The next time you need reassurance that the world works the way your yoga teacher says it does, and that what you put out is what you’ll get back, consider the story of how Kristen Bell got the leading role on The Good Place.
The year was 2016. The setting: a Los Angeles movie theater lobby. Mike Schur, the show’s creator, had gone to see a movie by himself. Bell was there with her husband, Dax Shepard, and their two daughters, Lincoln and Delta.
Bell and Schur knew each other from New York City, where they had both lived in their 20s and moved in the same circles. Schur was writing for Saturday Night Live, and Bell was still a student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, just starting to work on Broadway. Even then, he was in awe of her talent: “She’d been in The Crucible! With, like, Laura Linney and Liam Neeson!”
Eventually they each moved to LA, crossing paths occasionally. The time Schur ran into Bell at the movie theater, he happened to mention his daughter’s upcoming fourth birthday. Bell, unprompted, asked if Ivy would like a phone call from Princess Anna.
Talking with Bell is like talking to your most introspective and good-natured friend, the one who’s actually read all the Brené Brown books you’ve been meaning to and definitely won’t.
“She left, like, this two-minute message on my phone, and she kept saying my daughter’s name – ‘Ivy, this is Princess Anna, calling from Arendelle,’” Schur says. “And the way my daughter’s face lit up…”
In addition to having an enchanted kid, Schur also had Bell’s phone number. He called to tell her that he was working on a show and that she might be perfect to play the lead. The rest is television history.
The Good Place — a show about an “Arizona dirtbag” who dies in a tragic shopping-cart/truck collision, and then wakes up believing she’s been accidentally sent to Heaven — asked big questions: What makes someone a good person? What do we owe other people? How do we live together in the world?
Even if she hadn’t completed a four-season run on the show early this year, you get the sense that Bell would still care about those questions.
“I love every role I do,” Bell says in a Zoom interview. But playing Eleanor — along with Veronica Mars, the part that made her a star — was in a different category. “The story seemed to have impacted people and made them think about life, and it is for that reason that they will be my favorite roles forever.”
Being good isn’t easy. It’s not easy for regular people, especially in the midst of a pandemic and the country’s political and racial justice convulsions. It’s not easy for celebrities, whose careers now depend on knowing when to speak candidly and when to post a photo spread. That’s extra-true for famous women, and even more so if they’re mothers.
Like other celebrity moms, Bell has struck that balance with consummate skill. She has the endearing Instagram and the parent-focused product lines. She shares Busy Philipps' obsession with oversharing, has a Kardashian-level love of pranks, and her dark, bawdy humor can make Chrissy Teigen’s Twitter digs seem tame. Unlike some of her counterparts, Bell doesn’t seem interested in projecting an unrealistic level of beauty, success, or domestic intuition. She isn’t teaching anyone how to cook or decorate or train their waist.
Instead, she connects with fans over parts of her life that many recognize from their own: family crafting projects, the kids walking in on you having sex, the frustrations of a long-term relationship with another imperfect person you really love. Even her product lines, Hello Bello plant-based baby products and Happy Dance, her new stressed-mommy CBD skin care and bath line, won't make you feel like you've gotten "needs improvement" on your report card. Instead of holding herself up as who you could be if you just tried a little harder and wanted it badly enough, Bell, in a miraculously sincere and un-judgy way, radiates comfort, and the belief that all of us are doing our best.
"The forced creativity has been one of my favorite things. So we’re saving toilet paper rolls and we’re putting googly eyes on them and we’re putting them in daddy’s underwear drawer."
On Zoom, Bell is funny, and smart, and significantly better groomed than your average mom on lockdown. Her signature blond bob is so shiny and sleek that I wonder if she’s found a way to get keratin treatments in quarantine (Queratin?). She wears a lavender sweater and delicate gold necklaces that seem to be her designated work call look, and, over the course of an hour-long conversation, whether she’s talking about parenting in the pandemic (“every room looks like a toy basket exploded”), laughing about the pile of unread New Yorkers stacked by her bed, or reflecting on why she accepted and later relinquished the role of a mixed-race character on Apple TV’s Central Park, Bell is just what you’d hope — and what her Instagram feed has led you to expect.
