The end of a TV show can mean a lot of things for an actor: the end of getting your hair done for free, the end of eating hot snacks for free, the end of free time spent napping in your trailer. But it also means something more poignant: the end of your character’s journey. (At least until the show’s reboot.) While television characters are immortal in a way — living on even after the show is done — when the story reaches its conclusion, so, too, does the time an actor has spent getting to know the characters in that world. When I learned that the fourth season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” would be its last, I felt sad to have to say goodbye to Kimmy. While rumors of a possible movie help to cushion the blow, still, the series itself is over.
I have been a cast member of two television shows that have ended. (I swear it’s just a coincidence that when I’m on a show, it ends.) The first one, “The Office,” wrapped up way back in 2013, when you didn’t order your deodorant online. I cried every single day for the final month of filming. I would drive home on the 101 in my Ford Fusion, blasting “Ada” by the National and “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones. As the tears streamed down my face, I would wave away concerned motorists giving me the universal “Are you O.K.?” gesture (yes, that’s right, I’m confident that’s what the gesture meant).
What was happening to me? I hadn’t even been on the show since its start; I entered at the end of the fifth season. Jobs end, people move on. Why, then, did I feel as though I were leaving home for the first time? And why did I ever think that a Ford Fusion was the car for me? It’s way too wide!
A year later, filming the pilot episode of what would become “Kimmy,” I told myself to get my act together. Back on “The Office,” I could get away with blubbering like a little baby because I was the newbie. I had never had a job as a recurring character on a TV show, and I had the entire cast to show me the way. My main objective was to stay quiet and try not to derail the train.
Here on “Kimmy Schmidt,” I was Kimmy Schmidt. I was the lead! I knew that my fellow cast members (the up-and-comer Jane Krakowski, the Broadway “veteran” Tituss Burgess, someone named Carol Kane) would look to me for guidance and leadership. I understood that as the show’s rock and foundation, I was the one to whom my crew, the production staff, the meek and timid Teamsters union would look for inspiration. I closed my eyes and nodded, thinking of all the great wisdom I could share with Tina Fey.
Cue record scratch. Obviously. While I was playing the title character, the real stars of “Kimmy Schmidt” were its creators, Robert Carlock and Tina Fey. The cast featured a band of showbiz heavyweights. We had guest stars like Joanna Gleason and Peter Riegert. I guess the point I’m trying to make is not only does a person never stop learning, but also a person should never, ever refer to herself as the “rock” for a Teamster.
On the final day of shooting, our production crew thoughtfully tried to schedule scenes that included as many cast members as possible so that we could all be together at wrap. When we finished at 11 that night, there were toasts and champagne and lots of people stealing props when they thought our prop department wasn’t looking.
As I weirdly remarked to Ted Sarandos (the chief content officer of Netflix) a few nights ago at our wrap party, this feels like the end of an era. Was it necessary for me to share my emotional thoughts with the head of Netflix content? It was not. Do I feel like a lot has changed since “Kimmy” first started streaming on Netflix four years ago? I sure do.
In no particular order, here are some of the invaluable lessons I learned from the people I worked with.
A star of “Hester Street” and “Taxi,” Carol taught me that though there are many, many details swirling about a television show, the actor’s primary job is to perform. I know this sounds obvious, but the truth is, actors spend a lot of time waiting and not that much time performing. Carol always puts her performance first and eliminates any distractions that might interfere with that priority. Happily, she does not consider me showing her endless iPhone pictures of my 2-year-old son a distraction. She is a very patient national legend.
I had a crush on Jane long before meeting her, and you know how they say never meet your heroes? Well, they’re wrong. Jane was everything I had hoped for and more. She taught me the importance of being prepared, of doing your homework, of knowing your stuff. Sadly, she has not yet taught me how to do the splits (something she can do with alarming ease). Next show.
All I ever want is for Tituss to approve of me, to love me. I crave his attention, and a smile from him will have me soaring all day. He apparently represents to me a weird mix of my grandfather, my old field hockey coach and Luke Perry, and all this shall be unpacked in a future therapy session. For now, he showed me how to speak up for what I want. I often stay quiet, thinking it’s the polite thing to do, and Tituss has taught me that making your wants known is not the same thing as being rude.
Robert Carlock and Tina Fey
Look, these two made a comedy about a woman who was kidnapped and held underground for 15 years. The show is about what happens after that. How do you continue to move forward after experiencing a tragedy? And how on earth do you manage to make any of it funny? The greatest compliment that any of us receives is when someone tells us that the show has helped her through a difficult time. All of the core characters have gone through some sort of upheaval, and they all come out on the other side intact, resilient, determined to make a go of it. In my own personal life, I have been very fortunate. To understand the true depth of Kimmy’s tenacity and courage is something I might never fully be able to do. But to be a part of a show that seems to make people feel better is one of the highest honors I’ve had. And all that is because Robert and Tina work tirelessly to make it right.
There exists in the universe a naturally occurring phenomenon known as “The Buscemi Effect.” What happens is, whenever you are within 40 feet of Steve Buscemi, you suddenly start to feel great. Steve directed an episode of “Kimmy” in Season 2, and he even made a cameo in one of the final episodes. I have tried to understand precisely what makes this man so very charismatic, but I cannot. And so instead, I pass along this advice: At least once in your life, try to stand within 40 feet of Steve Buscemi.
Ellie Kemper is an Emmy-nominated actress and the author of “My Squirrel Days.”
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