Say you’re Kristen Bell. Say you’re on a daylong photo shoot, in the middle of capturing the fifth look — a sleek Versace number that’s emerald and gold; your hair perfectly poufed; your makeup flawless. You’re cheerfully giving everything you’ve got, even though it’s been several hours of this already, because that’s what you do. Then, suddenly, someone accidentally knocks over one of the plants near you on set. Do you: a) ignore it and keep posing; b) start screaming at the crew, how dare they, do they even know who you are?; c) squat in your stilettos and start cleaning up the mess as the crew rushes to help you, and then grab a broom and take it upon yourself to tidy up the floor, laughing and making jokes and even dancing around for a second, as people crowd around to snap photos of you being so absolutely Kristen Bell?
WWKBD? The answer, of course, is C. And here, you might say, is the crux of Bell — a woman whose natural effervescence is such that despite being the cherished hero of a beloved cult television show, it was a video of herself melting down over a sloth on Ellen that really, truly, endeared her to the larger world. Kristen Bell is the hardest working woman in the room, but you wouldn’t even guess she’s not here just to have a good time. And that may be one of her greatest powers.
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She’s a woman of contradictions: Bell breathlessly pivots between froth and seriousness, jokes and sincerity, cleaning up a fallen plant while wearing 3-inch heels. It’s a quality that extends to her on-screen roles. In her existentialist NBC sitcom The Good Place, which is heading into its fourth and final season, Bell’s character is a bad person learning to be good. In Veronica Mars, which returned for a fourth season on Hulu 12 years after it was canceled, she’s a hard-nosed detective on the outside and a marshmallow on the inside. In Frozen 2, the sequel to the 2013 blockbuster Disney hit, out in November, she’s happy-go-lucky Princess Anna, a girl who copes with the pain and alienation of her life with a song. (Yes, she can sing, too.) Her career is full of performances that blend the sad and happy, highs and lows. As a person, she embodies the same. “It is a paradox because I was given this package, this is the bottle of molecules I was given, and it looks to be something that it’s not,” she says. “It’s why it’s funny when I swear. You just don’t think a little girl like this is going to swear at you that much.”
Is it jarring, having everyone think one thing of you and constantly proving them wrong? “I think my presence confuses people sometimes because I don’t know if it’s unexpected or if I’m weirder than I even think I am,” she admits, then gives the idea a positive spin: “I am honored to be one of the human beings that is representing women who can’t be defined.”
Because Bell’s schedule is so packed, we’re chatting in abbreviated segments in between looks over the course of the day. Her longtime hair stylist, Christine Symonds, and makeup artist, Simone Siegl, quietly go about their business while I pepper her with questions. “I’ll tell you one thing,” she begins. “I do not waste time. I can separate what is necessary and what is not very easily.”
It’s a skill that’s gone into hyper speed since having kids — her daughters, Delta and Lincoln, are 4 and 6. “There’s so many places that I’m pulled,” she says, rattling off a list of TV shows she’s on, animated web series she’s producing, the YouTube spots, Frozen 2, and a long list of charities she’s involved with like No Kid Hungry and the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund. She’s also a regular face at industry events like Comic Con, and she appears in commercials for brands ranging from Neutrogena to Samsung, some of which she does with her husband, Dax Shepard.
We all have a lot going on; Bell has A LOT going on. “I’m constantly worried about how I’m representing myself, and I am a little worried that when people walk away they go, ‘Wow, there weren’t as many pleasantries in that conversation as I anticipated.’ Or, ‘She didn’t want to do all these things I wanted her to do.’”
But time is time, and there’s only so much of it. What she really wants is to be spending it with her kids. “My reality is, I couldn’t be here today unless I made the day go like this,” she says. Right now, life is about getting home for bedtime and joking about the future with Shepard. “When I talk to my husband we’re like, do you know how excited we are for our kids to have their first kiss? Do you know how excited we are for them to be making out with someone and have us come home and have them be rushing to put their tops back on? That’s the funnest part of life. Do you know what I mean? Truly!”
