Ellie Kemper reprised her role as Kimmy Schmidt on the new interactive Netflix special “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend.” The actress earned two consecutive Emmy nominations for her performance.
Kemper recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Joyce Eng about finding out they would be doing an interactive special, the challenges of filming for different outcomes and her plans for an “Office” revival. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Ellie Kemper, thank you for joining us. I always tell people that I have seen most of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend” but I don’t think I’m seeing all of it. So have you seen all of it?
Ellie Kemper: Actually, I know that I have not seen all of it because I remember reading things in the script that I haven’t watched yet. So it takes time to go through every iteration. So no, I actually have not seen all of it yet. It’s so lovely because there’s all these little Easter eggs. If you really work hard, you can watch every piece of it. But yeah, there’s a lot.
GD: Is there a particular outcome since you know all the outcomes — you were in it — is there one you’re dying to see or do you have a favorite one?
EK: So, of course, nobody likes to watch themselves onscreen so any outcome not involving me, maybe I would like to watch. But you know what I really enjoyed were the Jane Krakowski scenes. I just love that whole storyline and she’s so brilliant. And probably I’ve said this before that one of my favorite moments in the whole show is seeing her deliberate between the choices, like when you’re looking down at the screen. Her expressions are so priceless. I thought that was a really fun part of it. I know it might sound inconsequential, but those moments when the viewer is given the choices are so entertaining to watch.
GD: The stall time when we have the countdown.
EK: Yeah. Daniel’s scenes, Carol Kane and Daniel Radcliffe, I hadn’t seen those. I mean, I wasn’t involved with them, obviously, oh my gosh. The writers made that. I adore both of them.
GD: When you guys found out, I think it was during the final season, Season 4, that you were really ending with the series finale, you’d have this interactive special, coming up, what was your reaction when you found out that it wasn’t just a movie, but it’s going to be interactive and you could use this newfangled technology that Netflix has?
EK: First of all, I was not surprised at all because Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock] are the most brilliant writers, and innovative too, out there. So I was not surprised at all to see, “Oh, of course, this is what they want to tackle next.” I believe only dramas have used this interactive technology before. So I think we’re the first comedy to use it, which is why I’m not surprised that Tina and Robert are the ones who pioneered it because they’re so smart. But I was, first of all, so excited that it was not the end of the series, that we were going to get to come back and do this special. And then once I was emailed the script and told to download Branch Manager, my brain started doing spirals because there are so many different iterations. And I finally asked for just a hard copy that I could turn with my hands because each choice point was making my brain into a pretzel and trying to keep track of everything was very difficult. So when I actually got the script, I thought, “Oh my gosh, we have our work cut out for us.” But we had an amazing script supervisor who kept everyone on point and brought all the scenes into context, like where we were in the world of the show. So that was very helpful. But it’s confusing. It’s not a linear story.
GD: So how did you prepare for the scenes knowing you would have to switch to something different? Especially if you were able to shoot it back to back, the different options. How do you prepare as an actor to just switch on cue like that?
EK: Right. It was unlike anything I had ever worked on before because of that, because of those pivots and because of those different branches, I guess, of the story. But preparation-wise, it was pretty similar to what I would normally do, which is that I think you have to sort of see it as different episodes, essentially. And so, just keeping track of the arc of that particular branch was the job. So luckily, we would work on a scene for at least a day. So if we were going one certain choice point, luckily, we weren’t switching back and forth within the same day. We have a block of time devoted to this story and now to this story. So it wasn’t as confusing in that way. There were a couple moments where it was like, “OK, now we need to reshoot this as though the viewer has chosen…” And then I would get a little tripped up but that was usually because I was tired anyway, not so much the format of the show.
GD: And you were pregnant, too, right?
EK: I was, yes. And it’s so funny because I filmed a little bit of “Kimmy Schmidt” when I was pregnant with my older son but this, I was six months, maybe seven months pregnant. So it was farther along and I thought, “Oh my gosh, how do people do this? I’m gonna be so tired.” And now the current state of the world, I’m like, “Oh, filming a TV show while pregnant wasn’t hard. Being in a pandemic is hard.” Anyway, everything has been thrown into perspective.
