‘Happiness for Beginners’ Star Ellie Kemper on Playing a ‘Cranky’ Character For Once: ‘That Was New For Me’

“What was a great and exciting challenge was to play a character who did not have the sunniest outlook on life,” she tells TheWrap

Ellie Kemper as Helen in "Happiness for Beginners" (Netflix)
Ellie Kemper as Helen in "Happiness for Beginners" (Netflix)

Known for playing optimistic characters like the title role in “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” or Erin, the bright secretary substitute for Pam on “The Office,” Ellie Kemper tells TheWrap she enjoyed the challenge of playing a less-positive person in “Happiness for Beginners.”

In the Netflix film, which is now streaming, Kemper plays main character Helen Carpenter, who decides to go on an intense wilderness camping trip to reset her life after a divorce.

“I drew on a lot of the strength and tenacity that Kimmy Schmidt embodied. I think there was a lot of determination in Helen,” she said. “But I also think what was a great and exciting challenge was to play a character who did not have the sunniest outlook on life and who was a bit cranky, for lack of a better word, and had to move through that and chose to move through that. That was really new for me as an actor and exciting for me to play.”

Based on Katherine Center’s novel of the same name, the twist in the story comes when Helen’s younger brother Duncan’s childhood best friend Jake (Luke Grimes) goes on the same trip. The two realize that they have some unresolved chemistry, but the hiking takes precedence for Helen.

“In the tent when Helen is sharing the story about her brother, I thought that was — I as an actor have not played that many dramatic moments — I am a comedian, and I do a lot of comedy,” she said.” It was a wonderful challenge to tap into the more serious side of myself and of the character of Helen. I really enjoyed that. It was satisfying and I really enjoyed it.”

The story balances drama — arguments, past trauma and current life changes — and comedy — throwing a random group of quirky people together with an overzealous guide — well. As for its exact genre, Kemper didn’t limit it to romance or just comedy.

“I don’t know how we’re defining rom-com anymore so I hesitate to call it a rom-com. I think it is a very sweet and sincere story of a woman finding love, but I almost feel like that’s secondary,” she said. “The primary narrative here is about a woman finding happiness through rediscovering herself.”

Kemper also remembered a ghostly hotel experience off-camera that the cast experienced during production of a film ultimately about hiking in the wilderness, where anything can happen.

“It wasn’t technically the wilderness, but we were shooting a little bit further upstate, and a bunch of the cast stayed in a hotel that was for sure haunted,” she told TheWrap in an interview. “I’m weirdly at ease in a haunted place, not to brag. I feel not scared because, really, what’s gonna happen? But it’s so fun to be scared together.”