"I have no big plans for what I'm going to do with my career," Kristen Bell said. "If people stop watching the things I'm in, I won't have a career."
But people are watching. They started watching when Veronica Mars premiered on UPN in 2004, and they are still watching now. In the years since Veronica Mars premiered, Bell has balanced roles on the big screen, like the raunchy Bad Moms and the massive family-friendly hit Frozen, with ones on television where she got her start, like NBC's The Good Place, which has been renewed through season four.
"It's trying to choose things I think audiences will respond to, and hoping that intersects with something that's important to me," the actress said on picking her roles.
Her career methodology has proven successful. Bell has transformed from the scrappy star of an acclaimed (yet little-watched) drama about a teenaged private detective to a comedy force moving and shaking both in front of and behind the camera.
This is the second act of Kristen Bell.
LAUNCHING FROM MARS
It all started (in earnest) for Bell with Veronica Mars. Prior to landing the show, she appeared on and off Broadway and in a series of guest spots on shows like Everwood and The Shield; but it was Veronica Mars that made Hollywood start paying attention.
The three-season series told the story of Veronica Mars, an ostracized high schooler who, inspired by the murder of her best friend, also worked private detective cases on the side. While casting the role, series creator Rob Thomas said he was looking for somebody to play "tough and smart," with the ability to deliver "some sharp one-liners." Comedic ability wasn't necessarily high on the list of desired traits.
"With Kristen it just became a really excellent bonus that came with that package," he said about her knack for landing funny moments. Bell was the first person that Thomas auditioned for the role.
"I thought, ‘Wow that was really easy! I thought this was going to be a really tough role, but nope the first person in the door just knocked it out of the park.' And then we saw 99 people who did not knock it out of the park, and it turns out it was as hard as I thought it was," Thomas said. "For Veronica, it was being able to deliver this ‘You will not f--k with me attitude.' I really kind of thought that was the super power of Veronica in a show where we didn't have any superpowers, the thing that made her so impressive was that she was a teenage girl going through high school without feeling self-conscious, who couldn't be trifled with. Someone who you knew you weren't going to win a battle of wits with."
As episodes aired, the sly wit fans have come to know and love about the series (and Bell) developed. As Bell's first major role, it was a transformative one.
"I didn't have quite the experience Veronica had in high school, but there were definitely times in the show where I related to every thing that was happening to her, even if I didn't experience it. High school is such a dramatic time. It's so many things at once: it's insecurity and overconfidence, arrogance and vulnerability. It's a paradox. You think you know everything, and you absolutely know nothing, so it's rife for storytelling," Bell said.
"What I found through Veronica Mars was, I guess honest belief in my character's existence…I could picture myself being alive during the Salem witch trials when I was doing The Crucible, I could picture myself having a horrible experience of rape when I was on The Shield, but there was something that I could really feel about Veronica Mars," she continued. "I guess because she was bringing out the person I wanted to be in high school, which was fighting for the underdog, because I find a ton of self-esteem in fighting for the underdog. She was basically allowing me to re-write my high school experience."
Bell also learned what it meant to be the lead of a TV show, a lesson that would come in handy later in her career.
"Practically, I understood how being No. 1 on the call sheet is also a responsibility to set the tone for a nice work environment. I also feel like I learned to work hard on Veronica Mars. It's a grueling schedule. And creatively, I learned what really good writing was," she said. "I learned how to assess if things fit. Acting is really fun to change yourself and explore, but there does have to be a sense of sincerity behind it all, and you have to feel like it's something you can do. I really started to find my groove with Veronica Mars, and confidence, I think."
Speaking with Bell, it's abundantly clear the character of Veronica Mars and the experience she had on the show left a lasting impact. In addition to introducing her to audiences, Veronica Mars showed them Bell could take on complex characters—characters that aren't the typical hero—a trend you'll notice in Bell's career. Bell's TV roles aren't always characters viewers immediately root for, and it was Veronica Mars that distanced her from the typical girl-next-door type of part.
"Veronica Mars was very, very special because she was somewhat of a superhero outcast. It's very, very difficult to write someone with all of those qualities, as layered as she was. I think maybe it's just that I've never found anything like her since. She was incredibly unique," Bell said. "I think what provided a lot of that was the backdrop of high school. When you're watching a high school show, you're immediately sympathetic to the characters, even if they're unlikable, simply because they're in high school and everyone relates to how difficult that was."
FINDING THE GOOD PLACE
During the last season of Veronica Mars, Bell auditioned for Forgetting Sarah Marshall and got the role, her first part in a major comedy film. She said the movie, written by Jason Segel and directed by Nicholas Stoller, exposed her to a "whole different world of comedy."
"And comedy was always something I gravitated toward watching because I love to laugh so much. And then I thought, ‘Wow, if I can actually do this, I wonder if I'd be any good at it.' Sometimes I think I am and sometimes I really miss the mark, and that's why you have people like Tina [Fey] and Amy [Poehler] that you can constantly learn from," she said, laughing.
