A giggly Ellie Kemper charms audience at Wash U.
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 26, 2012 - What a difference an “l” makes. Last May, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke to graduates at the Washington University commencement, with a message not to stand idly by but to strive to make a difference in the world.
On Thursday, actress Ellie Kemper, who grew up in St. Louis, addressed a crowd at the university’s Graham Chapel, a talk punctuated with appreciative laughter from her audience and giggles from Kemper herself.
Wiesel clearly impressed his audience. Based on the throng that pressed forward to meet her after her talk was finished, Kemper obviously delighted hers.
Kemper delivered the annual Women’s Society Adele Starbird lecture, named for the longtime dean of women at the university who retired in 1959. Starbird also wrote a column for the Post-Dispatch for many years.
Finding common ground with Starbird, Kemper pointed out that she too had written a column, for a school paper, for a far shorter time. And while Starbird taught French at Mary Institute, Kemper noted that she had taken French at John Burroughs.
“I wish that I had some great wisdom to share,” Kemper told the crowd, “but I don’t.”
Instead, she traced her career from the time she and her sister staged productions growing up, for an audience that usually consisted of her parents and maybe her grandmother, up to today, where she is part of the ensemble cast of “The Office” and co-starred in last year’s “Bridesmaids.”
The movie is quite a bit different from one of the childhood films she described, which has made its way to YouTube as a three-minute horror flick titled “Man Under the Stairs,” featuring a lot of menacing looks and juvenile screaming.
Other early acting experiences Kemper recounted included en eighth-grade rendition of the “speak the speech” piece from Hamlet and roles in productions like “Godspell” and “Cabaret” under the direction of Jon Hamm, the Burroughs drama teacher who now stars in “Mad Men” and also appeared in “Bridesmaids.”
“I’ve never tried harder to be better at anything,” she said of those years.
At Princeton, Kemper said, she spent more time riding the bench of her field hockey team than getting involved in drama, at least at first. “I touched the ball twice,” she said of her athletic career. “They were both just taps, but they were really, really good taps.”
Her attention soon switched to improv, an experience where “I always measured a good time by how many times I wet my pants from laughing.”
After graduation, she spent a year at Oxford studying English, then returned to the United States, where she pursued performing with no real goal in mind.
”I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Kemper said. “I just knew that I wanted to keep taking improv classes.”
Faced with a classic dilemma – she couldn't get an agent until one could watch her perform, but she couldn’t get a job performing until she had an agent – she kept plugging away. Eventually, she ended up writing for the Onion, working with Conan O’Brien and auditioning – unsuccessfully – for “Saturday Night Live.”
Another audition, for the show “Parks and Recreation,” also failed to yield a job, but it led to Kemper’s being cast as Erin Hannon, the perky receptionist on “The Office,” where she appeared in a few episodes in 2009, then became a regular cast member.
When she got the part, Kemper said, “It was the best thing I ever heard – and it was the most terrifying thing I ever heard.”
Kemper’s sister Carrie is a writer for “The Office.” They are the daughters of David Kemper, chairman and chief executive of Commerce Bancshares and a longtime trustee of Washington U. A $5 million gift from the family established the campus art museum, named in honor of his mother, Mildred Lane Kemper.
Ellie Kemper, who was the 1999 Veiled Prophet queen, responded to questions after her talk, including advice to would-be actresses to help create their own material, so they could keep control of their careers. She also talked about the other St. Louis area members of the “Office” cast, including Jenna Fischer and Phyllis Smith.
And while she had already answered the one official St. Louis question – John Burroughs – she did have an enthusiastic endorsement for another local product that often gets dissed.
“I love Imo’s,” Kemper said.