Talking with Bell is like talking to your most introspective and good-natured friend, the one who’s actually read all the Brené Brown books you’ve been meaning to and definitely won’t.
When I tell her that, six months into the pandemic, I’ve given up on limiting screens and my children are basically feral, she’s quick to cut in with “You’re not a slacker!”
Plenty of stars never mention their help, or they crop nannies or assistants out of the pictures they post, the better to project an image of supermom competence. Not Bell. “I have a lot of good people that I work with who help me navigate and know what our team priorities are,” she says. The rule on the Bell-Shepard team, which includes daughters Lincoln, born in 2013, and Delta, born in 2014, is that every day, everyone has to do one thing for their brain and one thing for their body. Beyond that, Bell tries to find fun wherever she can.
“The forced creativity has been one of my favorite things. So we’re saving toilet paper rolls and we’re putting googly eyes on them and we’re putting them in daddy’s underwear drawer.” And, she says, “We’ve loosened all the TV parameters. They can turn it on whenever they want. After school, obviously.”
Bell is philosophical about the hard parts of this.
“There will be no other year that this will be happening, so let me be here to experience it and see what good I can pull out of it, as opposed to assuming that just because it’s different than my other years, it’s bad,” she says.
Bell turned 40 over the summer. She’s been famous since she was 24, when she took the lead role in Veronica Mars, possibly the most critically acclaimed teen drama that no one expected to be critically acclaimed. Bell’s character was a smart-mouthed high-school student-turned-sleuth who investigates deaths in a wealthy suburb. In a 2004 round-up of three new UPN shows, then-New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote, “Ms. Bell has a pretty face with sharp features, and she is convincing as a hardened, bitter 17-year-old.”
“Convincing” with “a pretty face” hardly hinted at Bell’s future, or the way a show that Village Voice critic Joy Press called “a fusion of Chinatown and Heathers” would go on to lodge itself in the zeitgeist.
Veronica Mars never became a ratings hit, but the fans — many of them young women who identified with Veronica’s outsider status — loved it, so much so that when the show was canceled, they almost immediately began lobbying for a reboot. They also loved Bell, but the most remarkable aspect of that fandom may have been the way Bell loved them back, fighting right alongside them to keep Veronica alive, even considering financing it herself.
"I put that right up there with having kids... There’s no way to describe how important that will be to me for the rest of my life."
Plenty of stars finish a role and move on. “Daniel Radcliffe, for example, does not want to talk about Harry Potter. He doesn’t want to be Harry Potter anymore,” says Jamie Blynn, managing editor of E! Online. “Kristen understood how much that part meant to fans, and how much the fans helped make her who she is.”
This is true both logistically and emotionally. Bell landed the role of Veronica after being passed over for the part of Baby June in Gypsy on Broadway. “I was so distraught,” she recalls. “On my vision board, that was my next thing!” (Wait, so she actually has vision boards? No, Bell says. “I don’t have the patience to cut pictures out of magazines! I barely read the magazines!” Thus, the pile of unread New Yorkers.)
But the disappointment prompted Bell’s next move. “That loss was what inspired me to move to LA, and unfolded my life, as it is now,” she says. “I think there’s a way to look at the things I didn’t get as being part of my growth.”
She still thinks about the opportunity Veronica gave her to connect with other women in a way that is as meaningful to her as it is to them. “Getting fan mail that says, ‘I was in a really dark time considering some really bad things, and I watched the way Veronica Mars handled problems and it gave me some strength’ — that’s more meaningful to me than almost anything,” Bell tells me. “I put that right up there with having kids. When I’m on my deathbed, that’s one of the things I’ll be thinking about. There’s no way to describe how important that will be to me for the rest of my life.”
When Bell met the actor Dax Shepard, at a mutual friend’s birthday dinner in 2007, it did not seem like the next part of her life unfolding. “There were no sparks whatsoever. None,” Bell said on NBC’s Sunday Today, a characterization that both spouses have fessed up to, repeatedly. “The only thing I remember is that he talked so much. And then I didn’t know who he was… maybe one of the guys from Jackass or something.”