Bell came into Poehler's orbit with a recurring guest role on Parks and Recreation, and it was there she worked with Michael Schur for the first time. Following the end of Parks and Rec, Schur cast Bell in The Good Place, the afterlife comedy that's filled with more twists—and humanity—than your average half-hour episode of television. It's Bell's role as Eleanor, a dead woman learning how to be a good person, that has truly established her as one of the most capable comedy (and drama) performers in Hollywood.
"The Good Place was slightly more nerve-racking to enter into because I hadn't known Rob Thomas' resume before I started Veronica Mars, but I've been obsessed with Mike Schur for 10 years," Bell admitted. "I was incredibly flattered when he called me, but I also felt like, ‘Could I live up to his comedy reputation?' I guess."
"Kristen likes to downplay her talents, because she is a nice and humble person. But she is a top-tier comedian," Schur said. "Her timing is perfect, her instincts are impeccable. There were a lot of things I worried about while trying to build this show, but ‘Will Kristen be funny?' was decidedly not one of them."
Schur said the part of Eleanor "required someone eminently likable, slightly devious, otherworldly charming, facile with language, and comedically gifted, with a massive range of acting abilities."
"There just aren't that many people who fit that profile, and she is one of them," The Good Place creator said in an email interview. "Watching her act is like watching LeBron James play basketball—she does everything well." about Eleanor and The Good Place, the more that actor sixth sense seemed to kick into gear.
"I started to get that feeling that I felt on Veronica Mars where, ‘Oh, I can do this. This could work because this fits.' One thing that really stimulates me is the challenge of taking an inherently unlikable character on the page and getting the audience to root for her, figuring out a way the audience can root for her when she's on screen," she said. "It's this combination of knowing when to be off-putting and when to be sincere and let people in on your emotional state—when to be sympathetic and vulnerable and when to be snarky and sarcastic. It's a really fun line to tread. I very much enjoy the challenge."
It was Schur's involvement, the show being an "entertaining and engaging philosophy lesson," and the character not necessarily being likable that really sparked Bell's interest in The Good Place.
"I, like Mike Schur, am borderline obsessed with how to be a good person and what it means to be a good person, and how we are supposed to share Earth. Those questions and conundrums and the ‘trolley problem' are very interesting to me," she said. "There are a lot of us here, and we have to share the planet. It's not easy, and I love talking about how to do it so that we can maximize joy and minimize suffering."
THE NEXT CHAPTER?
With The Good Place earning Bell her first Golden Globe nomination and helping usher in the next phase of her career, and more Veronica Mars officially happening at new home Hulu, Bell is staying focused on the present.
"For me, my life is a mosaic of these experiences I've had. They've all been important to me, they've all affected me. I've learned something from every one of them. When I was on Veronica Mars, all I thought about was Veronica Mars. When I was on House of Lies, all I thought about was Jeannie on House of Lies," she said. "Now I've got my feet in Eleanor's shoes, I don't often zoom out and compare and contrast the roles I've played. I actually don't think that's a very healthy headspace for an actor. I think once you step outside your shoes and you start to look at yourself as another person you lose a little grounding, you lose a little—you lose yourself a little bit...I just hope, in the simplest way, the things that I'm having fun making are things people enjoy watching."
When it comes to new roles, Bell tends to gravitate towards things that are different than jobs in the past, "but with the caveat of I'm not offered everything in Hollywood."
"There are some scripts I read that I love that I can't get an audition for, and that's just life. So within the boundaries of what I feel I could get cast in, yes. I try to look for something that's currently important to me," she said. "When I did Bad Moms I just had kids and I felt like an over-stressed mom. That story appealed to me because I was going through it. Depending on the script I read, I never really know what's going to spark interest, I kind of let that happen spontaneously."
That spontaneity has paid off: She has acclaimed TV shows under her belt (with The Good Place, a career-redefining series already renewed for a third season), a part in a huge animated franchise and a key role in a burgeoning comedy blockbuster, and while she claims there are "no big plans" for the next steps in her career, Bell might already have a third act taking shape with hosting gigs—she was the first-ever SAG Awards host—and executive producing duties, like ABC's Encore.
"Hosting, yes, I do like it because I feel very comfortable around a teleprompter [Laughs.] to be totally honest. It's a very nice safety net. Also, I have a lot of energy so it's nice to vomit that up on stage, but I don't know. Knowing [Jimmy Kimmel] as well as I do, and I've co-hosted Ellen with [Ellen DeGeneres], it's a lot, a lot, a lot of work. A lot. There are things you can't even imagine that have to go through your filter when you have your own hosting gig, so I've thought about it, but I don't know. I'm not willing to explore it just yet," she said.
"I also understand perception in this business and if I start hosting too many things—side note: Which I borderline already am [Laughs.]—you are no longer perceived as an actor. You are perceived as yourself and I really like acting, so I'm not positive I want to give up my desire to step into other people's shoes and tell their stories just to be a host," Bell continued.
This Hollywood success story is not something Bell takes for granted.
"You know what? I'm just really forkin' grateful. I really am. I mean, there's no other way to say it," she said. "I don't know why people let me do the things I do, I'm just so happy to be here."
The Good Place airs Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. on NBC.
(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)
Originally published on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, 5:00 a.m. PT