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Erin Hannon, Dunder-Mifflin’s sunny new secretary, is the best thing to happen to The Office in a while. She’s sweetly naïve and enabling to all its weirdoes, and her budding romance with Ed Helms’ Andy Bernard is fast becoming a favorite plot point. The role couldn’t have come at a better time for Ellie Kemper, a comic actress who arrived on set by way of New York. She has an extensive background in live improv and sketch, continues to appear in countless web videos, and crops up on Important Things With Demetri Martin and the recent Derrick Comedy film Mystery Team. (She’s also an occasional contributor to The Onion.) Kemper has become comedy’s go-to utility player, and The Office was smart to snatch her up, upgrading her from a guest-starring role last season to the full-time cast this year. In the midst of shooting the sixth season’s final episodes, Kemper talked to The A.V. Club about her former acting teacher Jon Hamm, her character’s love of the Nard Dog, and why she’s sick of being “the girl from that blowjob video.”
The A.V. Club: Your part was much tinier last season, and now you’re a full-on regular cast member. How did that change come about?
Ellie Kemper: Originally, the character was written for four episodes, and then they kept her around for two more. Then by the end, I was like, “It seems they’re hinting that this character’s going to stay in the show.” So I don’t really know how it happened, besides extraordinary good luck and timing. Actually, we just read the season finale, and I was just waiting for them to be like, “And unfortunately, Erin has to go,” but there wasn’t any hint of that. I guess that’s the fear of any sitcom, or any show, that your character will leave. But I think she’s going to come back next year, so that’s good.
AVC: So there was no meeting or briefing about the part once they expanded it?
EK: No. The part I auditioned for was more along the lines of the straight man—grounded, sees through it all. She was sarcastic. I do have this fear that they tweaked the character… Because Erin’s very weird, and my fear is that they think I am that weird in real life. I’ve noticed that they will play on certain people’s… like Creed [Bratton] is sort of weird in real life. [Laughs.] But he’s also weird on the show, so I’m like “Hmm…” But I am so happy they decided to make her more sincerely strange than other people there. I haven’t really sat in the writers’ room, so I do wonder what the conversation is. Jenna [Fischer] and John [Krasinski] will go into the writers’ room to discuss their characters, but I’m so scared of doing anything that could get me fired that I don’t want to ruffle any feathers.
AVC: Don’t you feel more secure now that it’s been almost two years?
EK: Yes. Absolutely. Although… I do still have a fear of getting fired. Even when I had to leave for a funeral, I was like, “I shouldn’t ask them. I don’t want to ask them. I don’t want to bring it up. I’m new.” Of course they were, like any human being, very nice and understanding, and they let me go. So I am more comfortable, but I do feel the sense that I am the new person and I need to know my place. Because, also, by the way, they did all the work. They built the show for five years before I got to come on, so I am kind of like, “I need to be quiet.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Your character and Andy Bernard had their first kiss a few weeks ago during an episode’s closing credits, which seemed odd.
EK: I thought that was weird only because [that spot’s usually reserved for an] extraneous bit, not essential to the story. I thought, “Oh, well, it seems like it would be part of the story, that people should know that we kiss-kissed.” Without giving too much away, I’m thrilled that love line is being followed, because I think that Andy is such an appropriate match for Erin, or what Erin is becoming. I maybe shouldn’t do this, but I read the fan comments, and I’m not sure that everyone feels the same—maybe it’s just that I’m listening to the negative ones. People say it seems a little forced, but Andy’s looking for love after being burned.
AVC: What does your character see in him, then?
EK: This is her first real job, and… I don’t really know what her boyfriend background has been, but this is a man that she’s impressed by, who is already established in this world that she is so fascinated by. But also with Andy, she doesn’t get that he’s a little weird, because she’s as weird. They are in the same world of weird, I guess. Her relationship with Michael is similar: She thinks Michael’s a rock star, because he’s the boss of this whole office. He can do no wrong. I don’t think that Erin is dumb. I guess it’s naïve, but it’s so sincere. That’s what I love, that there’s no cynicism or sarcasm with her. It’s just like, “Andy!” Andy is so weird to her, but she’s just charmed by it.
