March 16, 2015 12:00 PM

There’s not a lot that bothers Ellie Kemper. Known for playing sunny sweethearts – the ever-chipper secretary Erin Hannon on The Office, the naive newlywed Becca in Bridesmaids and now Kimmy Schmidt, the woman who escapes a doomsday cult and starts life anew in the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – she’s pretty unflappable herself. But the 34-year-old actress does lose her cool when it comes to one particular irritant. “When people don’t have good manners, I think it’s inexcusable,” says Kemper, whose life in New York City, with her husband of nearly three years, TV writer Michael Koman, 37, has taught her to put a premium on consideration. “There’s a flow to foot traffic on the sidewalk, and when people aren’t adhering to that, it makes me so angry,” Kemper says. “Or when people don’t stand to the side and let passengers off the subway first, it drives me crazy! I sound like George Costanza.”

Growing up, Kemper wasn’t accustomed to such big-city problems. Raised in St. Louis with her three siblings, she had a “normal” upbringing, putting on a lot of plays and making home movies with her sister, and dove into comedy when she joined an improv troupe at Princeton. “I had a lucky Midwestern childhood,” she says, before cheerfully adding, “Thanks, Mom and Dad!”

Kimmy, the character she plays in Unbreakable, wasn’t so fortunate – she spent 15 years in an underground bunker as part of an apocalyptic cult, and the show chronicles Kimmy’s new life in Manhattan after her rescue. “It’s a heightened, more extreme version of the new girl in town starting life over in the big city,” explains Tina Fey, who created and wrote the show alongside her 30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock with Kemper in mind. “We were drawn to the idea that I’ve seen reflected in real life: People can survive anything and are capable of incredible optimism.” Kemper was the perfect fit. “She’s so intelligent and energetic and adorable,” Fey says. And Kimmy’s childlike innocence isn’t just comical – “Well, I wish I was your yellow hat!” she blithely responds to a leering construction worker, who tells her he wishes he was her jeans – but also motivational. “She has resilience and tenacity and determination. I hope I have some elements of that,” Kemper says. It’s a lesson perhaps learned from her ninth-grade acting teacher, Mad Men actor Jon Hamm, who went to her high school and returned to teach when he was 24. “He was the first to [tell me] that the central tenet of improv is to listen and say yes,” she says. “If you say yes instead of closing off, there’s that much more opportunity. It is infinitely helpful.”

Luckily, saying yes continues to come pretty easily to Kemper. During the filming of Schmidt, “she had to handle a live rat,” Fey recalls. True to form, Kemper made lemonade from lemons … or a pet from a pest. “That rat was a showbiz rat,” she says with a laugh. “It almost felt like a small kitten.”

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