Despite her youthful appearance — she’s not playing a teen on Veronica Mars anymore, but she could — it feels a bit like Bell has been in the picture forever. Maybe that’s because she was everywhere before we even realized it, appearing simultaneously on TV shows, on Broadway, and in movies, for nearly two decades. Her very first role, for the record, was in 1992, and in keeping with the efficiency theme, it wasn’t one but two: She played both a banana and a tree in a suburban Detroit theater’s production of Raggedy Ann and Andy.
Her resume has all the hallmarks of an extremely directed person. When she graduated from her Catholic high school in Michigan, her home state as well as Shepard’s, she attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts — dropping out after she landed the role of Becky Thatcher in a musical version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. She’s run the acting gamut since then, her career arc a crescendo, still on the rise. You may have heard her as the voice of Gossip Girl from 2007 to 2012, or seen her as Sarah Marshall in the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or as one of the Bad Moms in two films, or as consultant Jeannie van der Hooven on Showtime’s House of Lies. She’s set to appear in the upcoming comedy Queenpins with Leslie Jones. She’s ubiquitous without it ever seeming like she takes it for granted, a little bit under the radar while still being completely on top of it.
Bell’s biggest breakout came in 2004 when she was selected out of some-700 girls who auditioned for the role of Veronica Mars, which she’s now reprising on Hulu, where Veronica’s all grown up. Fifteen years later, it seems like only Bell could ever have played the gritty teen heroine, but Bell doesn’t see it that way. “I came prepared as fuck to that audition. I came prepared for the call back. I came prepared for the test. I sat by the phone waiting. Yeah, it worked out great. But to think I had much choice … I think it’s misleading to talk about anyone’s life, maybe other than Tom Cruise, in terms of anyone being in charge.”
Returning to a role she began when she was 24, playing a 16-year-old Veronica, seems loaded, but Veronica and Kristen have a lot more in common these days. “I’m starting to look into taking care of my parents. I’m a mom. I am at the point where the world is fucking terrifying to me.” Bell scoffs at the idea of strategically building her “legacy” (journalists are always asking about that, she says, so I don’t) — she’s just looking for the next great story she believes in. But she did take on the role in a large part for her kids: “To be blunt, it’s a bitch to shoot that show. I was like, Oh god, I don’t know if I can do it at 39. I don’t want to be at work 16 hours a day. And I was faced with a decision of, since I’m a necessary part of reinventing this story, do I want Veronica Mars to live in the world for my girls? In the end, the answer was yes.”
Then there’s Anna. Bell’s own daughters, to her amusement, may be “pretty lukewarm” on Frozen, but she takes special pride in her most earnest characterization, the one that might be closest to her own truth. On paper, the first version of Anna was “kind of snooty and very girly,” she says, “and I sort of begged to play a girl I needed to see when I was 9 years old, who didn’t sit like this” — she perches primly in her makeup chair — “who sat like this” — she splays out her legs and slumps — “who tripped, who talked too fast. A girl that led with her heart above anything else and would never question it.” In fact, she’s helped shape this character more than any other. “[Frozen co-director] Jennifer Lee, she’ll write the scene and then sit down with me and we’ll go over it, and she will say, ‘What do you think about this? Maybe don’t look at the page, just say what you want to say.’ It’s not that Jen couldn’t do it, it’s just that something happens when Jen and I put our heads together, which means I’m a necessary part of Anna’s creation.”
Indefinability, it occurs to me, is both a kind of bravery and a form of agility — if no one can truly pin you down, can’t you always be creating your own life, exactly the way you want to? It’s also something the actress ultimately has in common with Eleanor Shellstrop, protagonist of The Good Place, Bell’s NBC comedy about moral philosophy that manages to be all at once wise, hilarious, educational, and a little bit like an acid trip.
At the start of the show, Eleanor is a human monster (in a sitcom way), a woman who “stops people on the street and asks them to eat her farts,” says Bell. Creator Mike Schur pitched Bell the role, saying, “I think this is you.” That’s in part because of Eleanor’s deeply resonant quest: figuring out the nature of goodness, and what makes a good person.
This season will be the last of the series, to the dismay of fans. But it’s worth it, Bell promises: “The ending is so beautiful. It is exactly what needs to be said.”
