In the fourth season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, we learn that Kimmy had a secret friend in the bunker: the purple Jansport backpack she lost in a dance club in the first episode. This ’90s college prop was not just a reminder of the outside world, but inspiration for the imaginary escapes that kept kidnapped Kimmy afloat during her underground years. When Kimmy and Jan S. Port are unexpectedly reunited in New York in “Kimmy Meets an Old Friend!”, they are both giddy to see each other – until Kimmy begins to fear that Jan will take her back to the past. This realization leads to one of the show’s darkest and most absurd scenes, in which Kimmy takes her web buddy down the Hudson River and prepares to send him off, Virginia Woolf style.
Sure, seen through Kimmy’s eyes, Jan the backpack is an adorable puppet. She is played by sesame street performer and original Avenue Q star Stephanie D’Abruzzo, who has previously appeared on Kimmy Schmidt like the hands of Mikey’s Italian grandmother, Pupazza. (Earlier in season four, she also briefly played Mr. Frumpus’ hand.) Even by D’Abruzzo standards – her sesame street characters have included a superhero jacket, tumbleweed and cheese – Jan’s role was unusual. D’Abruzzo talked to Vulture about auditioning to play an inanimate object, why Jan is like “a canned ham” and his character’s near-death experience under the dragon cloud.
Jan only has three scenes but she makes a strong impression. When Kimmy took her to the river, my husband literally covered his eyes.
I was shocked when I first read it, like Wow, they go to this place. But see, it’s Amusing to go to this place! You can’t do that as much in comedy or TV, and certainly not in puppetry. But that said, I really didn’t think people would be as attached to this backpack as they are. People came out of the carpentry. That’s wonderful.
You were previously the assistant puppeteer of Pupazza, Mikey’s grandmother. And you also had a small role as the hand of Mr. Frumpus in the season four premiere. How did the role of Jan come about?
When the role of Jan came up, I got a text from [producer] Jerry Kupfer saying, “There’s a puppet thing coming, you’ll probably have to do a voice audition, are you available?” So I did my voice audition without really knowing.
They didn’t tell you you were a backpack?
I just got the audition sides, which were pretty much all the scenes with Jan. You comb through the script looking for clues, and luckily that first scene where Jan appears, there was stuff on the page with the flashback in the bunker. So you put things together. Oh, it’s his backpack. Oh, okay, the backpack is a puppet. Alright, it’s a Calvin and Hobbes thing.
When did you actually see the puppet?
Anney Fresh built the puppet. She was also Jan’s puppeteer assistant. She made the straps. I couldn’t do all of this because I had the mouth in my right hand and the eyebrow mechanism in my left hand. She was there the whole time, and she built it in record time. It was amazing.
As for the first time I saw her, she sent me a picture because she asked about the eyes. I look at him and I think, It’s basically puppets with a giant canned ham. Annie put a lot of flex in the mouth, but unlike other puppet characters, there’s no neck. You can get a lot of attitude through your neck, through your puppeteer’s wrist, but I didn’t have that. I’ve played solidified characters like this before, but when I played these canned hams, they float in space. Jan was going to be on a surface all the time, so I had to follow the laws of gravity.
What was the process of creating the character?
The Best Puppet Characters is a very organic match between how a puppet looks and how a puppet sounds. She had no nose. One of the reasons I went for a more nasal voice is that it didn’t have a nose. You couldn’t quite make a stoned, posed voice for Jan with those giant big eyes. It would probably be funny on some level, but it wouldn’t feel authentic. And specifically with this role, if you don’t let the audience believe that this backpack is actually talking, they won’t get emotional when it’s filled with rocks. [Laughs.] If people see him as a puppet, they don’t care. They have to care about the character. Nobody cares about a puppet, but they care about Grover. They care about Kermit.
So those were the biggest challenges, seeing Jan for the first time and thinking, What am I going to do with this canned ham? To be perfectly honest, until I saw the episode, I was worried about how the puppet looked. So I’m glad others have followed Jan’s emotional journey. [Laughs.]
Were you channeling Ellie Kemper? Jan is truly a reflection of Kimmy’s childlike enthusiasm.
Yes. I thought a lot about Kimmy-isms and the influence Kimmy has on Jan and vice versa. It’s not a Kimmy impersonation, but you can see why they’re pals. It was the way I looked at it. If Jan has been listening to Kimmy talk all these years, she absorbs all the Kimmyness and it becomes a part of her.
