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Family Time: Scene and Heard

by Robin Rieger

Netflix is the home of a new show called Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that I will likely binge-watch the first day—with a critical eye—when the series is released March 6. While it’s produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock and stars Ellie Kemper from The Office—reason enough to watch—I will be tuning in for another reason—I play a reporter in the series and appear in a few episodes.

Kemper and company are funny, quirky and compelling to watch in the trailer for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. You can’t help but like her character Kimmy’s upbeat outlook on life after being rescued from an underground cult where she spent the last 15 years. The sitcom follows her life in New York City after she decides not to return home to Indiana following her rescue. I think the show will be a success, but I am as nervous to watch it as I am excited.

As far as jobs go, this one was a 100 on a scale of 1 to 10, for the sheer fact that being hired as an actor in a television show was something I never thought of doing, but something I have done twice now since leaving CBS3 in April of 2013. Last fall, on ABC’s new hit series How to Get Away With Murder, I played the reporter who broke the news that a woman’s body was found in a water tank at a sorority house.

The scene was set like a real TV news live shot, with police bringing a stretcher out of the building behind me as I reported what was discovered. The actors in the series, including Viola Davis, see me on their television as the breaking news about the murder of a missing college coed ends the first episode and starts the second. In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt I am one of the reporters in the first episode reporting on the women in a field where they have been brought into the daylight from a bunker. A quick clip of me from that part is in the show’s trailer and when I saw it I had a “pinch myself” moment and laughed thinking, “Yes, this is me, and yes this is funny.”

As we shot different scenes on a sound stage in New York, one of the directors for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt asked me if it was just like the reporting I used to do.

In the way I stand and face the camera, talk and ask questions, it was the same. But playing the part took more than memorizing lines in a script, in that the other actors responded to me with lines of their own. It all had to flow naturally with me listening to their answers to my questions and responding, then moving either out of the scene or to another character. It was harder in the sense that you want to be really, really good because they are all good actors with years of training and experience. It’s a lot of pressure and you don’t want them to have to keep doing takes if you mess up. But I do think the years of being able to keep a straight face and report live in the middle of a Philadelphia Eagles crowd before or after a game helped me concentrate and stay focused on a set.

When I originally auditioned for the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt part, it was only for the first episode. Then a call came from my agent that they would like to have me read for another scene to see if I was capable of doing more than standing still and reporting. I took the train to New York, all the while going over and over and over the lines that I had studied at home. At the audition, I did the lines with a casting agent who was acting as my interview subject. I looked right at her and pointed the microphone at her as I asked her questions. But she was sitting in a chair and I was standing so every time I leaned down towards her I went out of the camera shot that was recording me. I managed to get a good take but left flustered, calling my agent to tell her how awkward I felt about dropping in and out of the camera shot to interact with the woman. She laughed and then I did too when she explained that when you audition and someone else is there reading the lines with you, you pick a spot on the wall to talk to and ignore the person sitting there. You just listen as they speak the lines that prompt you to say yours. I’m laughing as I write this about how stupid I felt afterwards. That’s Auditioning 101 and a lesson I will never forget.

I can really beat myself up if I think I didn’t do as well at something as I wanted to so I called Tom after my agent to let him know I was kicking myself. I went over what happened and he listened and tried to make me feel better. I was so distracted as I walked and we talked that I went the wrong way and ended up lost temporarily in New York City as I tried to make my way back to the train station.

Weeks later, I was driving to another audition, this one in Baltimore with my mom along for the ride. We got to talking about my last audition and I told her that after thinking it over it probably wasn’t as bad as I thought. I knew the lines and felt like I interacted well despite feeling awkward and leaning over. As I signed in to audition, this time for the show Veep, my phone rang. It was my agent who told me I got the part for the additional work on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I laughed and with added confidence tackled the Veep audition, but didn’t get the part. I also tried out for a reporter part on Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, two other Netflix series that have gotten rave reviews.

While not normally followers of too many TV shows, Tom and I have gotten hooked on a few, including The Newsroom on HBO and Homeland on Showtime. Sometimes I would watch three episodes in a row while Tom fell asleep after one and a half. When Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt airs, I will sit down with Tom, our kids, and a bowl of popcorn and watch, curious and a little nervous about their reactions and my own. I hope I never lose the feeling of appreciation I have for the encouragement of my entire family, especially my brother Chris. He prayed with me and cheered me on by phone as I drove to New York City asking him fearfully “What in the world am I doing?”

Bottom line: Having the courage and taking chances can be the theme of a good television sitcom—and real life, too.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 12 (March, 2015).
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