So, what does it mean to be a good person, anyway? “It’s a never-ending thought process,” she says. “Truly! Because it’s constantly adjusting to the world, the variables, and the people around you. It’s being cognizant of the world around you, and that it is not revolving around you. And it’s about prioritizing yourself, so you can give your best to others.”
Being a decent human, though, is also about being an acknowledged work in progress: “I still vacillate with being insecure all the time,” Bell admits. “One thing that I could always improve upon is what my husband tells me every single night, ‘It does not matter what other people think about you, it matters what you think about you.’ And when I can live by that I feel pretty damn good.”
Bell is in front of the camera, cracking up the crew with self-deprecating humor. “One note I get is elongate your fingers a little bit,” she says, arching a delicate hand. “And I’m like, this is what I’m working with!” She’s clad in a flowing peachy-pink dress scattered with blue flowers that’s clipped in the back to fit her small frame; her mules are hot pink and studded with rhinestones. On the floor below, steam rises from a dry ice machine. She bends and weaves and sings and slow-dances as the photographer captures shot after shot. “Close your ears, men,” she says at one point. (There are about two guys to the dozen women present.) “There’s really nice energy on this set. This is female energy.”
She asks if we can play Ben Platt, and immediately, The Dear Evan Hansen star’s song “Grow As We Go,” from his debut album, Sing to Me Instead, comes on, melodic notes emerging from someone’s iPhone connected to the stage’s sound system. It’s the kind of sweet, earnest song you might be moved to play at your own wedding. But it’s not exactly your typical celebrity photo shoot pick.
“Has anyone seen this video?” Bell asks, floating through poses as she talks. “They hired two dancers to act it out and they fell in real love.” We oooh and ahh, as much for the story as for the moment woven by her telling it.
Later, a Dear Evan Hansen song comes on. “Did anyone see it? Did you die?” she asks. “I’ve been dead for a while.” Bell loves musical theater, something Eleanor would performatively barf at upon learning and Veronica is way too hard-boiled for. She wanted to do Waitress on Broadway but had to pass because she’d have to uproot her kids, who are in school, she tells us. Snooping on her Instagram prior to our meeting, I noticed she’d sparked up a friendship with the current reigning king of musical theater, Lin-Manuel Miranda. They saw each other through a glass window at Comic Con, stared in mutual adoration for a while, and then, she says, “He came over and I just squeezed him and told him how much I loved him. Because I personally just think he should be in charge of Earth.” Two days later, he showed up at Bell’s birthday party with her Good Place castmate D’Arcy Carden, who’d asked if he’d consider coming to surprise her. “It’s just exciting to meet someone you think is a human light bulb and putting such good out into the world,” Bell says. Now he’s sending her books about Sondheim.
Ben Platt was also at her birthday party, a “gift” from Shepard after Bell asked to be surrounded by people she loved on that day. “My husband had just cold contacted him and said, ‘My wife’s birthday is this weekend; would you mind coming to a stranger’s birthday party?’” she tells me. “I’m realizing how much more I’m valuing experiences over anything else.” Musical theater, with its unjaded, of-the-moment immersive quality, is a part of that. “I feel like I was built with a lot of emotions, and I don’t really have a lot of places to put them, so they come out in musical theater. It’s always been a safe space for me. And it’s okay if it doesn’t work out, if you try to feel something and then it becomes instantly corny and you just laugh at it … I also just love storytelling, I love doing it, I love listening to it.”
By the end of the shoot, we’ve shaved at least two hours off the day’s schedule, and Bell’s pulling on her street clothes — cutoffs, white T-shirt, plaid blazer, and white sneakers — to head to her next appointment, where she’ll taste-test an array of spicy wings for the YouTube series Hot Ones. (They’re vegan; Bell is a longtime vegetarian who considers herself the person most likely to order the “California salad” off a menu.) After the wings, the evening might include tucking her daughters into bed and perhaps some down time with Shepard, but who knows what else: belting out a musical number; cleaning up a plant spill; throwing out a well-placed f-bomb? Maybe all of the above. The options are endless when you’re Kristen Bell.
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