We've invited Ellie Kemper, star of the Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, to play a game called "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, meet the Unbreakable Jimmy Smits!" Three questions about the accomplished actor.
Click the audio link above to hear how she does.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we ask exciting people about dull things. It's called Not My Job.
ELLIE KEMPER: Yeah.
SAGAL: So Ellie Kemper was a brilliant young performer in New York when she finally got her big break - an audition for "Saturday Night Live" with Lorne Michaels, or, as she called him, Michael Lornes (ph).
SAGAL: Surprisingly, she did not get the job.
SAGAL: She's done OK with her roles in "The Office" and as the title character in the "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." Ellie Kemper, welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
KEMPER: Thank you.
SAGAL: So, Ellie, I learned that story about calling Lorne Michaels Michael Lornes from your new book, which you call "Squirrel Days."
SAGAL: Why did you call your new book "Squirrel Days"?
KEMPER: Listen; out of the gate here, I reveal that my heart is pounding. I'm an anxious, nervous person, and I'm going to 30 Rockefeller Center to meet Lorne Michaels. Of course I call him Michael Lornes. I mean, his last name sounds like a first name - not my fault.
PETER GROSZ: How did it come up that you said his name in your audition? I know lots of people from...
KEMPER: I was...
GROSZ: ...Who auditioned for "SNL," and I don't think any one of them was like, well, I got it because I correctly pronounced Lorne Michaels.
KEMPER: You'd be surprised. I said it to reception. I said it to the receptionist.
KEMPER: I mean, at that moment, I think I was - it was just fake bravery, and I confidently said that I was there to see Michael Lornes.
PAULA POUNDSTONE: Wow. And you think they, like, narked on you right away?
KEMPER: They must have. I was out. I didn't stand a chance after that.
SAGAL: So you have this new book. It's called "Squirrel Days." And the first thing you say in the book is that you say you have to write a book 'cause you're starring in a TV show...
SAGAL: ...And that's what TV stars do.
KEMPER: Yes. It's just a matter of course. Yes.
SAGAL: It's a matter of course.
KEMPER: I wanted to make it clear that I was trying to write a very good book (laughter). I hope it's - I hope you like it.
SAGAL: It is true. It is. And all the great books - like, "Moby-Dick" begins...
KEMPER: Oh, yes.
SAGAL: Call me Ishmael. I'm sorry, but I was contracted to do this.
KEMPER: He was great on "Bosom Buddies." I thought he was so funny.
SAGAL: He was terrific. He was great. Ishmael was the best.
GROSZ: Well, back then, all the ship captains were writing books.
SAGAL: I know, it's true. But tell us why you decided to call your memoir "Squirrel Days."
KEMPER: One of the central essays of the book is about my ultimately unsuccessful attempt to befriend a squirrel in my backyard, which we all have been there. I mean, I definitely have...
SAGAL: No. I'm just going to stop and say - I want you to finish the story - we have not all been there.
KEMPER: OK. OK.
SAGAL: Let's find out. So what happened with you? So you're a young girl. You're in St. Louis, right?
KEMPER: I'm in St. Louis, or I was in St. Louis. I had just seen "Dances With Wolves." I was a huge fan of "The Secret Garden." And I thought, that's who I want to be. So I went out, and I tried to become one with nature, sort of - like, really get close to this plump squirrel, who I nicknamed Natalie (ph). And I realized that...
KEMPER: ...Squirrels don't care. She had no interest in becoming my friend. And I did realize that nature is, you know, ultimately indifferent to us. And I was a - it was a hard lesson to learn early on. But...
ROXANNE ROBERTS: Ellie, maybe the squirrel was just indifferent to you.
POUNDSTONE: No, you know what...
KEMPER: Do you think it was me?
ROBERTS: It could be. It could be.
POUNDSTONE: You know what I think? I think Natalie was its last name.
KEMPER: That's where I went wrong.
GROSZ: Natalie Lornes (ph).
SAGAL: Do you think that now that you're famous, the squirrel's, like, yeah, we were friends?
SAGAL: What's interesting about - is this true? We were trying to piece this together. Were you, in fact, a debutante back in St. Louis?
KEMPER: I am mortified that you were trying to piece anything together. This is - I'm living a nightmare right now. Yes, I was a debutante.
SAGAL: You should know that if you don't want people to ask you embarrassing questions about your past, you should probably not write a memoir.
KEMPER: You're not joking.
KEMPER: So I was a squirrel-loving debutante, and that's the truth.
POUNDSTONE: What is a debutante?
SAGAL: Yeah. Explain please, exactly, for those who don't know.
KEMPER: I don't...
GROSZ: They're people who talk to squirrels in their yards and stuff.
KEMPER: I think - exactly.
KEMPER: I don't know if debutante society is bigger in the - I'm - as I said, I'm from St. Louis, so it's the Midwest. But I feel like it's bigger in the South. And it's essentially a - oh, gosh, how is there a way to make this sound palatable? It's where young women are introduced to society. Oh, it's horrible.
SAGAL: And aren't there special balls at which this is done?
ROBERTS: And you wear white dresses.
KEMPER: And wear white dresses and white gloves. Yeah. Yeah, I was only 18 when it happened, or 19. So yeah. No, the whole thing is - it's a spectacle. Maybe some people in the audience were debutantes and know all about it.
POUNDSTONE: No, I don't think so.
SAGAL: So you play Kimmy on "Kimmy Schmidt" - the "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," a show created by Tina Fey on Netflix. And it seems as if that role was written for you. Is that correct?
