It is the middle of a Thursday afternoon and I have just threatened Ellie Kemper, the comedic actress famous for playing doe-eyed, slightly-off naïfs in The Office and Bridesmaids.
Ms. Kemper, who is a Princeton grad and improv veteran, agreed with me that we should both go see the movie John Carter, a Disney blockbuster which had recently been decimated by critics and is expected to lose somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million dollars. She was to head to the theatre in LA. I went by myself in New York City. When our conversation began, I believed Ms. Kemper told me that she did not see the film, which meant that I had just spent 2.5 hours watching the world’s worst movie, for absolutely no reason. In response, I note that I want to kill her. - John Ortved
Ellie Kemper: Did you say kill?
The Believer: I thought you just told me that you didn’t see the movie.
EK: I understand. If I had just called, and you had said, “I have bad news, I wasn’t able to see the movie,” I would have wanted to kill you. I have to be honest with you, I did not like that movie either. Unless you liked it a lot.
BLVR: I didn’t like it all. I just walked home and tried to think of all the reasons I didn’t like it, and there are so many!
EK: Full disclosure, I fell asleep for forty minutes.
BLVR: That means you have to go see it again.
EK: But I tried! I had coffee. I couldn’t understand what was going on! On one hand, I understood everything: John Carter was trying to get the girl. But then on the other hand, I had no idea what was going on. Here’s the thing: I’m not drawn to science fiction, so there’s a problem in the first place. I don’t like Lord of the Rings. I haven’t read any of the Lord of the Rings books. I sat through one of the movies but I fell asleep.
BLVR: Well, first let’s deal with this: Are you not sleeping enough?
EK: I don’t fall asleep to 21 Dresses. I don’t fall asleep during romantic comedies. I do fall asleep during long movies about things I don’t understand.
BLVR: Lord of the Rings is fantasy, not science fiction. It’s more like magic and elves. But here’s my problem with both Lord of the Rings, and John Carter: they never show how the economy works. Where do all these spears come from? Where are their foundries? What do people do for a living? What’s money for these people? Like in the Lord of the Rings there was countless swords and I’m thinking, “Where are they getting the metal alloys to make these”?
EK: That is so true! I also wanted to ask you, why did it have to be in 3-D?
BLVR: I didn’t see it in 3-D. It was not an option for me. To be honest, I’ve never seen a movie in 3-D.
EK: I saw Up in 3-D and I liked that – because it was a hot air balloon and it was fun. But on the whole, the movie was scary right?
BLVR: A multiplex at noon on a Thursday is a little scary in the first place. It’s not a happy place.
EK: In my theater there were five other people: me, an older guy, and a family. Being in there with so few people is a weird experience. Didn’t you feel creepy? I was sitting right behind this family.
BLVR: I like it that you had a theater all to yourself and you decided to sit directly behind a family.
EK: I don’t know why I did that, but I really did. Maybe it was to feel more a part of the group or something.
BLVR: Did they look like nice people?
EK: They looked like had their act together. They looked clean and put together and I guess at one point the 3D glasses weren’t working for the kids so the dad went and got new glasses.
BLVR: I think if the Dad was really responsible he would have taken his kids to school instead of to the violent Disney movie on a Thursday morning.
BLVR: Jon Hamm was your drama teacher?
EK: Yes. He went to my high school and then after college he came back and taught theater at our school for a year. Here’s this gorgeous man who’s also a great actor who’s teaching you drama. It’s pretty romantic. I mean, I was never romantically involved with him, but what a fantasy to have this great, handsome man teaching you drama! He couldn’t be nicer. When I came out here to do my one-woman show, I looked him up on my high school alumni webpage and I emailed him. This is after MadMen. I said I was doing my Sad/Mad With Ellie Kemper show and he wrote back, “I’ll try to make it.” And then sure enough, there he was. And he was wearing his St. Louis blues cap. Isn’t that classy? He’s looked upon very fondly in St. Louis.
BLVR: I imagine. That would be a great sketch on it’s own: a room of ninth grade girls and Jon Hamm.
EK: There should be a Saturday Night Live sketch about that. The fact that it did happen is almost too good to believe! It’s better than if it had been any other successful actor I can think of. Unless maybe if you had an old man as an acting teacher, that would be cool too. An old man actor or Jon Hamm. We got Jon Hamm. [pause] I don’t understand how John Carter got to Mars…at all.
BLVR: Let’s talk about how very hard it was to understand.
EK: I’m so glad you said that. Who is understanding this movie, I wonder? Are the kids understanding it?
