Ellie Kemper of Sex Tape

Elegant in a tan dress at the Four Seasons, Ellie Kemper’s a walking optical illusion — her easy smile and warmth seem to be given off by a much, much larger object than the actress standing in front of you. Playing the married friend of Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape — with Rob Corddry as her on-screen husband — Kemper’s a star supporting player in the new comedy from director Jake Kasdan.

We talked with her in L.A. about laughter, improv, sex and her self-assigned status as “a Midwestern prude …’ 

Schistodb: There’s always one thing I wonder, which is … with projects that seem to have a disconnect between the actual title and the film itself, or the premise and the execution of it.

Ellie Kemper: Yes.

I mean, when a script comes your way saying “Sex Tape” across it in big letters …

Right.

What’s your reaction? Did you dive in, or were you a little bit …

I am a prude, and I felt like “Oh, my God — I  shouldn’t be reading this!” Just because … (laughs) Just the word sex can scare me. So I, I, I,  I felt like “Wow, this title grabs your interest …” But then once you start reading it, you realize, yes, it is of course about a sex tape … but it’s about much more, too., It’s like a romp — it’s a funny, silly movie, I think, that does center on a sex tape .. but it’s more about the relationship.

It’s also this weird kind of caper film …

Yes …

There’s breaking and entering, con artistry, desperate measures …

All of those!

Part of the pleasure of this film is that it talks about sex as something consenting adults do and enjoy as part of their stable relationship. there’s nothing squirm or smutty about the fact people do the mystery dance … was that attitudinal shift from ‘Sex is hilarious, when you have it with a pie or an old person …”

You mean sex is a healthy, normal part of their relationship, and how do we get this spark back?

Also, that it’s not giggle-time; it’s normal grown-up adults talking about their relationship.

Yeah — there’s an opening sequence where we see Cameron and Jason’s  characters begin their relationship having sex; it just gets a little bit more routine as they of course settle into their relationship, and they have greater responsibilities handed their way — I mean, that’s sort of what growing up is. So of course you can’t always retain that big, full pleasure or excitement of the initial encounters (laughs) … but when you’re married, there are things that interrupt that.

There’s also the great scene where you and Mr. Corrdry and Mr. Segel and Ms. Diaz are standing around, and they’re wondering if you’ve seen their tape —  the stammers and the stutters in that are so natural, I have to think it took hours of practice to get it just right …

We did shoot it for hours, with a lot of different combinations of lines and improv and figuring that out, but I love that moment, because (Rob and I are playing) “Okay, well, we don’t even know why they’re at our doorstep,” and from Cameron and Jason’s point of view, these are their good friends …

… But they need to know what you know.

Exactly. I haven’t seen the final film — we tried some different takes with different lines, “We were really behind on Homeland” or “We were really behind on Breaking Bad,” and that, as you can imagine, is so much fun to play and so much fun to do over and over again, with different set-ups. I think that was one of the first scenes that we shot, and it was just a blast — standing in a doorway and being uncomfortable for so long.

There’s that saying, in comedy and jazz, that it’s knowing where to put the silences …

Exactly, totally.

Do you find that to be the case?

As I interrupt you? (Laughs) Yeah, oh my gosh. All of that. it comes down to the editing, too of course, but yeah — I really liked that feature of The Office, that they used silence and awkwardness a lot just to take the portrait of what life is like. The squirm-inducing moment; I think the audience is uncomfortable, too, even though they know what is happening — “Who’s going to clarify what’s going on here?”

A big part of the idea of the film is how having tape of you, ahem, doing the deed, is mortifying — nobody wants to have anyone watch them, uh, doing the mystery dance …

I don’t think so — although we were just talking about this, I think there are a select few individuals that don’t mind that that mystery dance is leaked to promote their careers. (laughs) I don’t need to name names …

Which always seems strange to me.

You and me both.

Why wouldn’t you just do competent work, and then no one has to see your “I like this” face …

(Laughs) Did you say the “I like this” face …?

It’s not quite the “O-Face”; it’s the building-up face …

Neither of which we need to see. (Laughs)

Does doing The Office essentially serve as not just improv boot camp, but improve boot camp and five years of combat — in that you learn to survive it and stand upright and not take too many bullets?

