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Ellie Kemper and Stephen Dorff in "Somewhere." Photo by Merrick Morton
It’s easy to talk to Ellie Kemper; I have to remind myself that this is an interview, and not a chat with a long distance friend. Kemper has been catching a lot of people’s attention, first in her work in sketch and improv in New York City, and more recently in her role as Erin on The Office. She's now made a move to the big screen, appearing in Sofia Coppola’s newest film, Somewhere, playing Claire, Johnny Marco’s (Stephen Dorff) agent. Her appearance in the film is brief but striking for its burst of energy in an otherwise pathologically low-key film.
St. Louis Magazine: How did you happen to be cast in Coppola’s film, Somewhere?
Ellie Kemper: I moved to LA for my role on The Office, originally auditioning for The Office while there for a one-woman show. My agent set up a meeting with Sofia Coppola, who was in the early pre-production and just meeting with actresses for roles, so it wasn’t an audition in any strict sense of the word. I still don’t remember what we talked about; I remember that she was (and is) sooooo nice (I know everyone says that but it’s really true), and I remember that we shared a Coke (because I thought, hmm, real Coke, not diet, how refreshing). Later, I had a call back and was cast. I was shocked when I saw that I got opening credit in Somewhere, since I’m in maybe two scenes.
SLM: How would you compare improv to comedic television acting to film work—is there a trajectory, similarities, sharp differences?
EK: Well, of course they are very different, and there is a trajectory...sort of. But on Somewhere, I was only on set for a single day. So it’s only with my next film Bridesmaids (I think that’s the title they are going with—Paul Feig’s film set to be released in May 2011) that I had the experience of working on a single project for six weeks. That was my first experience of putting in very long days where you are doing things over and over again. In sketch comedy and especially in improv it’s over immediately. Moving from improv to television to film is a natural trajectory, but performing live is important prep work for the other, gets and keeps my skills toned and in shape. Being in front of audience in exhilarating. I get very, very nervous and then I just make myself do it, and it’s great once I’m up there.
I remember doing improv in college. I ran and I played field hockey, but doing improv felt like it came naturally. I enjoyed the process of it. It’s encouraging to me that it’s so pleasurable and reassures me that I want to keep on doing it rather than leaving it behind. I haven’t been doing it as much, and one falls out of practice. People say it doesn’t take any practice but, that’s not true. You get out of practice, get rusty.
The Upright Citizens Brigade has theater out here as well, and there are lots of other opportunities that have developed recently. I would like to keep doing it but so far have not since my move to LA.
SLM: Your writing career has received significant praise—from work in The Onion, Huffington Post—does writing come easily for you?
EK: For most writers, the actual writing is a necessary torture with some weird pleasure derived from it. So far I’ve only written short pieces in McSweeney’s that are fun to work through. I started writing jokes for The Onion 5 or 6 years ago (I had been a fan for so long that it’s still incredible that I got to be a part of it). But I look at the writers for the show, and I’m aghast at how much work it is. I think it’s different when you’re writing for yourself and the difficulty is important. It’s a good exercise for that other part of the brain.
SLM: How connected do you feel still feel to St. Louis?
EK: My older brother and parents are still in LA; my younger sister recently moved to LA and is writing on The Office. It is very nice having her here and working on the same show is unimaginably great. The show is filled with St. Louisans, which makes me feel at home, connected to that part of my life. I love St. Louis and go back all the time. I’m always telling people out here what a great place it is.
SLM: Can you talk about the transition, moving into an established show?
I was a fan before getting a job, and watched it in when I lived New York, when I was so busy trying to break into everything. I remember crying and crying during the scene when Pam and Jim have their first kiss. Moving in to this group is intimidating, because they made this great show, and I don’t want to mess it up. But the cast and crew are so warm that it’s much less intimidating in practice than in theory. It is such a low pressure environment But there are still those moments when I stop and think, Oh, my God, I watched this. It occupies a very specific time in my memory and now I find myself in it.
SLM: Is your role in Bridesmaids a comedic one?
EK: The parts I’m in are comedic. . .
SLM: Do you want to do drama?
EK: It’s something I’m very interested in. I have never had a dramatic role, and I know it would be very difficult for me to do, but I’d like to get better at it. My natural reaction to every scene is to make something funny. When I’ve been cast in serious moments on The Office, they are very, very hard for me. Comedy is so much easier.
SLM: Do you feel conscious of carrying a “funny woman” label, conscious of yourself as a woman?
In New York, this didn’t even occur to me because I was surrounded by female comedians. In LA, it seems to be more notable, and I might hear someone or myself described as a woman “but” she’s funny. Being a female has never felt like a roadblock, and I’ve never encountered any resistance. I think the more an issue that’s made of it, the more a problem it becomes.
Somewhere runs through January 20 at the Landmark Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar, at 2:30 5:00 7:15 and 9:30 p.m.