BLVR: The people who will see this movie are children in MENSA. It’s a very select group of the population.
EK: They’re the only people helping this become a success, because I don’t know who else can follow it. I haven’t read the reviews yet, but I might read them to help clarify what was going on. But no, it was a puzzle that I just could not solve and I gave up trying.
BLVR: It wasn’t a fun puzzle.
EK: I did like the Virginia joke.
BLVR: He’s from Virginia. But the Martians think that’s his name.
EK: “I’m not named Virginia, I’m from Virginia”. I could imagine a theater full of people, so hungry for a laugh, they would just laugh and laugh at that. Can’t you see that happening?
BLVR: You did your one-woman show at the Upright Citizens Brigade, first in New York, then in LA.
EK: I’m embarrassed by the title, which is this: Feeling Sad/Mad with Ellie Kemper. And the reason it was called that it is because it was a show of characters, and the connecting thread is they were all waiting for flights at an airport, and they were all angry or upset about something. Then my manager and I were talking and he was like, “I think it would be great if you got your name in there, in the title,” and I’m like, “Yeah! Me too.” I just think it’s a weird title. The show was about five different characters and they were either talking to an unseen companion or speaking to a group of people. There was one girl who was giving a eulogy and she was upset because she was missing her flight somewhere, and her aunt died unexpectedly.
BLVR: Sounds hilarious.
EK: I know. Maybe it wasn’t. No, it was fine. There was a French girl in it too. I think about these characters now and why can’t I remember their names or anything? It seems like a long time ago. I always feel better when I’m playing some aspect of myself. I did audition for Saturday Night Live and I felt totally panicked because I don’t think doing caricatures of people is my forte. I feel like I don’t always disappear into a role. But I probably shouldn’t say that because that doesn’t make you a very appealing to casting agents, does it? “I’m an actress, but I don’t disappear into my roles.”
BLVR: Well, I don’t know, I think being a really good actress or actor isn’t necessarily the same as being able to play someone different than yourself. Look at Woody Allen—you could say he plays the same character every time, and it’s not very far from who he is, but he’s an amazing comic actor.
EK: That’s true. He does play some version of himself, and he’s Woody Allen. So, done and done. I get worried because the characters I’ve played so far on a visible scale – which would be in The Office and in Bridesmaids – are similarly naive, on the side of sweet. I guess that can be a scary thing if you’re always going to play the same type of person in a career.
BLVR: Well, I think it could be scary, but your career is just getting going. This is where you might start, but then you could be in some kind of horrible accident and you might be able to play someone else.
EK: That’s exactly right! Suddenly new doors are opened - you only have one leg now… that could honestly be the best thing to happen to me. I didn’t know how I was going to parlay improv into any sort of job or career, but it was what I pursued, and in the meantime I did day jobs. I also made money in New York with some commercials. It’s very weird, you see the same people in commercials all the time. Then you start to see the same people at all these casting offices. It’s a circuit like anything else. Someone should make a movie about it.
BLVR: How would that movie go?
EK: I guess the movie would be about the same characters on the commercial circuit. We would all see each other at the same commercial auditions. I’m not saying it would be the most interesting movie.
EK: Why was John Carter in trouble in Arizona?
BLVR: That’s one of the many many things they didn’t explain. He left the Civil War and I guess he went and got married and had a daughter. Then his family got killed, so he decided he was really into gold. And he moved to Arizona to find gold.
EK: I didn’t know his family was murdered. Was that the flashback? I thought the woman in the flashback was his sister.
BLVR: Maybe the woman was his mom, and the kid was a little sister?
EK: I thought they wouldn’t have him pursuing a new love interest if he was actually in love with his wife.
BLVR: Well, she was dead.
EK: Which she was, okay. See that explains that.
BLVR: You know what also confused me about that murder scene in John Carter is he comes back to the homestead—that’s a trope in movies—and the homestead is half burned down and he finds his family dead. But the people who have murdered his family have wrapped them in body bags; they’ve taken the time to wrap sheets around them so they’re ready for burial! The world’s most considerate murderers.
EK: They did have some class. I don’t know how old Taylor Kitsch is, but he did not look old enough.
BLVR: He’s supposed to be a very experienced Civil War, high-ranking officer. And he’s twelve.
EK: Exactly. And he’s amassed a great fortune from the gold. He should have been much older than he was.
BLVR: Maybe they were trying to give the MENSA child audience something to identify with. Early accomplishment.
EK: Achieve young and often.
BLVR: And in space.