Ellie Kemper spoke at UPenn…
…and it was pretty fantastic.
Imagine that you were invited to dinner with Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the geniuses behind 30 Rock. Then imagine that they pitch a seemingly ludicrous idea—about a woman escaping from an underground cult—to you. This is exactly what happened to Ellie Kemper, who afterwards thought she was punk’d.
Ellie Kemper has been a face we have recognized from television and movies for the past six years. Known for her many roles, ranging from standout ones such as the perky and optimistic Kimmy Schmidt in the Netflix original series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to the cute and naïve (Kelly) Erin Hannon in The Office, Ellie has also been in huge blockbusters like Bridesmaids and 21 Jump Street. It’s not hard to picture Ellie as a more toned-down version of the cheery characters she plays, and she admitted herself that she is like them in some ways. After listening to Ellie speak, it’s definitely clear that Tina and Robert wrote the role of Kimmy Schmidt with Ellie in mind.
Ellie was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, and she went on to graduate from Princeton University with a degree in English. When this was announced, it was greeted with the muttering of some Penn students, unable to put aside their Ivy League rivalries. After graduating in 2002, Ellie took a year to study at Oxford University, then took the plunge into acting and moved to New York.
Like many college students, Ellie said that before and during college she didn’t really know what she wanted to do with her life. However, she always had teaching as a backup, which is “way harder than what [she] do[es] now,” she said. She didn’t delve into theater when she first got to college, though. During her freshman year, Ellie played field hockey but sat on the bench “almost all of the time.” However, she’s grateful for the opportunity, and said “it’s good to suck at something, because it really humbles you.” During her sophomore year, Ellie joined Quipfire!, Princeton’s improv team, and said that took up almost all of her free time.
When she found out she was going to be on The Office for a four-episode arc (that turned into her being cast through the end of the series in 2013,) she said she couldn’t excitedly call her parents, because she had a fear that the episodes she filmed wouldn’t make it to television. When she found out that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—“Uhks,” as she called it—was renewed for a second season, she was able to make that happy call to her parents.
When faced with a question in the Q&A portion from an aspiring comedian whether to drop out of school and move to New York or stay in school and get a degree, Ellie strongly recommended staying in school. “I guess I’m kind of old fashioned,” she quipped and giggled. But when asked about what she learned at Princeton that was applicable towards her career now, Ellie struggled to come up with an answer. She mentioned that socialization in college is very important, but Ellie also said that she went to a lot of parties and school probably wasn’t her first priority.
Ellie is clearly quite intelligent, so her response that she didn’t learn all that much made many in the audience question “why am I here?” One thing that really stood about Ellie was her honesty and her ability to laugh at herself.
The night was full of funny quips that truly displayed Elllie’s talent in improv—such as doing the “dork shiver” that she and her sister Carrie (also a writer) do when something is just too nerdy. After quoting one of her own characters, Ellie did the dork shiver and repeated it through the night. Ellie’s ability to laugh at herself and answer questions with sincerity made the night so much better. It was so evident that Ellie is a humble actress, and it was a joy to watch her.
The best words of advice she gave about writing? “Write like your parents are dead.” Luckily, Ellie doesn’t have to worry about roles that offend her parents—and she certainly doesn’t want to disappoint her mother, Dotty Kemper, to whom she gave a quick shout-out.