When you look up 'sunshine' in the dictionary, there's just a giant picture of Ellie Kemper, probably. That's because the actress and mom of two is so bubbly, friendly, and sweet that she might just be the human embodiment of the sun. It's fitting, then, that Kemper was the guest of honor during Tropicana's celebration of Manhattanhenge, a twice-a-year event where the rising or setting sun aligns perfectly with Manhattan's grid. This particular instance involved a sunrise, Kemper's infectious smile, and plenty of OJ to go around.
You probably recognize the fiery-haired Kemper from starring as two of TV's most optimistic roles: Erin Hannon in The Office and the enigmatic title character in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Turns out, Kemper is just as kind and down to earth as those characters make her seem.
Even though it was roughly 7 a.m. and about 30 degrees out, Kemper was fresh-faced and energetic. There was a warm glow emanating from all around, and honestly, it was probably more from her bright personality than the actual sun. When we chatted, Kemper shared details of how cooking, motherhood, and mornings intersect in her life—and dished on her not-so-secret guilty pleasure food.
Rachael Ray In Season: How did your partnership with Tropicana come about?
Ellie Kemper: This is such a dream job for me. When Tropicana came to me with this idea for celebrating Manhattanhenge, I leapt at the opportunity because I love mornings, I’ve lived in New York for years, I’ve never been a part of this, and I happen to love orange juice as well. So these things created a perfect storm—a very happy storm that I’m so glad to be a part of. The sunrise was a very powerful moment. I was actually surprised by how moved I was.
So you’re a morning person?
I’m such a morning person. In fact, right about now, like 8 a.m., is when I peak. By 10 a.m., I’m saying goodnight. I’m like, sorry guys, I tried.
What does your morning routine look like?
Right now I have a 4-month-old and a 3-year-old, so the mornings are very messy. I’ve realized that this is just a moment in time—they will get back to being more routine—but for now, it’s get up by 6 a.m. and then just try to figure out how to feed both of them at once. My younger son is still nursing, and then during the week my older son will usually start the day with cereal because it’s easy. Accompanied by OJ—it’s just true! On the weekends we usually do eggs or pancakes. That’s nice to do when you don’t have to be anywhere. The mornings are… loud. My older son goes to preschool at about 8:30 and then things calm down again. But yeah, between 6:30 to 8:30 it's a little chaotic.
What’s the go-to cereal in the household?
Kix. My husband and I rediscovered it, like, a year ago, and now James, my older son, loves Kix. He calls a single Kix a 'kick,' which I’m not sure is right… I think everything’s a ‘Kix.’ And then my husband has more grown-up cereal, like a mish-mash of bran flakes, shredded wheat, all that. The healthier ones with fiber. We’re older.
How has your relationship with food changed since becoming a mother?
It has really gotten me into gear! I should say whipped me into shape because I feel like I don’t always eat as healthy as I should. Now that I am responsible for the health of a child, I try to cook a lot more. My husband and I might still order takeout for ourselves, but I don’t necessarily want to feed that to James. Now I feel it’s important to take the time to cook a meal. Time is a luxury, and we don’t have a lot of it, but cooking can take just 15 minutes—everyone has 15 minutes! I think as James gets older I’ll look forward to preparing more together. I have to brag because we made these morning glory muffins a few weeks ago that took some time, but it was great. They were very delicious.
What was in them?
Oh my gosh, well, it was coconut, orange, raisins. There was a lot of flour and sugar, of course. Bananas. Oh, and pecans. It’s really delicious! I think it yielded around 36, so we’re still eating them. They’re great. I’m bragging! I was very proud of them.
What’s your go-to dinner to cook?
Turkey posole stew. You put it in the slow cooker, it’s so easy, and there's this lime kick—plus the leftovers are great. If I can make it, anybody can. And it’s sort of unusual, I think, so I’m very proud of that one.
Favorite childhood food?
Tuna casserole. Yum.
Ice cream. Always. Not just chocolate, though. It has to be vanilla with some sort of chocolaty thing mixed in. Too much chocolate and I can only have like two bites. I want the whole pint. That would be my guilty pleasure food. But I have it so often that it's not even guilty pleasure. It’s just part of my routine.
Most adventurous thing you've eaten?
Shoot, I should be more adventurous. Oh gosh, I can’t… I’m terrible. I don’t think I’ve had anything worth sharing. Oh, I had some spicy plantain chips the other day. I’m wild! They were very spicy.
What is your must-have food for long days on set?
Probably apples. I know that sounds weird, but when it’s a long day, you don’t want to get too weighed down, but you also want something to munch on. Actually, apples and pretzels. Love a pretzel.
Of all the characters you’ve played, whom do you relate to the most?
For better or for worse, probably Kimmy Schmidt. She has a reason for not knowing a lot of pop culture references. She was in a bunker for 15 years. I share her lack of knowledge, but I was not in a bunker—I was out and about in St. Louis, so I don’t know why I was missing huge chunks of what happened in culture at the time (laughs).
What is your favorite episode or storyline from the show?
I really loved when Kimmy goes to therapy. I think it's so huge for her to recognize that she can’t control what other people are doing, but she can control what she’s doing. That's essential to getting through what happened to her, and I found that inspiring.
Why do you prefer Tropicana OJ?
We grew up with Tropicana in our house—that was the orange juice we always drank. I love it for that reason, but I also feel better when I drink it. It feels healthy, it’s not too sweet, and it’s satisfying. When I think of the morning, I think of orange juice and starting my day. It’s nice to have those moments where you're not necessarily thinking of anything, but are just enjoying that moment—sipping your orange juice, sipping your coffee, whatever it is. It’s important to have that.
Most importantly, pulp or no pulp?
Lots of it. Love lots of pulp. It’s just pleasing to me.
Pssst—craving turkey posole now? Rach's recipe sounds just like Ellie Kemper's!