Skip navigation

The star of Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock and new period drama Dickinson discusses a career spent playing narcissists and some very strange souvenirs

There were two reasons that Jane Krakowski signed on for Dickinson, the new comedy-drama in which she plays the mother of the great American poet Emily. One was that her own mother was a fan of Dickinsons work, so much so that the young Krakowski could recite a few of the poets greatest hits by rote. The script, then, immediately piqued her interest. Its changed now, she explains, but in the original, it started with: Im Nobody! Who are you? And she reads the whole poem. At the end she looks into the camera and she goes: Im Emily. Im Emily fucking Dickinson. I was like, wait. What is this? She smiles: This is not your moms Emily Dickinson.

Krakowski also wanted to play a character who would be entirely unlike two of her best-known roles, 30 Rocks Jenna Listen up fives, a 10 is speaking Maroney and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidts Jacqueline White/Voorhees, another of her immaculate, iconic narcissists, a spoof of the 1%. They are two of the greatest comedy characters of recent times.

Krakowski is in London to promote her shift to the sort-of period, sort-of drama of Dickinson, but she is a devoted Anglophile, particularly when it comes to comedy. She had her first experience of panto last Christmas, when she took her son to see Julian Clary in Dick Whittington. He was hilarious. He seemed like the king of panto. I had the best time. I was like, why have I waited so long to go? My son didnt know all the double entendre jokes and he said, why are you guys all laughing so hard? I said, one day, youll understand.

Dickinson follows over a decade of Krakowski being Tina Feys favourite sort-of bad guy. Kimmy Schmidt and 30 Rock left her comedically fulfilled in a way that made her wonder what to do next. I think I came out of that going: Theres no way Ill be able to top that kind of comedic writing. So lets go for something entirely different, to have a whole other experience.

Whisper it, but the fact that Krakowski is playing the conservative mother of a 19th-century poet in a modern-historical hybrid with a thumping contemporary soundtrack, in which Wiz Khalifa has a cameo as Death, is quite, well, Jenna Maroney. Jenna is every excess of a celebrity turned up to 11; when Tina Feys Liz Lemon describes her as a high-strung perfectionist, she zings back: I prefer soul-sucking monster.

Cant stop the rock… Krakowski in 30 Rock with Tina Fey, Jack McBrayer, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

Krakowski arrived on 30 Rock after the unaired pilot, in which a far less ego-driven Jenna was played by comic actor Rachel Dratch. She was in Guys and Dolls in the West End when Fey and Robert Carlock, who co-produced the show, asked Krakowski for a meeting. They wanted to see what sort of sense of humour I had about myself, because the part was to send up the entity that is an actress. I couldnt think of anything more fun than to get to exploit the worst traits of actors and live them fully on screen, because then you get it out of your system and you dont have to do it in real life, in a way, she laughs. I could take every horror story I had ever heard and put it into Jenna.

One of Jennas many talents was an ability to belt out a tune at the drop of a hat, which was written into the scripts as a result of Krakowskis Broadway experience. Did she have favourites? I feel like Jenna was most known for Muffin Top, and, of course, Werewolf Bar Mitzvah [sung by co-star Tracy Morgan], which went viral before viral was a thing. [Kimmy Schmidts] Titus Burgess sent me a clip that I had totally forgotten about. It was a commercial I made in Japan … She laughs. And all I do is hold up a soda, and somebody slaps me, and then I just keep smiling and drinking the soda. We got to do such outrageously fun things as part of that show.

After 30 Rock, Fey and Carlock wrote the part of Kimmy Schmidts Jacqueline, a woman running from her past by hiding behind the self-involved grandeur of New York society wives, specifically for Krakowski. At what point does she start taking that kind of casting personally? I think people feel that Jenna and Jacqueline are quite similar, she says, gamely, and I do think the cadence of the comedy is very similar because its written by the same people. But Ive always felt that they were very different characters, certainly in the approach that I take to them, because Jacqueline was a far more vulnerable person than Jenna ever was or could possibly be.

For a comedy, she adds, Kimmy Schmidt was incredibly dark. You break that down and youre like: its about a woman whos been kidnapped for 15 years and comes out of a bunker … The show will end for good with an interactive special, due at the start of 2020. Does she think she will work with Fey and Carlock again? I would be so thrilled to do something else. Id like to convince them that its three times a charm.

Now 51, Krakowski grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey where her parents hobby was community theatre. We didnt have the funds to get babysitters all the time, so they would bring me with them. Her mother sent her to open calls when she was a child. I admired the moxie she had to give me the confidence to maybe just go try, she says. Her son Bennett is now eight, the same age as Krakowski was when she first started going to auditions, but she doesnt yet know if hell follow in the family business. Hes naturally very funny, she says. Hell do comedy bits at home, and Ill be like: Wait, how would you know that? But I havent felt his need for applause, or to be seen or heard in that way, which is probably psychologically more healthy. I dont want to necessarily keep him away from it, but Ill let him find his own way, if thats what he wants to do.

A lawyered performance… Krakowski with Calista Flockhart in Ally McBeal. Photograph: Everett/Alamy

She got her first TV role in the early 80s as a teenager, on the daytime NBC soap Search for Tomorrow. I was in high school when I was on that show, so I was doing my homework on the bus ride during my commute. After she made her career on Broadway in the likes of Starlight Express, Grand Hotel, Company and Nine she returned to TV in 1997 as Elaine, the office assistant in Ally McBeal who invented the face bra. Krakowski still has one at home. It was nice to have a souvenir, and I think that was the epitome of Elaines inventions.

Ally McBeal was a genuine phenomenon. Internationally, too, she notes, which I had never experienced before. I think, apart from Courtney Thorne-Smith [who played McBeals love rival, Georgia], none of us had been on a TV show.

She moved from New York to LA to work on it, and remembers being in her car, driving back from the set, hearing a radio show analysing a recent episode. Thats when I think we all realised it was what we now call a watercooler show.

It changed their lives completely. Far more for Calista [Flockhart] than for the rest of us. I think people felt Calista was Ally McBeal for a very long time, and she had to work very hard at making people realise that she was not that character, because she played it so beautifully. Many of the characters that Ive played, especially in the TV shows Ive been on, have been very heightened and exaggerated, and so I havent felt that people think I am my characters.

When it comes to Jenna Maroney and Jacqueline White, thats probably a very good thing.

Dickinson is available on Apple TV+ now

Read more:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *