at a certain point, you have to move on. I think that she’s not happy to see that the reverend is back in her life, and I think that she also needs to realize that it happened in her life. Yeah, you can never completely shut the door on things. She needs to learn how to manage that in her current life. I have the feeling that he’ll keep popping up, just because that’s Jon Hamm’s contract. No, I’m kidding! I have a feeling that you never really do say goodbye to things. They continue to be with you throughout your life.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - Jon Hamm
Credit: Netflix

Kimmy also applies to college this season. Do we eventually see her get there this season?
Yes. Honestly, she’s in a college because she wins a rowing scholarship. Ivy League colleges don’t give athletic scholarships, but she somehow earns one. I love that scene! Kimmy is doing a TaskRabbit job at Columbia and she gets on the erg, which is the stationary rowing machine, and it turns out she’s like fantastic at rowing because she’s just insanely strong. That’s one of the running themes with her from her time in the bunker. So, she gets in via her athletic prowess, which is really funny to me because she has no business being on a rowing team, but that’s how she gets in.

How does she adjust to being in college?
I’m not sure that she’s acing her classes. We talked about this, because how smart is Kimmy? Because I don’t think that she’s doing well in her classes, but I also do not think that she’s a dumb person. There are different kinds of intelligence, so she might not be academically so strong. But in terms of keeping up with the rest of the class and stuff, I think she’s not fully immersed in campus life — she’s still living with Titus — and she’s apart of this team and I think she would understand the dynamics of a team. I think the whole thing is teamwork and pulling your own weight and making it better for everyone. She initially aims to go to college to study to be a crossing guard, but then she discovers a lot of new subjects that aren’t just cross guarding.

How does she end up in a philosophy class?
She meets someone who is giving a campus tour and he’s played by Daveed Diggs and he studies philosophy. So, I think that he inspires her to dip her toe into that world, which is great because she should be learning about all sorts of stuff.

A few of this season’s guest-stars have been announced: Daveed Diggs, Laura Dern, Maya Rudolph, and Rachel Dratch. Which guest-star did you have most fun playing off of this season?
I loved meeting and acting with Ray Liotta. He was so wonderful. He was there three days. First day, I was like, “Do not talk to him. Don’t go up to him. Let him come to you, because he’s a tough guy”like those are the tough guy characters he plays. So, I didn’t say anything the first day and was very polite. Second day, it was like, “Okay, small talk, chit-chat.” By the third day, he’s like a little kitten. He’s a very kind person. It was so much fun to be in a scene with him. He’s playing like a tough guy and he’s interrogating Kimmy in one scene. It was just so much fun because he’d be like — it’s a spoof of an interrogation — so tough in the scene and then afterwards, he’s really like one of the nicest people I’d ever met. So, that was really fun for me. Also being in a scene with Laura Dern was insane, cause she’s Laura Dern.

Who is Laura Dern playing?
She plays a character named Wendy who is trying to convince me to divorce the reverend so that she can marry him. So, Kimmy is dealing with what is the right thing to do in that situation, as she often is.

How does Kimmy react to meeting the woman who wants to marry the reverend?
Not well, because Kimmy wants to keep another woman from getting hurt. So, she really isn’t sure exactly what to do in this situation. Basically, she wants to help this lady. So, what’s the best way to help her? Can she protect her from this evil man, or does this woman need to make her own choice? That’s sort of what the episode is about: What is Kimmy’s role in that? That’s tough, and not from a jealous point of view but from, “I can’t let this monster hurt another person.”

That setup reminds of last season’s “Kimmy Meets a Celebrity,” where she finds herself in a similar situation with Cyndee — figuring out what’s the right thing to do.
That’s what it is. I think that is her life. She has this second chance. She should’ve always had it, but she basically gets a new life and her mission, I think, whether she knows it or not, is to try and help people, and she can’t help everyone. I think that’s going to be a recurring frustration for her.

I know Tina Fey is returning to guest-star this season, too. Is she playing a new character or is she returning as Andrea?
She plays two characters, but one of them is Andrea.

So Kimmy is still in therapy?
She has sort of paused her sessions, but we do see Andrea again. She goes to Andrea for some advice.

The entire third season hits Netflix Friday, May 19.