Two weeks later, though, they re-met at a Detroit Red Wings game. They flirted. He got her number.
They did have a lot in common. Both were children of divorced parents, who’d grown up in the suburbs of Detroit, loved hockey, worked in Hollywood, and were coming out of long relationships.
But there were significant differences, too. Bell had gone to Catholic school, worked as a child model for local newspaper ads, and grew up surrounded by step- and half-siblings — a situation she described in a 2018 interview as “just having more people who loved me.” Shepard had a very different kind of upbringing. He had three stepfathers and spent his teenage years at car racetracks, working with his mother, who owned a business managing publicity events.
By the time he met Bell, Shepard, a comedian who appeared in Punk’d and King of the Hill, had a reputation as a partier. When they met, he had been in recovery from drugs and alcohol for two years, and according to him, Bell was wary about a relationship with him.
"I chose a career in the public eye. I chose to be quoted, I chose to have my picture taken. I don’t know them yet. I don’t know if they will want that. So I really don’t have the right to choose for them."
“All the things I’d done were terrifying to her, and she had a hard time believing I would ever be able to stay married and monogamous and a father and all those things,” Shepard told Playboy in 2012. “For the first year and a half we were together that was what we battled over almost weekly.”
Their relationship unfolded as Bell was making the ascent into the most rarefied echelons of celebrity. With Veronica Mars, she’d built a niche, quirky brand, with an uber-devoted, extremely online fandom. As the narrator of Gossip Girl, another cult-y show that ran from 2007 to 2012, she solidified her brand, earning the devotion of teenage girls who dreamed of growing up and sounding just like her cool, all-knowing, ever-in-control character. Her days outside of the mainstream ended in 2013, with the animated Disney juggernaut Frozen. As the voice of Princess Anna, the non-magical sister who falls for a two-faced prince and discovers the salvation of sisterly love, Bell helped pioneer a different kind of princess (less busty and beauteous, more spunky and smart). She also endeared herself to an entirely new, much larger and more mainstream audience: toddlers, girls, tweens, and their mothers. Frozen earned $1.2 billion worldwide. Along the way, it spawned an earworm for the ages, a full-length sequel, short-form spinoffs, and a seemingly endless stream of merch and marketing opportunities.
In 2009, Shepard proposed to Bell, but they pledged not to marry until their same-sex friends could. When California’s ban on gay marriage was struck down in 2013, Bell proposed back in that most modern of ways — on Twitter. The pair married in a small, private ceremony at the Beverly Hills courthouse (famously, without a prenup — at the time, Shepard was out-earning Bell, whose net worth is now estimated at somewhere in the $20-40 million range).
The marriage marked an important milestone in what Lainey Lui, co-host of Canadian talk show The Social and the reporter behind the popular website LaineyGossip.com, calls Bell’s “fame narrative.” Lui points out that Bell became a star as a young woman, but unlike other actresses, she escaped being known in the context of her relationships. “She was never on the cover of Us Weekly with the headline ‘Kristen Bell’s Broken Heart.’”
When Bell got married, Lui says, “their relationship [was] a part of the storyline.” Bell and Shepard made it so.
There’s Bell appearing on Shepard’s podcast, Armchair Expert, in the middle of a fight. There they are, lying in bed in the dark, in his and hers face masks. (“It’s been a minute since we masked up and moisturized for #dryhumpday!”) There they are, planting their faces in plates of ketchup on daytime TV. There is Bell, celebrating Shepard’s sobriety “birthday” on Instagram, and Bell happy-sobbing when Shepard brought home a (borrowed) sloth — her very favorite animal — for her birthday.
The problem with putting so much out there, of course, is that people assume it’s all fair game. After Shepard briefly relapsed over the summer, he talked about it on his podcast, saying “the other reservation I had about coming clean publicly is, like, Kristen doesn’t deserve, for the next six months, for every fucking interview she does to be (about this).” (A few weeks after the podcast, Bell did address the relapse on Ellen. “Everybody’s up against their own demons,” she said. “Sometimes it’s anxiety and depression, sometimes it’s substance abuse. And the thing I love most about Dax is ... that he was able to tell me and tell us and say we need a different plan, right? Like, we have a plan.”)
