Ellie Kemper ’02 gave the 2019 Class Day speech on Monday, June 3. Kemper stars on the Emmy-nominated Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. She appeared on the American version of The Office, as well as in movies such as Bridesmaids and 21 Jump Street.
At the University, Kemper majored in English. She wrote and acted for the Triangle Club, performed improv with Quipfire!, and acted with Theater Intime.
On May 31, she spoke with The Daily Princetonian in a phone interview. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
The Daily Princetonian: Can you talk about your time in the English department and what you learned from it?
EK: I had a wonderful time studying English at Princeton and specifically and somewhat surprisingly, writing my thesis, which I wrote about irony in the face of tragedy. As tragic as it was, it kind of grew out of 9/11, which happened in the beginning of my senior year and watching all these comedians’ responses to it and how you deal with something like that. I think everyone was pronouncing the age of irony dead, and there’s no more time for jokes, and sincerity reigns supreme. In fact, of course, comedy does come back and that’s one of the most powerful tools for dealing with tragedy. That kind of gave me the idea for what I wanted to write about, and then I wrote about Oscar Wilde and Dave Eggers and his wonderful novel “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”
I always thought, “Oh, I’m gonna write about something that might not necessarily interest me” because it just seems like such a daunting project, having to write basically a book about something. Once I found something that I really connected to, and I had a wonderful thesis advisor, Professor Susan Wolfson, it really made the whole thing gel. I had a very positive experience with all sorts of wonderful professors — Thomas Roach and Jeff Nunokawa — I just had these fabulous professors and it culminated with a pretty positive experience writing my thesis.
DP: During your time at Princeton, you participated in various theater groups, such as Quipfire! and the Triangle Club. How did these experiences prepare you for a career in acting?
EK: They were invaluable. Quipfire! is the reason I pursued improv after college. I was a member of the field hockey team. I guess “member” is accurate, but an actual active member is inaccurate, because I sat on the bench for most of my time there. All life experiences are very instructive. I learned a lot from that experience, but sophomore year I decided to quit field hockey and I auditioned for both Quipfire! and Triangle that same year.
I think that Quipfire! has played such a key role in my career today because I had done some improv in high school, but I certainly wasn’t that well-versed, and when I joined the team I thought that I was good at it, I thought, “Oh, I don’t normally have this feeling about something, but I actually feel like I’m naturally good at this, and there’s loads of room for improvement,” so I wanted to keep getting better. Specifically doing improv over and over again and honing those skills and the people that I got to work with and the bonds that I made with them were so strong and so powerful that it inspired me to keep pursuing it after college.
Before joining Quipfire!, I didn’t realize that people did improv after college, and they went to Chicago and they performed at Second City and Improv Olympic and I thought, “Oh, that’s sort of a viable possibility for me too.” That planted the seed in my head. I give Quipfire! most of the credit, that sounds like I’m bragging, but I would point to Quipfire! as being the motivating factor for me to pursue improv after college.
DP: What advice do you have for recent graduates?
EK: I have to think carefully about this, so I sound both smart and cool. My advice is this, and I talk about this in my speech. I graduated 17 years ago and I learned a lot of important skills at Princeton. I think probably the thing that remains with me the most is that it’s important to work hard and to have a clear set of goals that you want to pursue. There are two caveats I would add to this. It shouldn’t be viewed as a negative to change your goals if life throws you a curveball. You should not be afraid to change course. I am a planner, I like schedules, I like things that help me feel like I’m control, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Sometimes I keep those plans in effect to my own detriment, because this is no longer being helpful, I think I need to take a step back and look at the big picture and maybe make some small changes.
I think that I had this idea when I graduated that whatever it was that I was going to pursue was going to be it for life. I would graduate at 21, 22, and then you think, “The rest of my life is gonna be one block,” and that’s absolutely not true. I think you realize that as you get older. Don’t be afraid to change course and in fact look forward to the surprises that life will hand you because of course, nothing goes according to plan.
The other thing I would say is that cultivating strong relationships and having good friends and good family will surpass any career accomplishment that you might have. I think that’s important to keep in mind because we’re all really driven, intelligent people, so of course we all want to succeed wildly in our careers, but I think that at the end of the day, it’s the friends and family you have that completely eclipse any other accomplishment. So those are the two pieces of advice: don’t be afraid to change course and make sure you have friends.
