If you don’t yet know this actress by name, get ready to keep that moniker in your memory banks. Ellie Kemper is enjoying a bout of fame thanks to her role in the summer hit, Bridesmaids and her loveable character, Erin, on The Office. I had the pleasure of speaking with Kemper about the hit comedy, her comedic philosophy, learning about acting from a Mad Men actor, and the her character’s future on the hit NBC show.
Let’s start off with Bridesmaids. It’s such a huge, huge hit. You’re now kind of billed as Ellie Kemper from Bridesmaids and The Office, which are two big things. Did you think that the film was going to be such a vehicle for that kind of success when you started?
I am so—I know everyone says this—but I am so lucky to have been a part of that movie. I think, when we were making it, I wasn’t in charge of anything. I didn’t write it, I wasn’t producing it, I wasn’t directing it, so I sort of just got to have fun. I had fun during the whole process of it. The ladies on that movie are so generous, and so without any kind of ego or agenda. It really was just a pleasure to make that movie. So when making it, I personally wasn’t thinking, “Is this going to be a breakout? Is this going to be a blockbuster?” or whatever. Of course, we all hoped it did well. But the experience of making it was a lot of fun. And it was such a treat that it did really well. I lucked out being a part of that. Because like I said, I just—I’m not trying to sound guilty—I just got to have fun on that movie. It was really cool.
Well, that’s good. You want to have fun when you’re making a comedy.
Right? Always a good sign! Exactly!
So how did you initially get involved? I know Paul Feig has worked on The Office as a producer. Is that the avenue that got you in?
Yeah, I think that it was Paul—who had directed and produced on The Office for many years. And then Allison Jones, who does the casting for The Office, she had also called me, and she did the casting on Bridesmaids. So those two were people I actually knew. As far as the other actresses in it, I hadn’t met anyone before. I hadn’t met the writers either. So obviously I got to know them from being [in the movie]. So I think that was how I got into the audition room.
What do you think is the most appealing thing about working with Paul as a director?
First of all—I don’t know if you’ve talked to other people—he always wears a suit. So, that is one hugely appealing thing. He is a gentleman. He’s at the top of his game. And he keeps it really classy. And the other thing is, I don’t know if he has—I don’t want to make him sound too gentle, or something—he has a really nice touch with women. I feel like he communicates in a way that women respond to. I don’t mean that he’s, you know, luring everybody in by candlelight. He communicates his ideas very effectively, and he’s so patient, and I’ve never seen him in any way lose his temper or lose patience. He is a real gentleman. And I think, if ever I had a concern or something, he’s so approachable and so easy to talk to. Then on top of that, he’s actually a comedic genius. I loved Freaks and Geeks. I don’t know a better show. Except maybe The Office—no, it’s a really good show. And being able to work with the man who made that happen is really cool.
If you compare Bridesmaids with a lot of female-centric comedies, and it tends to get the idea of how women actually act down pat, whereas many tend to fail on that level. Do you think Paul’s knack for communicating on a womanly level might be what lends the sense of reality to the movie?
I absolutely think that. I think, a lot of times, as you just said, when you watch movies, you see men’s ideas of what women talk about and how they act when no one’s looking—which is actually a man’s idea, or maybe what a man thinks will play well in a movie. And this was not that case. Two women wrote it and then communicated their ideas to a man who is receptive to that sort of thing. I realize now that I’m distinguishing everyone between men and women. I don’t think it’s necessarily a gender thing, but I do think, a lot of the times, you see a more plastic, not genuine portrayal of how women act. That is I think what resonated a lot in this movie. Like you said, it was sort of more realistic, I think, in terms of how ladies talk to their friends. Certainly not all ladies. But in this example. It didn’t seem contrived.
On that same note, a lot of people are talking about how it’s diminishing that sort of barrier between what is funny for a female audience and what is funny for a male audience. Do you think the film accomplishes that? Do you think there is a barrier to be broken?
