Kids and improv go together like frosting and sprinkles.
At just 17, Kiernan Shipka is already one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars, thanks to her work on some of TV’s darkest matter. She played Jon Hamm and January Jones’s daughter on mid century masterpiece Mad Men and currently shares the screen with TV mom Susan Sarandon in the Joan Crawford-Bette Davis saga Feud, not to mention is next-level creepy in the boarding school horror thriller The Blackcoat’s Daughter.
Despite the fact that Kiernan (or “Kiki,” as her family and friends know her) is insanely talented when it comes to showcasing the angst, rage and demonic terror we know her for–she’s also wickedly funny. A student at Hollywood’s Second City Training Center for over five years, we woke her up at noon (she’s a teenager, after all) to talk about her time in the Youth & Teen program.
How did you first discover The Second City Training Center?
KS: I signed up for Second City as a Saturday morning class when I was 12 years old. I’m 17 now, and I’m still with you guys. I hadn’t really done any improv before that, and immediately it became my go-to exciting class for the week. I made a bunch of great friends. It was super fun, and it only got better. I did the youth morning program for about a year, and I started in Teen Troupe when I was 13. That is my class now. We perform once a week, Saturdays, for free. Beforehand, we’ll do about a two-hour rehearsal with the teacher, and then we go out and we perform. It’s kind of the best of both worlds.
What have been your touchstone moments in the program so far?
KS: Carla Cackowski was my first teacher, and she’s actually my teacher now in Teen Troupe. It’s kind of this great feeling, like I’ve grown as an improviser. We’re working on a lot of different forms now that are just really fun. A couple years ago I did my first Harold, and that was kind of like, “Woo, got that over with.” The first one can be really scary for people.
[We asked Carla Cackowski about what kind of a student Shipka is, and this was her response: “Kiki has always been the exact type of person you want in an improv ensemble, both fearless and supportive. Even when she was the youngest person on the team, she was the most confident, and watching her take chances on stage and perfect her comedic timing over the past few years has been a real joy. She’s a real comedian at heart. Her ability to make you care about what she’s saying onstage allows the audience to empathize with her in a way that reminds me of Mary Tyler Moore and Tina Fey. You can’t help but love her while you’re laughing at her.”]
How has Second City’s improv training helped you in both your personal and professional life?
KS: it’s helped me with pretty much every aspect of my life. There are some things that improv ingrains in you that you then do subconsciously. It makes you think a bit quicker. For me personally, I do a lot of press, and it helps keep me fun and lighthearted. I think that Second City improv teaches you to not take yourself too seriously, and that’s a really important lesson for someone like me who can tend to be more of serious person. It’s nice to just make people laugh. It’s awesome.
After your rather dark turns on TV as Sally Draper and B.D. Davis, people might be surprised to find out that you are hilarious. Is there an advantage to be disarmingly funny? Is it like having a super power?
KS: I feel like everything I do that isn’t dramatic acting people wouldn’t expect. I’m a black belt in Taekwondo. I don’t think people would expect that. People don’t think that I’m funny because I have a tendency to play really sad characters and sad people. It’s kinda fun; I like that element of surprise. Just whip it out.
Do you have dream comedic role that you want to play?
KS: Any comedic role would be a dream! I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with Tina Fey, who is a Second City alum, and it was fantastic and amazing. That was a dream come true. But just working with my favorite comedians–and people that I admire–is kind of the dream. I love Amy Poehler. I love Rachel Dratch. I love Molly Shannon so much. I think Jack McBrayer would be really super to work with, too. When you’re working with other people who are amazing, it just makes you be that much more on your toes.
Last question: who is the funniest person you know?
KS: Man, Jon Hamm is really up there. He’s the first person that comes to mind as just being fricking hilarious at any given moment.
Feud airs Sunday nights on FX.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is in select theaters now and available On Demand.
Find out more about The Second City Training Center’s youth and teen offerings at our Hollywood, Chicago and Toronto locations, and catch the Teen Troupe in Detention Hall every Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.