DP: How does it feel to give the Class Day speech on the 50th anniversary of women being admitted to Princeton?
EK: It feels momentous. I’m so honored that I was asked to do this in the first place. I’ve secretly always wanted to give a Class Day speech and having it be on the 50th anniversary of the admission of women to Princeton feels momentous. Princeton helped define so many different parts of my life and for that, I am forever grateful. We’re in a very exciting time for women right now. There’s so much work that’s left to be done, and in a sort of sad way, a lot hasn’t changed since women were first admitted to Princeton. I don’t just mean at Princeton, I mean in the world, things like you look around and some of the headlines could be from 1972.
But we can’t forget how much progress has been made, and I think about in my own career specifically, how many women are at the helm of television production and film production and creating their own work. I use the word exciting to say positive because there is admittedly so much work left to be done, but I think we should also reflect on all the accomplishments that have already been made and especially to the women who have come before us and opened these doors for us to walk through.
DP: How have you faced gender discrimination in your career and what do you do to combat it?
EK: I have been very fortunate and in fact have not faced much, if any, gender discrimination in my career. I know women who have, we have all read about women who have experienced that and been disadvantaged by that. I have been so lucky to work with really strong women throughout my career, and men. When I started doing improv in New York, I think the improv teams were always evenly broken down into men and women. I feel like there were always four men and four women on an improv group and I never felt in the minority, and it really never came up to me, like, “Oh, you might not be as funny because you’re a woman, or you're not gonna be able to get this part or be on this improv team because you’re a woman.” That just never occurred to me, it never happened to me, so I’ve been lucky in that respect.
I think that I have a lot of idols in this industry who I’ve just happened to work with, and I just follow their example. Probably the prime example is Tina Fey, who is an icon and there’s no one like her. When I watch her work, she is all about the work and making sure that the work is good. I know that sounds like what a successful person should do, but when you see it in action, it really is inspiring, and not letting something stand in her way. If you are focusing on your own work and getting better at that, there can be no reason to be discriminated against because you’re aces at what you do. Both men and women have been very inspiring to me in this industry, but specifically Kristen Wiig and Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey, these are all very smart, driven, accomplished women who I use as role models in how to behave.
DP: Since 2015, you have played the title role on the Netflix show “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” for which you received two Primetime Emmy nominations. What comes next for you now that the show has ended?
EK: So we are making, I’m not allowed to call it a movie, it’s an interactive feature, so we’re doing one final farewell to “Kimmy.” It’s exciting, we actually start in a couple weeks in June. They’re gonna do an interactive feature of “Kimmy Schmidt.” It’s sort of like a choose your own adventure. The viewer will be able to decide what happens, what choices they want the characters to make. It’s really cool. I think they’ve only done this a couple times on television, I know there’s a “Black Mirror” episode that did this. It’s really innovative and I’ve read the script and the writers are just insane and brilliant as always, so that’s what I’m doing in the immediate future.
I don’t know what’s next. I’m going to enjoy some downtime from work after that. I’m pregnant. I’m going to have a baby in September. I’m gonna maybe not work for a little bit during that time. I don’t know what it is that I want to do next. I’ve had some time to think about it, because we all thought that “Kimmy” was ending for good, and then the movie came up. There’s any number of things I’m interested in doing. I would love to work in some capacity on a talk show, I would love to do maybe some more dramatic stuff, or write my own movie or my own television show. The prospects are many, but I haven’t zeroed in on something quite yet, because like I said, I’m not afraid to change course.
DP: Is there anything else you would like to add?
EK: I wanted to thank Princeton and the senior class for asking me to be their speaker because it’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly. I’ve been working on my speech for a long time. Not as long as I worked on my thesis, but still a long time, because I want to give the students what they deserve. I kept tearing up as I write this because I am thinking about all these wonderful, intelligent, hard-working, compassionate, young people going out into the world. I think that we’re in such a tough spot right now, and I'm being a little bit dramatic maybe, but it gives me a lot of hope and a lot of reassurance to know that these young people are gonna go out and improve our world because it needs to be improved. I just feel really lucky to be involved with this in any way, so I just want to add a thank you to the senior class.