I think I do. And I think that because a lot of guys have said that they went to the movie because of their girlfriends or their wives or sisters were going. And then—oh, surprise: they liked it. I think the fact that even that was an issue suggests that, unfortunately, there is a little bit of a barrier. Guys aren’t going to go out and see quote-unquote “chick flicks.” I always thought having that Judd Apatow name behind the movie would make guys think, “Oh, Judd Apatow! I like him!” So maybe they would go see that. But I think then, when they actually sat and watched it, there’s nothing gushy…it’s just a funny movie.
I’ve never had prejudice against me because of being a woman in comedy, I’ve never felt any sort of unfairness because of that—but I do think it is naïve to think that it doesn’t exist. And based on the fact that people were surprised that Bridesmaids did as well as it did, that shows that, unfortunately, there is a little distinction between guy movies and girl movies. So hopefully, that’s going away.
Yeah, it would seem so.
Yeah! Good, good!
And we should get down to your character, Becca. She’s similar to what we’ve come to know you as with Erin on The Office. But she’s a little different. She’s a little obsessed with Disney entertainment offerings. On the DVD, in the Line-o-rama, you kind of go off on all these different Disney things. Are you a Disney kid yourself?
I am not, unfortunately. Or fortunately, maybe. I think a lot of those lines are stuff the writers had come up with that were pitched to me as we were going along. But in fact, I’ve never even been to Disneyland here in LA. I went to Disneyworld a few times in Orlando. I love the idea that—ugh! Poor, sweet Becca. She loves all things Disney and the idea of fantasy. Very, very innocent fantasy. That’s sort of how she lives her life. Also, I like the idea that she wanted to have a bachelorette party in Bethlehem, and things like that. She’s a sweet, little lady.
Part of the great thing about Becca is her interaction with Rita. At one point in the movie, you had to throw up on Wendi [McLendon-Covey]. Did that help or hinder the chemistry between Rita and Becca?
In the world of the movie—I guess on some level—Rita found that appealing, because later on, as you know, we go on to kiss. So maybe! But in real life, Wendi was such a good sport. She had to vomit a lot more than I did that day. Or, fake vomit. So I think she spent a large part of her day in the toilet—which, incidentally, somehow smelled like an actual toilet. Which is gross, but true. I didn’t understand because we were on a set. But anyway, that’s a separate issue. She was a really good sport about that. But because of her hair and resetting purposes, I actually didn’t have to throw up on her that many times. But it certainly helped cement the bond between Wendi and me in real life.
You have to be friends after you throw up on somebody.
Right? I think we’ve found that. On crazy nights. [Laughs]
So, there’s a lot of ad-libbing going on in the film. Was there anything that you were part of, or that maybe one of your costars participated in that you wished had made it into the movie but didn’t?
There’s so many parts, I don’t know if I can name them! Whole days on set, I felt, were spent like, “Okay, now try this.” Because of the luxury of being able to do a lot of takes, and go on at length, and keep on riffing, there were so many things where everyone was just laughing and laughing and laughing. I’m painting it to be this delightful, sort of fantastical experience. But it kind of was! Because I just got to have fun. But everything with Kristen [Wiig]—when Kristen was on that plane, and she had taken the relaxers and is going crazy—what was in the movie was fantastic. I know that there were two extra hours of her. That was one of the best afternoons of my life. Just getting to sit and watch Kristen do this sort of one-woman show. That was great. And there was so much from everyone! Even at the wedding shower itself when Rose [Byrne] and Kristen are competing with toasts, I think there was there that was cut out. Even though so much was in there. They literally could make, I think, three supplemental movies of things that were left out. I’m really excited! I haven’t actually seen the deleted parts with Paul Rudd yet. I know that he was in there. So I’m excited. Also, is the little boy in that? There was a little boy. Is he in that?
He’s on the DVD.
He is crazy. Like, good.
Do you know where that was supposed to go?
Yes. Kristen’s character goes on a series of blind dates. And the date, I guess, is upstairs getting ready. And she’s talking to the date’s son. And that guy! How old was he, 8? He was improvising everything. And that was crazy.