KEMPER: I think that it was, or I know that it was, which is a huge compliment. I mean, because - yeah, I think it was, like - I'm sure there were many people that they were, you know, considering writing a show for. And then I think this idea was their favorite idea, so...
KEMPER: ...That's the one that went forward.
SAGAL: If people don't know it, Kimmy Schmidt is a character who had a terrible upbringing. She was held in a bunker for many, many years. And then the show is all about how she deals with real life as she emerges into it as an adult. And she is absolutely, I guess, unbreakable. She never gets upset. She never gets frustrated. She's always incredibly cheerful no matter what happens to her. And that...
KEMPER: You know...
SAGAL: Is that you? Is that the kind of person you are?
KEMPER: Well, some say that the debutante ball was my bunker. No, I...
KEMPER: I think that there's, like, the - there's a little bit of me in that character. But I - this will sound so corny, but I have drawn such strength from Kimmy. She is fierce. She refuses to let outside circumstances dictate her own actions. And I really think - I have, like, a fraction of that, maybe, on a good day. So I really do think she's - she's been through this unimaginable ordeal, and she still chooses to think the best in people, which I think is remarkable.
ROBERTS: You sound incredibly chipper.
ROBERTS: Yes. I mean, your character is kind of chipper. So what's the difference?
KEMPER: You sound both mad and suspicious. I think...
KEMPER: I think that I'm chipper right now because I'm nervous and excited. But, yeah, I would say they're probably a bit more heightened.
SAGAL: I do want a reference, because we had him on the show last week, that the big reveal - spoiler - at the end of the first season that the evil man who kept you in prison was - is played by Jon Hamm...
SAGAL: ...Which is hilarious. And we found out he was actually your high school drama teacher.
KEMPER: I know. Is that crazy? He - isn't that crazy? He was. He's 10 years older than I am, and he - I'm younger, no big deal. And he...
KEMPER: ...Graduated college, and he came back to our high school, John Burroughs School, to teach for a year. And he taught me the improv section of my theater class, which is - it's nuts.
SAGAL: Did you call him Mr. Hamm on set?
KEMPER: No (laughter).
POUNDSTONE: No, she called him Hamm Mr.
POUNDSTONE: She would just get so nervous.
SAGAL: Yeah, I know.
KEMPER: Every time I'm flustered, it's just - the names flip.
SAGAL: It may be a cliche, but people or actors, such as yourself, who've been very successful playing cheerful, lovely people want to play darker characters - villains, murderers. Is that something you'd like to do?
KEMPER: I think that could be fun. I mean, you'd have to be so careful doing that because I feel like if people start to know you a certain way, then it can be jarring to see you - maybe that's what acting is.
KEMPER: You have to act differently. Oh, OK.
SAGAL: Yeah. Well, Ellie Kemper, we've invited you here to play a game we're calling...
BILL KURTIS: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, meet the unbreakable Jimmy Smits.
SAGAL: Answer two questions about the distinguished actor Jimmy Smits...
SAGAL: ...And you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - the voice of their choice from anyone on the show. Bill, who is Ellie Kemper playing for?
KURTIS: Patrick Hoskin of Los Angeles, Calif.
SAGAL: All right, Ellie. Here's your first question. Jimmy Smits was in Steve Bochco's infamous failed musical cop show, "Cop Rock." But that's not his only musical role. He also appeared in what? A, "If You Could Read His Mind" - the Gordon Lightfoot musical...
SAGAL: ...B, "Exorcist: The Musical..."
SAGAL: Or C, "Mother Goose: A Rappin' And Rhymin' Special"?
KEMPER: Wait, was I right?
SAGAL: You were.
KEMPER: Oh, my God.
SAGAL: Next question about the unbreakable Jimmy Smits. For a lot of young people, Jimmy Smits is most well-known for playing Senator Bail Organa in the recent spate of "Star Wars" movies. How did he get the part? A, George Lucas' original choice showed up for the interview hungover; B, Smits just showed up on the set in costume and talked his way on; or C, the casting director owed him some money?
KEMPER: I'm very good at this game; I think I've demonstrated that. So I'm going to go with my gut and say A.
SAGAL: You're right again. That's what happened.
KEMPER: What is this?
SAGAL: George Lucas wanted a British actor to play the role. He showed up. The guy came down all hungover. George Lucas didn't like it. Jimmy Smits got the part.
KEMPER: I love that story. OK.
SAGAL: All right. Your last bit of trivia about the unbreakable Jimmy Smits.
SAGAL: How tall is Jimmy Smits?
SAGAL: Is he, A, 5'8"; B, 6'3"; or C, 12 feet tall?
KEMPER: I think he's - I mean, he's 6-foot-3.
SAGAL: Yes, he is. He's 6-foot-3.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
KEMPER: Yes. Thank you.
SAGAL: Bill, how did Ellie Kemper do on our show?
KURTIS: Excellent. Ellie got them all right.
SAGAL: Ellie Kemper, in addition to being a delightful person, has written a genuinely delightful book called "My Squirrel Days." Ellie Kemper, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
KEMPER: Thank you so much for having me.
KEMPER: I had a lovely time.
SAGAL: Thank you, Ellie.
POUNDSTONE: Nice to meet you, Ellie.
GROSZ: Bye, Ellie.
KEMPER: Bye, Peter. Bye, guys. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNBREAKABLE")
THE GREGORY BROTHERS AND MIKE BRITT: (Singing) Unbreakable. They alive, damn it. It's a miracle. Unbreakable. They alive, damn it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.