Whether you know her as Erin on The Office, the girl from that Derrick Comedy sketch, or even as Jamie from the movie Mystery Team, it’s no secret that she’s one of the brightest up-and-coming comediennes. Exceptionally skilled at playing aloof and innocent, next week Kemper will be hitting the big screen next week alongside some of the funniest women acting today.
Last week, I was granted the fantastic opportunity to sit down one-on-one with Ellie Kemper to not only talk about the film, but also the departure of Steve Carell from The Office (the interview actually took place the day after the episode “Goodbye, Michael” aired). Discussing both career changing events, she talked to me about the amount of improvisation on set, the difficulty of getting through her major scene with Steve, and missing Jon Hamm, who used to be her high school drama teacher. Check out the interview below!
First of all I just need to say that I absolutely loved the movie.
That is so nice of you. I just saw it for the first time last night. I love how it came out!
You can tell just from the trailers that there must have been a lot of improvisation. When you’re actually on set, do you have any idea what’s actually gonna be kept and what’s not?
I know! That’s what I was curious to see because I do feel like the movie could have gone a number of different ways depending on what they decided to keep in and what they decided to take out. And there was so much improvisation and it was so encouraged that it was really, I mean everything, I think we did some takes as scripted, but it was so welcomed, like, everyone’s input, everyone’s thoughts on that. So yeah, I think, and I know just mostly form reading about it from other films that Judd lets the camera keep going and that’s a nice luxury to have, to be able to do different ideas of things.
Were you coming up with stuff on your own, were you taking notes?
Yeah, absolutely. I think a little bit beforehand the writers, directors, producers said, you know, if you have any ideas, if you think of jokes, whatever it is, you know, talk to us, send it to us. Which, I’m not a movie veteran but I haven’t heard of that happening to actors and it was really nice to have that. But I also think within the scene, on the day we were actually shooting it, ideas that would come to you, we would just say something and if it worked it would stay in there. I found that a number of times last night, it was exciting.
I love the fact that you can watch the trailer for the movie and then when you’re watching the actual final cut it’s just different, you’re not waiting for those trailer moments.
Exactly, my mom was saying that. She’s like, well wait a second, I saw that in the trailer but I didn’t see it in the movie. I know, it was all, it could have gone a number of ways.
Just to start from the inception, how did you come to the project? Did you go after it? Did they come after you?
Yeah, well you tell me, I don’t know how anything ever works but I know Alison Jones, she did the casting for the movie, I knew her from The Office, she does casting for that, so I knew her and I knew Paul Feig because he had worked on The Office, he had directed an episode, so I knew him. I had not met Kristin or Annie before and then, so that’s the part that I never know how that stuff happens but I went into an audition for it and then I got to work on it. That was so incredible. I didn’t even know that most of them had worked together at Groundlings, of the actresses anyway, and I was really lucky to be a part of it. I look at other movies and I’m like, “Wow, I got a really good movie.”
I know. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I think that in TV more you see more things that are sort of driven by strong female characters, especially in terms of comedy. I think you see that more on television than in movies, until this point, these days I mean. That’s why it’s so, without sounding sappy, like special about this is it’s called Bridesmaids, it is about women. But I think that it is something that, not to go back on what I just said, but I don’t really think of it as, like, Oh, it’s female leads, it’s just a funny movie. And luckily it has a lot of female stars.
Talking with Paul Feig earlier, it sounded as though there were a lot of changes made to the script from the first draft to what is coming to theaters. Did that apply to the character of Becca as well?
Yes and no. Wendy was just telling me that she had been at a table read of this movie, like, five years ago so I have no idea how long this has been going on. But I think that from when I auditioned for it until actually shooting it, I don’t feel like there were too many changes to Becca’s character. I feel like she was always sort of naïve, sort of inexperienced, narrow-viewed not because she’s an evil person but because she hasn’t lived very extensively. I don’t think that that changed too much, which is fun to play.
That’s actually something I wanted to talk to you about. Do you see her as just being naïve or do you think she’s kind of a dim-bulb?