All improvised. I mean, some of it was scripted, but like, but a lot of it…he was just sort of a genius boy. Reallycool.
I know! I know!
Maybe you should have invited him to the final wedding.
Exactly! Made a cameo!
Maybe he’ll be in the Bridesmaids sequel.
Oh, please! I hope.
Do you think the sequel could focus more on Rita and Becca?
Yeah! In thinking about it—and I hope they say yes to making one, whoever is in charge of doing that—I would love to see where Becca and Rita fit into that. I think that there’s such a story there. The glimpses we see into their lives are sort of unhappy. I think there’s just more to explore in terms of working out their stories. But I don’t know what situation that would be. Maybe it’s Rita’s divorce. Divorcées. That’s the name of it. I don’t know.
There’s a lot to go on there.
I know. A lot of stories to tell.
Turning to your personal philosophy on comedy, you come from a very well-educated background. Before we came to know you from The Office and Bridesmaids, you were well-known for a specific viral video with Derrick Comedy who all went to NYU, so they were very well-educated too. What role do you think that education background plays in producing good comedy?
I have to think about this for a second, because that’s a very good question. It’s interesting because with a lot of people who I’ve met in comedy, it seems not to matter what your background is. In terms of formal schooling—I feel like that’s a nineteenth century term—but in terms of where you went to high school or college, or wherever, all that really is irrelevant, I have found, in comedy. I think that for a lot of people who I went to college with who have pursued different fields, it does understandably make more of a difference—like what your resume says. Here, with that video, that was all well-educated people. But I think that in terms of actual comedy, it’s more just about—in the people I’ve worked with, and people I’ve met, and admired—I don’t know what you learn from going to school about that. It’s more what you’ve experienced in growing up. I’m being very long-winded. But I think what I’m thinking is that, a person is funny if they’re funny. I don’t know if education even has that much to do with it. That’s a weird answer, and I don’t even know if it makes sense. [Laughs] I’m very well-educated!
It makes sense! I read somewhere that when you were in high school, one of your teachers was a rather now-famous actor. Is that true?
Yes. It’s true. And that’s unbelievable. Am I lucky, or what? That’s insane. He, Jon Hamm, went to our high school as a student, and then he came back and he taught drama for a year. So, that was the best year for every ninth grade girl in the school at the time.
Did he have any lessons that you still remember when you’re working nowadays?
I have to say: be on time for a class with a handsome man as a teacher. I think that might be the most important lesson. But no, I do often say, “Oh, he’s so handsome,” but he’s more than that! I do remember, he actually specifically taught me in improv class. The thing that I learned in that ninth grade class—and that was the only improv class I took in high school. I don’t think that’s a thing that’s often taught anyway.
Yeah, exactly. I’m like, “That’s the only improv class I took,” as if people take improv classes all the time. But he basically [taught] the idea of listening to what the other person was saying in the scene, and then just responding. So it’s not really…it’s sort of the opposite of acting, I guess. But I have not actually—I shouldn’t say this—but I haven’t taken so many formal classes in acting itself. Improv is mostly what I’ve studied. So when that sort of lesson is imparted, that’s sort of the kernel of it: listen and respond. So he did pass that on, which is essential to improvisation.
And you learned it from Jon Hamm!
No biggie. No biggie. [Laughs]
So I have to get a couple of questions in about The Office, since it just premiered last night. First of all, just comparing the process between Bridesmaids, which obviously has ad-libbing, and The Office, which has an element of that as well, how does the freedom onset or the chemistry onset compare between them?