Both Bell and Shepard might be willing to share their own struggles, but when their daughters were born, Bell was serious about protecting their privacy. She was one of the celebrities lobbying for the “No Kids Policy,” a California law passed in 2013 restricting paparazzi’s ability to take photographs of celebrities’ children. Blynn says it became a legendary story at Us Weekly, when, in 2013, an assistant answered the phone and found that it was Bell on the line, asking to speak with the editor-in-chief: “It wasn’t a publicist or an assistant or a rep — it was her.” (Us agreed not to publish paparazzi photos of children taken without parents’ permission, which would seem to encompass all paparazzi photos of children.)
In addition to fighting for legislative protection, Bell put another safeguard in place: She doesn’t show her kids’ faces on her social media.
“My feeling is that I chose a career in the public eye. I chose to be quoted, I chose to have my picture taken. I don’t know them yet. I don’t know if they will want that. So I really don’t have the right to choose for them,” she tells me.
However, not showing the girls’ faces doesn’t mean that their lives are off-limits, and there lies a tension. On social media, in interviews, and on talk shows, Bell talks about her daughters frequently, and at times shares details that give other parents pause. In May 2020, she mentioned on an episode of her Ellentube.com show, Momsplaining with Kristen Bell, that her 5-year-old was still wearing diapers at night. In February of 2018, she reported on The Joel McHale Show that she had caught pinworms — also known as anal worms — from Delta. For every mom who greeted Bell’s confessions as an instant of welcome celebrity realness that made them feel even more connected to her, there were others who called TMI, or wondered how Bell’s girls would feel when they eventually grew up and got to read all about themselves on the internet.
The furor coincided with Bell and her husband launching Hello Bello. Bell had run into the mom influencer’s dilemma: How do you share enough of your family life to establish your parental bona fides and build a platform as a trusted, relatable mom/businesswoman, but not so much that you’re exposing or exploiting your kids?
When the internet mommy-shamers came after her, it was the closest Bell had ever come to a controversy. Until this year.
The great privilege of white actors is that, before 2020, race never negatively impacted their careers. Now, it’s at the forefront of even white peoples’ minds as they scrutinize their favorite white celebrities to see who’s been problematic (spoiler: most of them) and watch how those stars deal with their choices, past and present.
In January, during the Television Critics Association press tour for Apple TV’s new animated sitcom Central Park, executive producer Loren Bouchard was asked about his casting choices, which included using male voice actors for female roles and casting Bell in the role of Molly, a mixed-race character. The internet quickly echoed the question.
When she reflects on that critique, Bell’s mile-a-minute conversational speed slows. She gets very deliberate. “I grew up in Detroit. I didn’t consider myself an ounce of a racist. And when I read How to Be an Antiracist, White Fragility — required reading of a citizen of Earth in 2020 — I realized, ‘Well, I’ve been a part of these systems.’ I was unaware of this whole pot of shit that’s been stirring. I have a lot to learn. And I have a lot of action steps to take, to fulfill what I think my beliefs are,” Bell says.
“When Central Park was shaped as a project” by a group of friends, including Bouchard, Nora Smith, Josh Gad, and Bell, “we sold the show before we had a plotline.” Bell says that there were Black and white actors on board, and that, when the principals decided to make it a show about a mixed-race family, “I ended up being the only character who was playing out of race.”
"I have a lot of action steps to take, to fulfill what I think my beliefs are."
There is always the argument that a good artist — a writer, a filmmaker, an actor — can inhabit any role. For actors, the ability to embody characters different from themselves is the essence of the work. Bell knows that, but also recognizes that actors of color have almost never been offered as many roles as their white counterparts, especially in voice roles.
In June, Bell removed herself from the part; Emmy Raver-Lampman of The Umbrella Academy replaced her.
“The people who say I could play that role aren’t wrong,” Bell says. “But I wanted to step down for two reasons. One, if there was one girl who could have a job who wouldn’t otherwise have a job, because there are not a lot of Black or mixed-race characters on cartoons — if one girl could have that job, I would want her to have it. Two, if any little girl who is mixed-race or Black looks up who plays that role, I want them to see someone who looks like them.”
