For New Yorkers and world-travelers alike, Manhattanhenge is a big deal. Just ask actor and comedian Ellie Kemper, who, for the very first time this week, braved throngs of photographers, tourists, and astrophysics fans to catch a rare glimpse of the sun rising perfectly between the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star was able to tick the experience off on her bucket list thanks to Tropicana, which held an early morning Manhattanhenge viewing party in honor of their new “Sip Your Sunshine” campaign, and dubbed Ellie — arguably the human embodiment of sunshine — host of the whole shebang. Between sips of Tropicana’s Pure Premium orange juice and reveling over the breathtaking natural phenomenon, Travel + Leisure caught up with the funny woman about her first Manhattanhenge experience, the unexpected item she never travels without, and the destinations she dreams of exploring.
Travel + Leisure: Today started before sunrise. How do you get going on super early days like today?
Ellie Kemper: “Luckily I’m a morning person. That’s why I was so thrilled when Tropicana came to me with this idea, because I love the mornings. So, greeting something as special as Manhattanhenge at sunrise was like a dream come true to me. To get going, I always feel like you have to take a moment just to clear your brain and think of nothing, and just accept what the day’s going to be like. That energizes me for the rest of the day. It’s just finding 60 seconds here or there just to focus for the day. And on a day like today, I always have coffee. I must start things off with that.”
Can you describe your first-ever Manhattanhenge experience?
"Today was the first time I experienced it! It was on my bucket list forever. I’ve lived in New York on and off for 15 years, but I’ve only ever heard the tales of Manhattanhenge. So now I got to witness it for the first time. It was really magical.”
Do you think it’s on par with other major New York events tourists travel to the city for, like New Year’s Eve in Times Square or the Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting?
“Oh, absolutely. In fact, I would put this above even the Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting, because this was nature! It was really powerful. There was not a cloud in the sky, and it was just a gorgeous moment reminding us all that mother nature’s in charge. It was also just a really beautiful moment of brightness that I think everyone can use a little bit more of in their lives.”
Especially in New York City, right?
“That’s the thing. In a city where you’re on the go, everyone’s in a hurry, you just have to pause, take this moment, and celebrate the sunshine. It was literal sunshine, and it was beautiful.”
As a New Yorker yourself, what are your favorite things to do, see, or eat?
“I love Central Park. I, luckily, live very close, so I love going for a run in Central Park, I love taking my son to Central Park. My favorite things to eat are honestly those nuts from the cart, the mixed nuts. They smell so good, they taste so good, they’re delicious! That remains one of my favorite New York City treats. I also love a Levain cookie — any variety. They’re so big, I feel like you’re supposed to eat them in several increments, but I always eat them in one.”
What’s one overrated New York tourist trap you think people can skip on a trip to the city?
“I’m not sure everybody has to go up the Empire State Building. Can I say it? I don’t know if that is necessary. I don’t want to deter people from doing that if that’s what you want to do, but there’s a lot more interesting things, I think, that you can explore on foot. I feel like a Grinch — go up the Empire State Building if it’s your thing!”
Outside of New York, what are your top travel destinations?
“You know what? I love London. I used to live right outside London. I lived there for a year, and I loved going into the city. I think London’s a pretty dynamic, vibrant, awesome place. Another one of my favorite places in the world that I visited was Japan. I loved Tokyo.”
Is there anywhere you haven’t traveled to but dream of visiting?
“I’m trying to think of just one — I would love to visit Copenhagen. I’ve never been and I think that would be a really stunning place to visit that I’ve only read about and seen pictures of.”
What something you never travel without that would surprise people?
“This is embarrassing — Waldo, my stuffed walrus I grew up with! Technically I’ve given him to my son James now, but I do take him on trips. I’m not sure if it’s for security for me or for [James], but I take him with me still. He’s a beat up little walrus and he’s going on, like, 35 years old, but he’s still pluggin’ away! He’s cute. He has a little sailor’s hat. I promise I’m a well-adjusted adult.”
If you could spend the day exploring one of these towns related to some of your most memorable roles, which would you choose: New York City (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt); Scranton, Pennsylvania (The Office); or Milwaukee ("Bridesmaids)?
“I would spend the day exploring Scranton, I think. I got to go there once at the end of The Office. There was a parade, the whole cast was there. Scranton was so welcoming, the residents were awesome. It was just a really beautiful weekend. I would love to go and spend a normal, non-Office-related day there just to see what it’s like. I always see signs for it when I’m driving, and I’m like, ‘should I just veer off and go visit?’ It was the people that made the difference.”
Any final Manhattanhenge thoughts?
“I think that in general, especially these days, it’s so important to find moments for yourself, and find those moments of brightness. I think that can keep you going through the day, so I’m just really happy to be a part of this moment of brightness today. I think I wanna leave with that message, which is just that it’s important to take a moment, take a deep breath, and realize what’s bright in your life.”