See I don’t think, well I heard Betty White say this about her character on Golden Girls, she was naïve, that Rose Nylund was naïve but she wasn’t dumb. It’s really the same thing about Becca, because I don’t think that she is dumb. I think that she maybe is simple, has simple tastes, and hasn’t seen anything too different from what is in her immediate circle, and her immediate circle is, like, marriage and family and very traditional choices, which, that is fine to make those choices, but also you have to be aware of other things too.
And Ellie, perhaps, in real life. I was thinking of that line-up and, not even thinking of Jamie from Mystery Team
Which I love, by the way.
Oh yay! That was a funny movie! I guess she’s more on the farce spectrum. But I do think I had seen similarities between Erin and Becca for sure, and in terms of that like, I don’t know if that is something I am putting out there as a person myself, or what. But I think that these two characters are sort of similar. You know what though, if I had to put them in a Jeopardy match, I think Erin would win. It would be a tough match, but I think Erin thinks a little more outside the box. But they’re equally naïve. In a naiveté contest, it would be tough to say who would win.
Actually I do want to talk a little bit about The Office. Last night’s episode was kind of a monumental deal. Did you watch it last night?
We got back home, I got home from the party and I was like, okay, I’m gonna watch the Royal Wedding and The Office, and I didn’t make it through either. I have not actually seen the final cut of it yet and I will tell you, in a weird way, I’m a little hesitant to watch it. I think because, you know, it is the final, I will be sort of the last time, well I’m aware that I can watch reruns. But we shot it, we filmed it, I was like okay. I’m acting like I’ve been on it forever but I’ve only been on for two years. It was really super sad, he’s incredible. And it really hit me when we went to shoot our last scene that I was not expecting this. I was like, you know, they knock on your door and they’re like, “Ellie, ten minutes until your scene.” And then I just started balling. I was so embarrassed too, because I did not want to cry in front of him. I am totally going off on a rant, but it’s sad that he’s gone, but it’s exciting. We’ll see what happens.
Yeah, I did want to ask you about that bench scene, and just saying, like, how emotional it was at the time when you were filming it.
That was, I, whatever acting I do know, I was like now that isn’t acting. I just remember, because in “Secretary’s Day,” this episode where Erin and Michael sort of first bond, and then on that bench, Mindy wrote it again, it was on that bench again, I think also as a person, it’s like, oh, Steve Carell is this master. Anyway, just on sort of a personal note, it was sad.
Yeah. I had seen him, you know, I guess I hadn’t seen him for a while. I guess I had seen him at ADR sessions, but we wrapped Bridesmaids in August. But yeah, I saw him at, you know, ADR sessions but not really until he came back to direct the last episode. And that was, he’s fantastic, he knows he’s good. He has such a specific idea, he knows what he needs. I was so happy he got to come back to direct that episode. That was sentimental.
So Erin’s relationship with Gabe is kind of interesting now, particularly after what happened at the Dundies, so I’m kind of curious both about that dynamic and what’s going to happen with Andy.
I know. I’m trying to think of, to make sure I don’t get myself in trouble, I’m always scared I’m going to get fired if I leak something, but I loved, I thought it was so weird and typical of Erin to break up with her boyfriend over a microphone. And again, I don’t think she’s an evil person, she just doesn’t think how things will come across. I know in the episode last night that Gabe is trying to get her back for some unknown reason, because she’s driven herself to be a bit of a weirdo, but he’s in. I think that I was sort of hoping this would happen, I was secretly hoping that Erin would be kind of disappointed in love, because it’s sort of more interesting to play, rather than it be a happy ending. So without going into details, I’ll just say that I hope that she takes this opportunity to maybe learn more about her own self and become more of an adult. Because at this point, it’s a tricky thing because she came two years ago and, well I’m talking about her in the third person, I do think that going through that thing with Andy last season, like, there was, she wanted some stuff there. But she’s sort of been, like, strangely enough she’s been romantically linked to someone in the office almost since she got there. So I don’t think it would be a bad thing for her to be totally single. But I don’t know what’s gonna happen.