I think, the thing about the movie, was that we had so much more time to do everything. Two days would be devoted to one scene. I would say it’s mostly a time issue. On both sets, it’s equally welcomed and equally supported…this is what is so nice, and why I think both of those pieces (meaning The Office and Bridesmaids) are so good: people want the scene as a whole to be good. There isn’t any scene-stealing, there isn’t any trying to hog the spotlight. There is just like, “What’s the funniest thing that will make the funniest scene?” The difference, I think, is just that there was a lot more time to go off on riffs on Bridesmaids. You have an entire afternoon for one shot. So you could keep on going and going. Unfortunately, on The Office, you have to do a show a week. There’s just less time. But if someone has an idea [after] we have it the scripted way, it is totally encouraged, like [to] try it a couple of times saying whatever you want. But the same generous atmosphere. And you know what? I think that comes from smart people. I think I work with smart people, so no one is really hogging anything. You know? I think that’s true.
This season, a lot of the dynamics are really changing. Michael is gone, and we just found out last night who the new boss is. How do you think that affects Erin? She had a very special bond with Michael, and she obviously has a bond with Andy, but a very different bond.
Yeah, right, right. I’ve been thinking…I said to one of the writers, “Do you think we’ll ever revisit how Erin is feeling now that her father figure is gone?” And they said, “Um…I don’t think so.” They’re like, “There’s only so much time.” Because I feel like Erin—she loved him so much as a father! There has to be something she’s going through. But I think this new…Erin sort of confessed her feelings to Andy at the end of last season, and her overtures were rejected. So, they’re starting this season fresh, just friends, and all that. I don’t think that his new position as boss will have any effect on their relationship. Although, I remember last year, Erin has a talking head where she says that Gabe asked her out and the only reason she said yes was, she was like, “Well, I had to, because he’s the boss.” [Laughs] This understanding of, “I just have to do what I’m told.” But, yeah. I know a little bit about what happens between the two of them because we shot it, but I won’t reveal it. Keep viewers on the edge of their seat.
Obviously. Had to ask, though!
Yes. Oh, of course, of course.
You also have 21 Jump Street coming up, which you already finished working on. You play a teacher in that?
Yes. I love this character. So, both Erin and Becca are sort of nutty in their own way. But this teacher, whose name is Miss Griggs, is legitimately crazy. She’s sort of this really inspired Teach For America-esque, in terms of her passion for teaching. She’s a really passionate teacher. And then Channing Tatum lands in one of her classes. And not unlike with Jon Hamm, she develops a crush on him. It’s a small part, but it’s really funny, and it’s really fun to play. So, I was excited to play a, maybe, larger character than what I’ve done so far. That was a lot of fun to work on.
Did you get to work with both Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, or just Channing?
My scenes were just with Channing, but I saw Jonah a lot on the set. We shot it in New Orleans, and that was a lot of fun.
It’s a great setting.
Great setting! It was in July, but I was only there for a few weeks, so I didn’t have to stay for all the humidity and everything. But I love that city! That was a fun time. But yeah, I’m excited to see how it all comes out.
Yeah, definitely! What do you hope to work on next? Obviously you’re busy with The Office right now. But when that has downtime, what are you hoping to do with the rest of your time?
I hope to keep auditioning for movies in the meantime. I think with the schedule of The Office, we’re going to be done at the end of February. That’s sort of really soon. Well, a little soon. But I hope, in the meantime, I think there are a couple things that are sort of…maybe, maybe not going to happen. I guess, obviously, you never know. [Laughs] You audition and are like, “Uh, I hope!” I also would like to get busy writing something, whether that is a book of essays, or a screenplay idea of my own. Something. I think that is something I’d like to get taken care of, because I keep talking about it and I’m not doing it. So, I would like to do that. There’s a lot of downtime onset, so I have no excuse.
You’ve got to bring your laptop with you!
I know, exactly! I know.
I think we’d all be pretty excited to see either a book or a screenplay coming from you.
That is incredibly nice of you. Now that I’ve said it, I’ll hold myself to it.
Now that it’s going to be on the internet, you have to do it!
Exactly! Done, done! Check! I should also be like, “I’m also going to quit smoking!” No, I don’t smoke. But some other resolution. [Laughs] Meditate every morning!
Well, thank you so much. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
Oh definitely! Thank you! This was such a delightful conversation!