For Lui, the story illustrates the way we all need to broaden our circles. Yes, Bell responded to the critique — some other actors never do. Yes, she gave up the part. But one issue with her taking the role in the first place was that within the layer of people around her — the managers and the agents, the casting director, the producers — “there was no one who said, ‘Wait, this is a bad idea,’”Lui says.
It’s early still, but Bell’s imperfect journey into and out of that role may turn out to be the most relatable and important move of her career. White race-blindness isn’t new, but addressing it honestly is, unfortunately. If the ideal move would have been not taking the role to begin with, Bell handled her exit with transparency and grace. “It’s absolutely the right decision,” Bell tells me, “and it went to absolutely the right girl.”
Amid the many reckonings of 2020, Bell’s workload has remained epic. A movie co-starring Leslie Jones called Queenpins and a Gossip Girl reboot are both in the works, along with an original musical called Molly and the Moon, co-starring Jonathan Groff, announced just last week. At an age when, historically, an actress’s professional opportunities shrink or vanish completely, Bell can do almost anything she wants.
When I ask Blynn and Lui separately where she goes next, they have the same answer: “Oh, easy. Talk show host,” says Lui. Bell’s relationship with her fans, and other celebrities, all point in that direction. While daytime TV would be the easy move, there’s also all of late-night, a space still desperately in need of women, where none except Samantha Bee and Lilly Singh have managed to gain a foothold. Bell “would be perfect for moms who are up late at night, feeding, or someone like me who’s up with insomnia,” says Blynn. “‘Oh, let me watch Kristen Bell, who gets me so much more than a man does.’”
Bell would succeed, Lui argues, because of the ways she’s both sweet and edgy, maternal and imperfect. In other words, she is just not-good enough to make it. “She has a comic touch, she’s smart and clever, and she can be filthy,” Lui says. “She’s this blonde, pretty, tiny person with a cute face and a cute voice, but she has a hard edge. Not a lot of white actresses who have that mom fan base and are doing the mom thing have that extra flex, where they can go dark and dirty and get away with it.”
Even after The Good Place, Michael Schur is still floored by Bell’s range, and the way some people continue to undervalue her because of her looks. “A thing that people say — and it’s always said about men — is that someone is ‘a character actor in a leading actor’s body.’ A character actor can disappear into a role, inhabiting it so completely that you forget who they were in the last movie. She has that, plus the charisma and status of a leading actor.”
On top of all of that, Schur adds, “She thinks about other people. That’s a rare quality in humanity.” It’s especially rare in Hollywood.
That goodness might have made lasting connections and an army of loyal fans who will follow Bell anywhere she goes. If I had my wish, she would lean into the darkness, the way she did in the first role where I noticed her.
Before Veronica, before Princess Anna, before Eleanor, before anyone knew who she was, Bell did a two-episode arc on the HBO drama Deadwood. She plays a girl named Flora who arrives at the mud-bound mining camp in South Dakota, circa 1870. She and a young male companion say they’re siblings, looking for their father.
In reality, they’re grifters, looking for a score. Flora, who looks all of 14, gets a job at the local whorehouse, and falls under the madam’s protection. In public, she plays sweet and nearly virginal, while in private, she’s assessing the camp’s possibilities, coolly planning theft and, possibly, murder. Bell’s Flora sneers lines like, “I can move the dyke. [She] held me in her arms all night, like I was a little fucking kid.” Watching her character manipulate co-workers and clients and protectors, regarding them like they’re pieces on a chessboard while she eats a slice of apple right off of her knife, you sense that, underneath the sweetness, there’s something sharp-edged and spiky — something that would cut you if you grabbed at it wrong.
Veronica Mars might be gone for good. Eleanor Shellstrop might have ascended to the great unknown. But Bell is still here — a wife, a mother, an actress, a businesswoman, an Instagram sharer. And her possibilities are infinite.
Top image credit: Christopher John Rogers top and pants; Area shoes.
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