Guide me through this near-murder scene. Where was it shot?
The location was only a few blocks from the Greenpoint studio. It was the coldest day in April you could imagine, and we were on the water, so the wind was just crazy. And poor Ellie – you know, I’m older than Ellie, but all of a sudden I felt like I was her mother. I’m just like, “She’s not even wearing a scarf!” She will catch her death! It’s a national treasure!“She has layers under the thin coat, but I think that’s not enough!
All those rocks you see along the water, that’s what I was on. At least I could wear a sling, but I was in a contorted position. With Annie behind me, I couldn’t even see what position she was in. The television screens were precariously balanced. It was so cold I had snot running down the monitor. [Laughs.] We weren’t glamorous at all, but the people were just awesome. You know, like whatever it took to make that happen.
And may I add that the props department made these stones in the foam backpack. They look real. The props department never gets their due, the things they do happen on a regular basis that you will never notice. ‘Cause you just assume, Oh, you got a pile of rocks over there? No, they couldn’t, because they had to be clean and couldn’t interfere with the function of the actual puppet. Those rocks were fake, but they look amazing.
Was the scene emotional to shoot? It’s so absurd, but it’s also a high-stakes moment.
I was not emotional because I had to do my job. At the time of doing the performance, there were so many things I had to focus on, that if I let myself go somewhere different, I would never be able to focus on the puppet, the monitor, the reflections on the monitor, what I do physically, if it looks good, and vocal performance. There’s just enough room in your head. But I’ll say it couldn’t do not to be emotional, just by the fact that it was so cold. I had cold tears streaming from my eyes. The snot, the screams and the rocks – it gets visceral. I think it was more visceral than emotional from Jan’s perspective too, because it was about self-preservation.
“Tell the cops I’m under the dragon cloud!”
Exactly, self-preservation. That’s what I really love about these lines. Now that I really think about it, the things she said – she was to negotiate with Kimy. His first response was not “Think of all the good times”, but “Look what I can do for you!” I can give you the half-pack of Starburst! You can put porn in me! You can work with me! It’s interesting to think about it afterwards. If Jan is an extension of Kimmy, then we see a part of Kimmy we’ve never seen before.
That’s really a good point.
Jan has the sense of everything to survive. Maybe it’s from Kimmy, or maybe it’s her time at the club. It depends on how deep you want to get to know if this backpack existed without Kimmy. [Laughs.] You see, these are conversations that I don’t let myself have, because if I let myself have that conversation before I did the job, I don’t think I could have done the job.
You don’t have the luxury, because your whole body is working and you have all these technical elements to take into account.
And not only that. I played a superhero cheese once, for Sesame Street. And I actually said to my husband, “Should I look more like a superhero or a cheese?” You know, those are things other actors don’t have to think about. [Laughs.] That said, ten different puppeteers are going to play it ten different ways, so I don’t want to say my way is the way.
Some people might say, “Well, how do you play a backpack?” And I’m just like, “I don’t know, the way you would play a toaster.” I played a teapot, I played a tumbleweed. I played a talking jacket on sesame street, several times! You’ve seen this jacket if you’ve seen Elmo’s World. I love this jacket character! He’s one of my favorite characters I’ve ever played. But other people would look at this and just say, “I don’t know what to do with it. You just try something and see what works. If I thought about it too much, I would be in a fetal position, unable to function.
Did you have any funny bits that didn’t make it into the episode?
I did some ad-libbing like we do, both when the cameras weren’t rolling and when they were rolling. We always play between takes when we’re puppeteers, and that really helps solidify the character. There was a run I did, where when Ellie said, “Some say the greatest adventure of all,” and I asked Jan to be totally unaware of that very serious moment. “Biggest adventure of all! Yeah we’re going on an adventure today-ay! Why is your ass still on the couch Kimmy, let’s go! Just absolutely oblivious.
We did different versions of what the silent giraffe would be like, if there will be any sound at all, if there will be any attempt at sound, or if Jan just opened his mouth and nothing came out. And there were a few lines that were cut. One of them that I miss the most is Kimmy saying, “I’m changing” and Jan saying, “Into what? A meatball? [gasp] What if we lived on a meatball planet? It’s a very Kimmy line. You have this feeling of, “Oh, that’s why they get along so well.”