AVC: What else do you read on the fan boards?
EK: I’m so worried about being new on that show, because the fans are die-hard. Any rippling of the water can be upsetting. So I’m very conscious of that in the first place, to be a new person in their familiar world. But then some of the fans are like, “Erin is too weird.” In one of the webisodes, she thinks she wants to be an accountant because she used to watch the Count on Sesame Street, and someone was like, “That’s too weird for anyone to say.” And I sort of agree with that, but it is a comedy show. It can be funny.
AVC: You came from a live comedy background in New York. How has the live performance experience changed now that you’re on people’s radar? Do they sit in the audience, cross their arms, and demand that Erin from The Office entertain them?
EK: Well, I haven’t been performing live as much as I want to lately. In New York, I performed improv every week on this team, and here in Los Angeles, I don’t have a weekly improv set I can perform. But the shows I have done, I actually find that people are warmer. I don’t know why. Although I feel like I can’t go out if I have, like, zits or something, only because people can keep track of you. I don’t know if that makes sense. When I see someone I recognize and they’re not looking good, I’m like, “Whoa, you don’t look good in real life.” But never mind. That’s not even what we were talking about.
AVC: You have a lot of irrational fears, eh?
EK: [Laughs.] I know! I hope they’re irrational. They’re very real, so I hope they’re irrational. Fingers crossed. To me they’re totally rational, but I guess maybe that’s the first sign that they are irrational.
AVC: You’re in a bunch of web videos for a bunch of comedy groups. What does it usually take to get you involved?
EK: Them asking me. That’s all. Certainly when I lived in New York. People were shooting web videos all the time. You know, I don’t know if you’ve seen “Blowjob Girl.” Do you know what I’m talking about?
AVC: Yeah, I’ve seen it.
EK: Suddenly I was like, “Oh great, he hasn’t heard of it,” and then I didn’t want to bring it up. I really don’t like that video, and I wish that I hadn’t done it, even though I know that it’s a joke. I hate that it got sort of big, because I don’t think that it’s that funny and I don’t want that to be the epitome of my work. It’s just one video in a sea of many, but it has made me conscious of not wanting to do a video like that again. That would be my only criteria.
AVC: At the Just For Laughs festival last year in Montreal, they mentioned you at the Variety’s “10 Comics To Watch” panel as “Ellie Kemper, who you may know from that blowjob video…” It was strange, saying it like that.
EK: Right! Okay. Thank you. I’m so happy you said that. It does make me mad, because even the title of that video—if it had been “Bad Job,” or something that wasn’t as explicit… My parents are not amused. My mom was like, “Ellie, not everyone in your family is a comedian.”
AVC: What pearls of wisdom did you glean from having Jon Hamm as a high-school acting teacher?
EK: Hmm… I don’t know about you, but I have trouble remembering my childhood for some reason. Maybe that explains a lot, actually.
EK: [Laughs.] I don’t remember specifically what he said. Here’s the thing I do remember: He was, like, are you kidding me? In a room full of freshmen girls—he was definitely just as handsome back then, and having this grown, tall man teach you theater, it was like having a hunk in the class. So basically what I remember is that he was really handsome. [Laughs.]
AVC: You don’t remember his methods and his acting techniques?
EK: Apparently not. I saw him at the SAG Awards, and I didn’t want to embarrass him, but he walked in at the exact same time I did. So I gave him a hug, and then I got makeup all over his suit. I was like, “Now I’ve done it.”
AVC: Having spent so much time in New York, do you miss weather—in the most general sense of the word—living out in L.A.?
EK: Yes. I’m completely thrown. I know that this is a real place and that people live here and they’re real people, but I can’t help but think that there’s something so fake about not having snow. It’s unnatural. Also, the sun here does not put me in a good mood. I find it eerie and relentless.
AVC: Are you always such a pessimist?
EK: I know! I’m trying to figure out why. I guess it’s easier to think badly and then be pleasantly surprised.