The actor, whose charming construction worker Mikey won Titus' (Tituss Burgess) heart — and ours — in Season 2, first played a construction worker who heckles Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) on 30 Rock in 2010. Five years later, he played a construction worker who heckles Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) on Season 1 of Fey and Robert Carlock's Kimmy Schmidt. By the end of the episode, he came out to Titus.
"Robert did say to me when I got on set [last season] that I was the best heckling construction worker he'd ever seen," Carlsen tells TVGuide.com. "He said, 'Oh, my God! I guess we're pigeonholing you. I didn't remember that you did this [on 30 Rock].' I said, 'Dude, you can pigeonhole me as much as you want. I will be whatever you and Tina want me to be as long as you want me to be.' I'm just happy to be in the room. I'll take it."
Carlsen has a lot to be happy about these days. Since Season 2 of Kimmy Schmidt premiered on April 15, he's been flooded with "amazing" messages from fans about Mikey and Titus' adorable relationship. "Waiting for this to come out and getting the feedback has been so wonderful," he says. "I'm so glad people like it." It's a brand new experience for the 36-year-old — and one that has him, like Mikey when he bumps into Titus again in Season 2, believing in fate.
Since he started acting after graduating from SUNY Purchase in 2004, Carlsen has played his share of nameless blue-collar types (he was both "Police Officer #2" and "Police Officer #3" on Daredevil). But after co-starring in the Tony-winning play The Coast of Utopia in 2006, he took a break from acting when his father got sick. His first audition when he came back? 30 Rock.
"It's a pretty funny full circle thing that's been going on for me. It feels like things happen for a reason and then things just get figured out the way it gets figured out. I just feel so lucky that it's with them. They're geniuses and they're the nicest people on the planet," Carlsen says. "I believe there was an email after [I did 30 Rock]. 'You did great. We'll see what happens in the future.'
"And then 30 Rock ended and they were starting new stuff and I got the audition for Kimmy and I read this guy, and I'm like, 'Yeah, I guess Mikey is their construction worker figuring stuff out.' I'm playing him as the same person [from 30 Rock]. I feel like it's the natural evolution for me and for him. I'm a big believer in the shows existing in the same world."
In some corner of the universe, they definitely do. Kimmy has made numerous cheeky references to 30 Rock, including featuring Alfonso, the TGS piano player played by Jeff Richmond, the show's composer and executive producer (and Fey's husband), in the penultimate episode this season. In fact, it was Richmond who informed Carlsen that Mikey would be back during a chance meeting at the gym a few weeks before Season 2 started production. Because they never met during Carlsen's Season 1 guest spot, the actor introduced himself.
"He looked me right in the eye and said, 'Oh, you're Mikey! We're so excited!' And I said, 'Huh?' And he said, 'We're so excited to have you back.' I said, 'I'm excited to be back. I didn't know, but that's great!'" Carlsen recalls. "I got an email and a phone call about four hours later. I think Jeff knew it was happening because the episode where I ask Titus out was directed by him, so I'm sure he was thinking about that big moment.
"I love that scene so much and I think he directed it really, really well. It's such a sweet scene at the truck with his 'hot chick,' Ms. Tilda Swinton, on the back. That's one of the funniest jokes all season. You can't beat Tilda Swinton on a truck!"
While Carlsen says he was initially only signed for two episodes and wasn't told of Mikey and Titus' season-long arc, some form of the idea had been percolating in producers' minds since Season 1. According to Carlock, who did forget that Carlsen was on 30 Rock, they wanted to give Titus a boyfriend in the first season but didn't have room for the story.
When it was time to choose a beau for our "Peeno Noir" superstar, they knew exactly who they wanted.
"It was one of those moments where it could've been a one-off, but it was so great and sweet that you wanted to see more of it and them together," Carlock says of Mikey coming out to Titus in Season 1. "Mike's great, he's awesome... we thought it'd be interesting to see where it could go. It was really fun to get into that and just to treat it as a relationship."
"Sweet" is the most apt word to describe Mikey, a Mets worshipper and Lion King fan with a flip phone and a literal puppet for a grandmother ("Pupazza is the funniest thing ever. I hope pupazza comes back," Carlsen says).
By far the most grounded of Kimmy's wacky cadre of characters, Mikey is impossibly endearing, goofy and sincere in a way that has totally disarmed Titus. You know he's the first person to have the balls to tell Titus he can't promise he won't hurt him... and that he'd have to "Property Brothers this cut job."
"With Titus and the way he is in his natural Titus-ness, I felt like the best way to play Mikey was to be true and just be very honest to every situation that was given to him," Carlsen says. "Every scene that he's in, I'm just trying to play the scene. I'm not trying to play up the comedy and I don't really need to because the writing is so good. I think that's how we built that dynamic.
"Mikey is always trying to catch up to Titus. I think from that first scene, Mikey is in touch with his soul and he sees things in people that they don't necessarily see in themselves, and I think Titus understands that. He gives Titus this opportunity to open up. And I think Titus is exciting to Mikey. And obviously there's an attraction."
It also probably helps that Carlsen and Burgess knew each other from the theater circuit before Kimmy. "We had met each other probably three or four times before the show. I feel like our energies work really well," Carlsen says. "The great thing about Tituss is he does things differently every take. That enables them to cut and paste the way they want. Once I saw him do that, I was like, 'Oh, OK, that's what we can do? I'm going to do that too.'
"After Episode 4, their date, I think we started to understand how we work. Throughout the season, I felt like our relationship built just like Mikey and Titus' relationship built. I'm really happy people are taking to it the way that we were hoping that they would. These two people are trying to figure each other out. It's a real relationship and I think it's really beautiful."
The finale leaves the couple at a bit of a crossroads, after Mikey encourages Titus to perform on Dionne Warwick's four-month cruise hours after they moved in together. Season 3 hasn't been broken yet, but Carlock believes the pair is MFEO. "I love them together," Carlock says. "Mikey is still around. I think they can make it."
Needless to say, so does Carlsen. "I think they can do [long-distance]. I think Mikey is pretty set. It feels to me he's like, 'This is my dude. I'm not going anywhere.' I'm pretty sure you'll be seeing Mikey next season. I think what they've created between them is great. I can't wait to see what they come up with."
Perhaps that would include Mikey singing a future hysterical Kimmy original song? "I would love to have Mikey sing. I don't know if that's the best idea for the show," Carlsen jokes. "I think Mikey can sing over a beer commercial or something. Maybe we'll go to a Mets game and we'll sing during the seventh-inning stretch.
"I'd be happy with anything. This was the best five months of my life. I'm actually really interested to see what's going to come next because I don't know what's going to top this job. Best job ever."
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is now streaming on Netflix.