With her smart, sexy feature The Lifeguard, writer-director Liz W. Garcia set out to make a female Graduate. That would mean that Kristen Bell is Dustin Hoffman — although her character, Leigh, has a thing or two in common with Mrs. Robinson. The film unspools during a very recent summer, when 29-year-old Leigh, frustrated with her unfulfilling career and nonstarter relationship, moves back home from NYC. Taking her old summer job as a condo-complex lifeguard, Leigh attempts to recapture her teenage glory days in suburban Connecticut. But things get complicated when she begins an affair with an actual teenager (played by David Lambert). In real life, Bell doesn't have any trouble living in the present. When she called us, she was breastfeeding her 4-month-old daughter, Lincoln, while fielding the occasional interjection from husband Dax Shepard. We spoke to the actress about becoming a seductress, avoiding a mid-thirties crisis, and making friends on the set of the Veronica Mars movie.
I was surprised that the illicit relationship in The Lifeguard was so sexy. Were you?
No. I mean ... it's definitely extremely provocative, but there’s a depth to when [Garcia] writes sexy stuff. There’s a lot of ways you can receive what she’s writing: You can just find it alluring and sexy, or you can find it really inappropriate. I think that we weren’t intending to glamorize it, but we did find the reality of it to be pretty sexy. It is two people who are attracted to one another.
At the time of filming, how old was the actor who played your 16-year-old love interest?
He was 19. Thankfully — I was terrified he was actually going to be underage. We talked a lot about our choreography prior to shooting those intimate scenes, and I felt so comfortable with him, because he just showed me such a professional side.
You’re a new mom. Have you started to see stories like this, about parents and children, more from the parents' perspective than you did before?
I don’t think I do yet, because [tiny baby cough interrupts the sentence]. She’s coughing. I’m currently breastfeeding, by the way. Get back on that boob!
That is the cutest little cough!
You know, she’s only four months, so I don't know if I’m there yet. But now that I think about the scenes between Leigh and her mom, I do think, "Wow, one day, Lincoln, my daughter will be an adult, and I’ll relate to her, hopefully, like an adult. And there will be times when we fight, and hopefully we’ll get along the majority of the time." Like, I’ve just started to have those thoughts.
Leigh was an early overachiever, and it seems like you might have been, too. But you’ve also had a very active and successful career. Where do you connect to that sense of looking back on an early potential that you never lived up to? Have you ever felt like that?
I don’t relate specifically to that aspect of Leigh’s character. But, you know, I have a ton of insecurities, just like any human woman does. So I can relate to feeling lost and unfulfilled and unsatisfied and questioning whether or not I’m doing it right and thinking, This isn’t what I expected or what I thought would happen in life. I’m able to let my expectations go a lot easier than Leigh is, I think. I mean, I wouldn’t say necessarily that I peaked early; I wasn't a valedictorian, and I wasn’t expected to succeed when I left college, let’s put it that way. But I was always, and continue to be, a very curious human being, so I was similar to Leigh in the sense that I really had a hunger for life when I was younger. And there have been road bumps along the way where I’ve [thought], look, Is this it? Am I fulfilled? Am I satisfied? And the lesson I’ve learned is that you’re satisfied and fulfilled when you choose to be. It has very little to do with your actual circumstances.
One of the things I was drawn to about The Lifeguard is that I’ve seen plenty movies like this with men in the lead roles — men who are having affairs with teenage girls, who are having some kind of crisis and this teenager helps them through it. Do you feel like it’s more subversive to do this story with a female lead?
Well, I definitely think that the story would be interpreted differently by an audience if the male were the older character, and the female were the minor. It would have been a very different movie if the genders were reversed. And I’m not sure that is. Culturally, I’m sure there are a thousand different reasons. [Dax Shepard yells something to Kristen.] Oh my God, my husband just yelled from the other room, "Two hundred and fifty thousand years of predatory behavior by men!" This is my real life right now. I’m nursing a baby, and the man with the anthropology degree from UCLA screams, “Two hundred and fifty thousand years of predatory behavior by men.”
I think that just made my night.
This is my real life and my real house, and that’s just what happened. [To Dax.] That’s exactly right, honey!
He nailed it.
He nailed it. And for some reason you’re allowed to see the love story more because the female is in the aggressive or the adult position.
I think that’s why it surprised me that it was sexy, because you’re not used to seeing women in the power position in relationships like that in movies. And it does allow it to be a little more balanced, I think.
Yeah, and also, numbers-wise, you’re really not used to it. Like, we’ve always accepted the fact that Al Pacino’s had love interests fifteen years his junior. And no one’s ever challenged that. Weird and pervy, but that’s been a reality in a lot of movies. [Baby noise.]
Yes, make sure Lincoln hears this!
Right, exactly. Lincoln, are you listening? Are you listening, Stinkin’ Lincoln?
I love the excitement coming from everywhere on the Veronica Mars movie: from the fans, and then coming back from the cast — it's infectious. I think it’s got such a good momentum going.
Yeah, me too. It is really a love-fest, and it’s the first time I’ve been a part of a project where we’ve actually tossed aside the journalists, because they didn’t — I mean, I hate to sound blunt, but we didn’t need the press. And at this point, our Kickstarter backers are our producers. They are essentially our bosses. And they were the priority. So we had a documentary crew following us around the whole time, and that was hectic enough. And then we had anywhere from between 2 and 40 Kickstarter extras in the scenes during the day. In the anticipation of that, I thought it was going to be more stressful than it was. I thought, How am I going to entertain 200 people? How am I going to give them the experience that they purchased and that they want and that they deserve? And really it ended up being that, not a single one of them — listen, the reality is that with fandom comes a lot of creepers. Not a single one of these fans was weird or creepy. They were lovely, intellectual, sweet as can be. And I ended up being really grateful for the experience, because I got to meet a ton of people that I would never normally interact with. And I met cooks, and a trauma counselor, and teachers, and dentists, and just a ton of people that I never would run into in my daily life. I ate lunch with them every day. And it’s really nice to step outside of your norm.
I really appreciate your calling me in the middle of your night with your baby and your anthropology major …
Absolutely. Well, I’m going to go see what he’s doing in the other room, and why he’s been eavesdropping on my conversations.