I played field hockey throughout high school and was ecstatic to earn a spot on my Division One team in college. That spot turned out to be on the bench—I saw a full one minute and 18 seconds on the field my entire time there—but I learned some invaluable lessons. The first and most important was never to fart if I was wearing one of those huge team parkas on colder game days. The parkas were so thick and absorbent that a fart would remain forever in its fibers. The second, not quite as important, but close, was that new team members must pay their dues. I’m a huge fan of newcomers paying dues. When you’re the most recent addition to a team or a job or a wedding you weren’t technically invited to, it’s so crucial to be quiet and listen. I don’t think people do that enough these days, and it bothers me. Obviously, I don’t mean that newbies should be doormats—but if you’re not fully informed or acclimated, take a minute to observe and learn.
When I joined the cast of The Office in 2009, I was the newcomer. As such, I was quiet, obedient, and I tried really hard not to fart. (Only two of those things felt easy to pull off, by the way.) This cast and crew had already created five seasons of a hit sitcom together, so they knew what they were doing. I was quite aware that I had won the lottery by landing a job on this show; my primary goal was, appropriately, not to derail the train.
I have a tendency to confuse speaking up with being rude, but the two actions are completely different.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was a new situation for me because I was the lead. While the actual stars of the show are its creators, Robert Carlock and Tina Fey, I was playing the title character. I had gone from being number 18 on the call sheet to number one. (A call sheet is the piece of paper that gives all cast and crew their call times for that day’s work, and cast members are all assigned a number.) We filmed the pilot of Kimmy in March 2014, and I felt that I had earned this job. I had worked on a television show for four years and paid my dues. Still, owning this feeling of entitlement and confidence was, honestly, a pretty unfamiliar sensation for me.
I once read that if you put a smile on your face even if you feel depressed, you will actually feel better. Somehow that smile sends a signal to your brain that you are feeling good, so your brain then releases happy hormones or what have you, and voilà! Look, I’m not a scientist. I might have glossed over some of the details. But my point in bringing up this example is that sometimes pretending to feel confident in a situation where you don’t actually feel confident can be just as effective.
And so, when we started work on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I told myself to be confident. If I didn’t understand a scene or feel comfortable with a certain line, I spoke to Robert or Tina. If I didn’t like the way my hair looked, I asked if we could do it differently. I learned that I could be assertive without being obnoxious. I have a tendency to confuse speaking up with being rude, but the two actions are completely different. It’s not bad manners to make your voice heard. It’s essential.
At the end of Kimmy’s first season, we meet Reverend Richard, who was played by our national prince and hero Jon Hamm. I’ve mentioned this before, but Jon Hamm taught me theater in high school; he had attended our high school, and then returned to teach for a year after he graduated college. I tossed and turned the night before my scene with him. I was a wreck. There could not, in the world, be a nicer person than Jon Hamm. To me, though, he was and forever will be my teacher. Oh, he is also Don Draper. I felt intimidated. It makes sense to me that I was experiencing some, ah, anxiety.
So what happened? I showed up to work, I got a big hug from Jon Hamm, and then I promptly flubbed my very first line. “I’m sorry,” I said, turning red and looking away. “I thought—I’m sorry.” Jon Hamm smiled. Jon Hamm didn’t mind. “I’m really nervous!” I blurted out. Jon Hamm said, “Well, you shouldn’t be.”
Jon Hamm was right. I didn’t need to be nervous! I had earned my spot. And with that, I made the decision to focus not on my nerves but on my work. (I still flubbed some lines. He’s Don Draper, people!!! But I flubbed those lines very, very confidently.)
I will trust my instinct, I will listen to my gut, and I will be clear about what I want.
Now that the show is ending, I feel sad—but I’m so proud of the work we have done. The biggest compliment any of us receives about the show is when fans tell us it’s helped them through a difficult time. To be a part of something that helped someone is the very highest honor. Robert and Tina created a comedy that has a heart, something I feel is nearly impossible to do.
As I move forward to the next project, I’ll take a lot of lessons with me. The most important one will be to bet on myself. I will trust my instinct, I will listen to my gut, and I will be clear about what I want. After all, if I don’t bet on myself—who will? (Besides Jon Hamm, I mean. True prince.)
Catch Ellie Kemper in the final six episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, now streaming on Netflix.