How has that experience been? Is it harder?
For me! Because you know what, I have separation anxiety. I do! My parents would go out of town and I’d be like, “No!” So it is sort of like Dad’s gone. That sort of thing is sad, but you suddenly, we had a two-week break after the last episode, so it was a nice transition, you know like, okay, adjust to the grief. Coming back has been weird, we’re done shooting for the season now, but it was, you know, someone’s missing. It’s just a natural, I think like, development. Things are changing, we all have each other. I’m acting like someone died, he didn’t die.
Well actually that’s kind of what’s weird about it. You really, watching the show, you really feel like he’s moving to Colorado and you feel like you’re just never going to see him again.
That’s what I keep saying. I mean I don’t know, I’m wondering, I’m like pretty sure you can just bring him back. Because it’s weird. And I think in one of the, I can’t remember which episode it was, but there’s like a reference to someone having spoken with Michael that day and I’m like, “Oh he is still alive!” It’s not really, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s gonna keep in touch with him that much. But I hope he comes back, just for like, a visit to Scranton, I think that’s possible. I don’t know. I told you I have separation anxiety!
I think the entire audience cried last night in that last scene, are you kidding?
Oh my god. Jim and Michael, shooting that. I was just in the background and I was like, Ellie, you can’t ruin the scene by crying in the background. But just hearing them, and you know, snot starts coming out of your knows. I hope that’s good, it’s a nice thing to be able to cry.
Also I heard that the season finale is an insane cast line up, how was that experience?
I know, but you know what? I almost feel like, I’m thrilled, I didn’t get to meet everyone who was there because of schedules, but that whole parade of amazing actors who came in.
Who did you get to meet?
Will Arnett, who I thought, you know how you think you know someone but you actually don’t? But you’ve like seen them? So Will Arnett, James Spader was there, Jim Carrey was there, right, that’s out?
Okay, good. Because I guess that was a secret and I didn’t know it was and then my mom told me and I was like, “Mom, how did you know?” Okay anyway. And then, Ricky Gervais, who I met at the Emmys a year ago. I went up to him and said, “Oh, I play, I’m new on the show.” And he thought that I had said, I found this out later, he didn’t hear me, he thought I said, “I’m you on the show!” So he thought I was like an insane fan. “I’m YOU on the show!” Anyway, I didn’t see him when he was shooting anything. And Catherine Tate I didn’t get to meet. She was there for a morning before my call time so I didn’t get to meet her. And who am I forgetting? Who else was there? Oh my gosh Ray Romano! Who was so, I don’t want to say adorable because that sounds patronizing, but he was. He was like, “I’m nervous,” I was like, “I don’t know what you have to be nervous about.”
Another one of the biggest shows of all time.
I know! Right. I was like, I think you have some idea of what you’re doing.
Getting back to Bridesmaids, while I was researching last night, I found out that Jon Hamm was actually a teacher of yours, which is kind of so weird. For one, I know you didn’t share any scenes together, but did you spend any time together on set?
Why do I keep missing everybody? No time. Because he was, all of his scenes were mostly with Kristin so I never saw him. And I in fact didn’t even find out that he was gonna be in it, I saw it on IMDB and I was like, “He’s in it!? My high school’s going to go crazy!” He is so nice because, I get worried because I hope he doesn’t think I mention that he taught me, but he did and he’s so nice about it. And he’s like, you know, in addition to being a fantastic actor, he’s like this hero of St Louis. So, no, I didn’t get to see him in filming.
Have you seen each other since then?
I saw him last night at the premiere. And again, he’s so nice to me, he’s always so nice to my mom which of course, he’s just a class act. But seeing him, that was such a, I love that they opened up that movie with, like...
Yeah, the sex scene.
But it’s so perfect. It’s like every woman’s, well I’m revealing too much, but that’s like, what a wonderful fantasy, and then that’s the first scene.