GD: If we could only go back to being on the “Kimmy Schmidt” set now.
EK: I just want to go back to Congers, New York and film in the heat. That was nothing. That was nothing.
GD: Well, what I love so much about this special is that unlike the books or “Bandersnatch,” we’re told when we make the wrong choice. We get a dead end. There’s so many hilarious wrong answers and then we have Robert Durst come out and scold us and everything. But I also felt like that was a great microcosm of Kimmy herself, because she’s this positive person who always wants to do the right thing, and she does. So did you look at it that way too? All these funny dead ends that would force the viewer to do a do-over?
EK: Yes, I do like that, and I’m glad that you pointed that out, because I do think that Kimmy sees the world as, I shouldn’t say black and white. There’s a whole story about that. But she does believe that there’s a right and a wrong way to do things. Having to go back and do the right thing is in her core. So having to make a viewer go back and do the right thing I think is so emblematic of what she stands for. I have not thought about it in that way before. Thank you for pointing that out to me! But I think that’s what the special, this interactive feature, forces the viewer to do, is do the right thing.
GD: This can be your talking point now whenever you tell people to watch your show.
EK: Too bad the earlier press is over!
GD: Just call them back, “Sorry, I have one more thing to add.”
EK: (Laughs.) “TV Guide, um.”
GD: It culminates when you have your showdown with the reverend and we have four options and three of them is to kill him, or you could spare him. And I mean, I knew the right answer was to spare him. But I, of course, had to kill him all three times. So what was it like for you shooting those three different death scenes? Because some of them got pretty heavy and I think one of the great aspects about the show itself is it’s so absurd and wacky by nature but there’s always this dark undercurrent because of the premise and what Kimmy’s been through. It’s able to so easily pivot to those heavier tones so easily. And this was a really extreme example of that, because you get to kill him three times.
EK: I know. When I read that in the script, in the enormous document that was handed to all of us, I was taken aback because it is so extremely dark. And then when we were talking about the choices to kill him, Tina and Robert, they said, “There’s nothing funny about it. You go there. This is a very dark, intense moment.” And so, “Kimmy” as a show, has had those throughout the course of the series because of the dark premise, which is that she was kidnaped and held captive for 15 years. So I think that actually playing it is something that I haven’t gotten to do so much in the series because I think that the darker moments are so few. But I thought it was hard and cathartic at the same time, in a way that felt like Kimmy is getting her revenge, even though, again, like you said, that’s the wrong choice to make. But it felt like justice. Ultimately not the correct justice, as we see. It was unusual to take on such a dark hue, I think. That’s what I’ve always thought is so mysterious about the show, is that the premise is so bleak, so completely dire and awful, but it’s a comedy, absolutely 100 percent a comedy. It’s just a magic trick how the writers are able to pull that off. But yeah, it was actually more challenging for me because I don’t get to play that as much as obviously the comedy.
GD: For the viewer, we get to see Kimmy rage out for a little bit and then we kick her back and see her do the right thing.
EK: No, it is as much fun for me because doing that, hello, I was pregnant, so quite hormonal. So that was great to scream and kill. That was like, “Thank you. I’m so glad that that was written.” And also, we shot it last year. MeToo is very much all around us and feeling this anger against this man who just was a monster to this woman felt empowering. It felt good to get out.
GD: She does spare him and it’s the right choice for her. I think it’s easy to say that it gives her closure. But I don’t think she fully has closure because for survivors, I think that’s the theme of the show was it’s never over. You’re always dealing with the trauma. But this was a big inflection point in her life, confronting him and being the bigger person. So how do you look at that, her sparing him and letting him go?
EK: Coming to terms with the fact that you can’t control other people, you can just control your own actions, I thought that was explored so beautifully when Kimmy does reunite with her mom and choosing to love her anyway, warts and all, accepting that you only have so much control. Yeah, I think that Kimmy’s situation and like you said, she’s a survivor, it’s not like the book is ever closed. You’re going to revisit this pain. It’s going to live with you. The answer is not, unfortunately, because it is satisfying to kill him, but it’s not the answer because there unfortunately is no end. There’s just managing it.