That’s a noble way of putting it, yeah. You know, what’s surprising, for as much improv as I thought would be implemented in The Office, all of the scripts are written ,and most of the time, there wasn’t enough time in the day to go that long on improv — it wasn’t like a movie where you do have the luxury of more time, So the actual improvisation, we’d only do two or three takes of improve (on The Office) I’d say — and I don’t think I ever mastered not laughing. I think holding back a laugh is the worst thing you can do to your body and soul, I guess — this thing of delight wants to come erupting forth, and I just remember so many times, watching Steve (Carrell) and thinking “I can’t believe what’s coming out of your mouth right now; it’s so funny …” I haven’t mastered the art of  suppressing laughter.

It’s an involuntary reflex …

It’s involuntary, but it can be controlled; not everyone would break …

But it’s like holding back a sneeze, and you’re worried your brains are going to shoot out your ears.   

I agree with you; it’s gonna come out somewhere. But The Office was a powerhouse of comedic actors. Everywhere. And kind, too.  It was a hell of a show. Hell of a show. (Laughs)

Mr. Corddry; he always has this anarchic twinkle in his eye …

Elfish …

A tall, decrepit-looking elf. Is that fun? Is he someone where you’re not sure where he’s going to go?

Yes, which is enjoyable as an actor when you’re doing a scene with him. And I knew him from around, but  … (Laughs) “just around the town.” I knew him from comedy, of course. I’d never worked with him, and I’m such a fan. But doing scenes with him … yeah, you didn’t know what he was going to do, and yeah, as an actor, what a pleasure it was to work with him.

You came up doing comedy with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade; Mr. Corddry is on Children’s Hospital with UCB alumni. Do we just imagine a much more cohesive comedy mafia than there actually is?

Oh, maybe not; I think there’s different groups … but I would say thank God for the UCB. The founders came to New York and created essentially a school for people to learn, study and then go on to great success, so no, I don’t think it’s a misconception …

But it’s not really a comedy mafia; you’re not all invited to gather at Don Apatow’s house, and he gives all the orders to everyone?

No, I think that there are different — maybe not that specific example, but I do think there are groups of comedy … It’s the same field, so people know each other.

Mr. Kasdan clearly had a great degree of comfort with Mr. Segel and Mr. Diaz after Bad Teacher … Is it nice to see that at work?

Well, Bad Teacher was so funny — I was not worried about it. I think Cameron Diaz is so funny in that movie. Those three are not only good with shorthand, and have worked together before, but I understand why they get along; they all have this similar sense of keeping things light and easygoing. Working hard, but keeping things light. The set is fun .. like it should be, an enjoyable place to work. And you didn’t feel like any idea would be rejected; you could experiment as much as you wanted, which is a good thing to have …

And stunningly rare, I’m sure.

I’m sure … I would imagine that people like to be in charge, and have ownership of every idea that comes out — and I felt free to pitch ideas, and I’ve been saying this, and it feels corny to say it, but: It felt like a family. A functioning family.

A functioning family that occasionally involved nudity, which you did not have to do …

Right.

Was that by accident, or design?

I’m not sure if it was by design — I’m glad I didn’t, because I am a Midwestern prude, but I believe that Rob’s shirt was off — and I think with guys, nudity can be different?

Male nudity is often more comedic, with its indignity; it’s opposed to this moment of female nudity where you’re supposed to just gaze and “appreciate” …

And we’re trying to change that by having more woman naked on-screen … (laughs) I guess.

Funny nudity is theoretically difficult for ladies …

Is it theoretically difficult? Our bodies are so different; I don’t know what i think; I don’t know where I come out on that. In any case, I was happy to keep my clothes on.

When you look back at the things you’ve been able to do, do you just feel ridiculously lucky?

Yes; I feel like the timing and circumstance of a lot of these projects have been extraordinary. I am very glad that I took classes at Upright Citizen’s Brigade to set me on the right course. I’m in for a load of bad luck at some point, because this has been very fortuitous.

It was always UCB for you? You didn’t think of Julliard?

I did not attempt to go to Julliard .(Laughs.) I moved to New York to do Improve. I did not harbor drems of Julliard — but I could have gotten in if I wanted to! I’m just kidding.

The film ends on a strange note; it’s hard to imagine a Sex Tape sequel, because that would require the characters being really, really stupid again …

(Laughs) Well, no, people make mistakes over and over again …

If this winds up being a hit, would you welcome a chance to bet back in the sandbox with all these participants?

Yes. (Laughs) What if I said “No?”

Everyone else reading this interivew, going “What did we do to Ms, Kemper?”

(Laughs) “She seemed happy when she left …” An emphatic yes, I would love to. And you could make it feasible, of course …

Sex Tape  is currently in theaters.