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Ellie Kemper on Kimmy Schmidt’s shifting optimism

Photo: Netflix

This interview discusses plot points from the first half of the third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

For Kimmy Schmidt, getting into Columbia University is as easy as turning a crank for hours on end. And for Kimmy that, grimly, requires little to no effort. Indeed, in the third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy gets a nonexistent full scholarship to the Ivy League university after impressing the crew team with her insane upper body strength. Kimmy’s college experience—wherein she meets a group of students hyperaware of microaggressions—is a major thread this season. The A.V. Club spoke with Ellie Kemper about that as well as what we can all learn from her sunny character.


The A.V. Club: Kimmy made some breakthroughs in the second season. Where is her headspace throughout season three?

Ellie Kemper: It’s a continuation of trying to come to terms with the idea that she can’t save the world. This was addressed a lot in season two—everything isn’t black and white. It’s shades of gray. There isn’t always a right and a wrong for everything. And moreover, you cannot save other people all the time. You can help other people but you can’t do it all without—well, first of all, in some instances, it’s impossible, but in other instances you have to protect yourself as well. There’s an episode, I think it’s past the first six this season, where the idea that she has something that she can hold onto—that she needs to preserve part of herself—occurs to her. I think that she is so ready to give over everything so that she can help other people, but if she were to do that, there would be nothing left over for her to keep on going. I think that’s a good realization to have.

AVC: Kimmy is so idealistic. As she becomes more aware, how do you keep her grounded in those elements that make Kimmy Kimmy?

EK: That kind of innate optimism is what powered her through the bunker, combined with a resilience that’s unmatched. I think that in terms of keeping her grounded and keeping her constant throughout this, that’s the thing that does remain constant. I think that it will ebb and flow—or I should say wax and wane, different magnetic pull—her optimism will, and necessarily so, because she is introduced to evil in the world and is understanding that not everyone’s a good person and that’s how it goes. I think that will temper her optimism but I don’t think she’ll ever do away with it.

AVC: College is a huge part of this season—

EK: I love that she goes to college. When I saw that that was going to happen I was so happy.


AVC: She goes to Columbia. How did you think of portraying this elite college experience through Kimmy?

EK: So Kimmy as it turns out isn’t as book smart—I wasn’t sure, to be honest with you, exactly in what way she’s smart. Because I know that she’s a smart person. But in what way is she smart? Because she does say some really dopey things that sometimes I know it’s just a result of her not being in the world for 15 years and sometimes it’s a result of, well, maybe she is a dope? And I can’t figure that part out. There are different kinds of intelligence. I think she has a great emotional IQ, and she’s also very athletic, but I don’t know that she is the most academically inclined. I think a lot is won on spunk alone and a lot is won on enthusiasm and drive alone, and that’s how, again, she’s navigated a lot of her life. But also she doesn’t live on campus. She’s not fully immersed in campus life. She is on a team. Her teammates adore her, but they really like the fact that she’s so good at crew [because] she’s been cranking for years and it finally paid off. I think that’s what her teammates admire in her—her sheer iron will.


AVC: There’s a parody of political correctness in college life. How did you interpret that element of Kimmy’s college experience?

EK: It’s so eye-opening for Kimmy—and for me, as a 36-year-old woman who is not always on the cutting edge. But it is true, that episode where she’s at the party and is so confused about what is what. This is all news to her that there’s a correct and incorrect way of going about your day and there’s a wrong thing and a right thing to say politically that she’s unaware of. And at the end of the day comes to the conclusion that these grownups who are being so careful not to offend anyone all the time, are babies. If you think about what she went through and what these guys are going through they are so different in gravity. It seems maybe ridiculous. She probably feels at the end of the day—whether she realizes it or not—that it’s ridiculous.


AVC: Do you think that’s the show’s perspective, broadly?

EK: I think so. Again, I’m not a writer on the show, but from what I read and from what I perform on the show I would say, yeah, that that would be the takeaway.

(Photo: Netflix)

AVC: There’s a joke where a fellow college student presents Kimmy with a consent form. There are allusions to sexual abuse in the bunker. You can’t even imagine what Kimmy’s thinking about that.


EK: Oh absolutely, because it’s alluded to several times over the course of the show. I think in the pilot she says there’s “weird sex stuff” in the bunker. In a way I don’t know if she would appreciate a thing like that where, oh, okay, you can have a say in it? I think her understanding of sex is very childish—it’s childish and way too adult at the same time. She doesn’t know a loving way to go about it, I guess. She was gone for these really formative years. I don’t know what she would think if she were to think more carefully about the consent form, and what that would be. Instead, I think she’s initially, “There doesn’t need to be a consent form. I’m not going to do anything.”

AVC: On a weird pivot to romance: She has a sweet relationship with Daveed Diggs’ character, Perry. What was it like playing off him? They bond over the fact that they are grownups in this kid environment.


EK: It’s interesting. The first scene together they high-five, which is admittedly a childish thing to do, and she’s so happy to finally find someone who will high-five her back, because no one in her world high fives her back. They do bond over that and Kimmy is so deceptively mature. Because through her wardrobe choices or her actions you wouldn’t always know that she is the adult that she is, but she has of course been through something that, maybe not in a good way, forced her to grow up very fast. They do bond over that idea that these kids are drunken babies.

I think that her bond with him is over that. I think she’s intrigued by this guy that has introduced the idea of philosophy to her and, there’s nothing undesirable about being a crossing guard, but she could do any number of things if she chose to and she should think about what it is that she wants to do. So it is this person that is introducing her to greater possibilities. And then they hit some low points with, “Why is he studying to be a reverend?” She has a horrible association with that, and that’s something she needs to continue to unpack, I should say. It’s funny to me because she’s had quite a few boyfriends already. She missed that time in her life so she’s doing that now. I think that’s really sweet that she’s able to experiment and find out what romance is because she doesn’t know.


AVC: The show engages with pop culture, but in the first six episodes, not directly with what’s happening right now. Where do you think Kimmy’s optimism fits in in this world?

EK: This is, I think, an unusual time, and I think what we can apply to the greater world is that she chooses to be optimistic a lot of the time. I think that it’s innate, but I think that what a lot of people, including myself, could learn from her is that it doesn’t help anyone to become jaded or, of course, bury your head in the sand. She’s constantly, metaphorically, beaten up and being thrown down, and, as she says, she’s “Tubthumping,” she’ll get back up again. She encourages Titus to do that, I guess, but she knows the term, she knows you have to keep getting back up. Also, she keeps having setbacks and learning the worst in people and seeing the world is not what she wants it to be and her ideas of saving the entire world are tempered. But that she continues to choose to think the best in people and choose to think that there is a way to improve things is an optimism that is the kind of optimism we could have right now, which is helpful.


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