GD: I have to mention Daniel Radcliffe, who I thought fit in so seamlessly into the show that for a split second I was like, “Wait, he wasn’t actually on the series?”
EK: We all thought that! We were doing a group interview the other day and someone said something afterward, “Oh, I didn’t even think of Daniel because we didn’t think of you as a guest star.”
GD: Yeah. He was perfect.
EK: It was great.
GD: So what was it like working with him? Because Prince Frederick is sort of like the male version of Kimmy, almost. They’re both weird and the same way they have their corny jokes, maybe they’re somewhat dated. For her definitely it’s dated but for him, I don’t know what’s going on. He’s a sheltered person.
EK: These two, they were in love and they were so well-suited for each other, because I think that’s absolutely right. He is kind of the prince version of Kimmy Schmidt. And Daniel as a person, I, of course, was an enormous fan of his. And then the moment you met him, you’re like, “Oh, not only are you a brilliant actor,” and I love all the comedy that he’s done as well, but he’s so nice. He is just so normal and nice. And it was like, “Oh, what a relief,” because it was just a pleasure to work with him. So I thought that what he did with Prince Frederick was genius. I was so nervous because the writing on that show is so precise and sometimes my brain has trouble keeping all of the jokes in my head correctly. And he just obliterated the scene and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I can keep up with him.” So he just arrived firing on all cylinders and he just got it from day one.
GD: He’s been doing this longer than you.
EK: He has my approval. He was a delight. I loved him.
GD: I’m sad that we didn’t get to see them dating because we just come up with them being engaged. So what do you think their courtship looks like?
EK: I know. And I was hoping, “Oh, maybe we’ll get that, like a…” What is it? Special feature?
GD: Post-credit scene or something?
EK: Post-credit, yes, thank you. Words are escaping me. That’s why I secretly am hoping maybe they’ll write more. I hope that there can be more specials like this where we can explore because I absolutely thought the same thing, which is, “Oh, I’m sad we missed that period of their lives together.”
GD: I haven’t gotten this outcome, but I’m told that one of them is that she tells him after the wedding that she’s pregnant. I don’t know what permutation I need to get that.
EK: One of my friends was watching and was like, “I keep reading about these outcomes that I can’t access.” And that’s why it’s, I think, so much fun, especially during lockdown, because we all have a lot of time right now. But I don’t know what choice you have to take to get there. But yes. I haven’t seen it, but I believe because I am pregnant that we just showed my belly. This is all a blur. It was hot. It was the middle of the summer. It was a year ago (laughs).
GD: So in other words, you would be willing to do another one of these, Kimmy as a mom. What would she be like as a mom?
EK: I would love that. I would treasure that. Kimmy as a mom, let’s keep it going. Kimmy as a grandma. Like, let’s just see. I love these people. I love these characters. I would love to continue working with them in any capacity. There’s so much more to explore with them. What I love about this special also is that it is kind of standalone. You don’t necessarily have to have been watching the whole series to know exactly what’s going on. I hope that we can do more of these.
GD: Well, we can’t do them right now.
EK: We can’t do anything right now!
GD: Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “The Office.” You guys did that had virtual reunion a couple weeks ago, which was a lot of fun. There’s been talk about “The Office” revival. Is that something you would be up for, too?
EK: For anything, yes. Please. That is the takeaway. I am on board for anything. I don’t know if everyone else is, sadly. But what I actually think would be the perfect solution is if “The Office” did like a holiday reunion where you just had a complete one-off, just one episode where it’s like they all get back together for Christmas or something, some special occasion. That way, schedules don’t have to permit. Like, you just have to be free for one week so we can all shoot it. That’s my wish. I’m putting it out there.
GD: They should do an interactive special.
EK: That would be awesome. Yeah. And it would be so easy too because it would all take place in essentially the bullpen of the office. The locations would not be a problem. Either the office or the parking lot. Done. Done! I’m trying to ease the logistics so that we can get it going.