One of the surprise delights of the TV season has undoubtedly been The Good Place, NBC’s whip-smart sitcom that follows the newly deceased Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) after she ascends to the heavenly “Good Place” despite a life that should have doomed her to the hellish “Bad Place.” The first few episodes found Eleanor trying to keep her secret under wraps and learning ethics with the help of her assigned soul mate, but when the show returns on Thursday night, Eleanor must prove that she indeed belongs in the sprawling utopia. On a recent afternoon, Bell called Vulture to discuss the bizarre premise of The Good Place, why Eleanor is like a toddler, and the joys of nonexistent frozen yogurt flavors.
You previously worked with Good Place creator Mike Schur when you guest starred on Parks and Recreation. Was Eleanor written with you in mind?
Wow, I actually don’t know the answer to that. I knew Mike very peripherally — he was four lanes over and 12 cars back — but I obviously had my eye on him because he’s such an incredible showrunner and writer and creator. I went into his office and sat down for the most bizarre one-hour pitch that I’ve ever gotten, which started with “Okay, everybody’s dead.” This was two years ago, so there were some different ideas, but it was still the most unique and bizarre pitch I had ever heard. I don’t think he wrote it for me, but what he said to me was, “I want you to do this specifically because I need to make her inherently unlikable on the page, and I need you to make her likable.” I was flattered because that’s actually something I love more than anything, and I learned that while doing Forgetting Sarah Marshall. When I read a script and see an unlikable character, I wrap my brain around for ways to make her likable and force the audience to root for her. It’s a very fun challenge.
Eleanor doesn’t easily fit into a mold, which is what I find particularly intriguing about her. She’s not inherently likable, but she’s not inherently dislikable, either. She’s somewhere in the middle.
Yeah, she’s a toddler to me. She just hasn’t learned how to behave yet. Having two toddlers, that’s what I picture — they’re good people, but they don’t know that it’s not okay to kick someone when they have your doll. This is a very interesting place to start with a character, and to know that the story line will actually be about someone learning how to be a good person. For me, that’s something I struggle with daily. As Mike was telling me this narrative, we talked a lot about how frugal we both are with every dollar we spend, every action we take, and how that affects someone else. You know, like buying a cheap toy, then considering how much the person who made it makes if it’s only $1.99. Mike always gives this example, which I find interesting: He’s been going to the same Starbucks for years and orders the same thing. He noticed one day that he only tipped when the barista was looking at him. He said, “I was so caught off guard with my own behavior, I thought, ‘What am I in this for?’” I think those are very relatable topics that are worth examining. What are we all in this for? How can we actually learn to live together and care about each other?
You mentioned that some original plot points didn’t make it into the show. Would you elaborate on that?
Let me think of where we are in the story. The show gets weird as shit. [Laughs.] Originally, I don’t believe Manny [Jacinto], who plays Jianyu, he wasn’t a character you saw until about episode six or seven, but Mike chose to integrate him as Tahani’s soul mate in the first episode so you were a little bit more invested in him. Mainly smaller things like that. The crux of the show has mostly remained the same.
This is your first leading role on a network sitcom. How does Eleanor compare to your previous comedic roles?
You know, it’s similar. Even if the characters that I’ve played have been seemingly different — Veronica [Mars] was brooding and snarky, Sarah Marshall was flighty and self-obsessed, and Jeannie [on House of Lies] was whip-smart and vicious — for me, everything starts with trusting the creator. I don’t think it works particularly well on television if you have too many cooks in the kitchen. If I came in every day and said, “I don’t think Eleanor would do this or say this,” that’s when your show goes downhill. I have a lot of trust in the creators that I’ve worked for, because it’s their story at the end of the day — and it was so easy to trust Mike because of his pedigree and his talent level. It wasn’t a hard commitment to say yes to Eleanor.
This show is actually about something. These subconscious lessons are laid out over the 22 minutes that we have, and they are actually important to me as a person. My motto in life is that I like being an actress and I love being Kristen. Being a human being and one who strives to be good is far more important to me than having a career that’s filled with accolades and glitz and glamour. The fact that I actually watch the show and feel proud about the lessons that we’re pumping out on the airwaves, that’s really important and fulfilling to me.
The tonal shifts of The Good Place are pretty unusual for network TV — an episode can go from goofy to surreal in a short span of time. What are the challenges of doing that?
Remembering that first and foremost it’s a comedy, and that the allegiance is to make people laugh. But once you capture someone’s attention with the laughter, you do find these spots where you can insert these moral or ethical examinations, as Mike has chosen to do. It’s sort of how I feel about John Oliver. It’s brazen, intense information with a scaffolding of comedy, and it’s much more digestible.
If you were in Michael’s position, would you condemn Eleanor to the Bad Place or let her stay in the Good Place?
It’s tough! I’m a softie and a firm believer that everything starts with forgiveness and that everyone can grow. That’s one of the lessons I love about the show: Eleanor’s journey to grow is in the afterlife, and it’s actually after the “contest” has ended. I think there’s a real beauty in that. I would definitely let her stay. I wouldn’t tolerate her bullshit, but I would definitely let her stay. [Laughs.]
Eleanor describes herself as a “medium person.” If there were a Medium Place, what would it look like?
You wouldn’t have to do all of the things you hated, but it would take all of the things you loved and average them out a bit. Like, if you loved music and loved dancing, you could have music, but it wouldn’t necessarily be your favorite music. You’d be forced to listen to commercials. Or you could have heat in your car, but not a seat heater. Everything would be averaged out. Nothing would be painful, but nothing would be luxurious. You know what? Very similar to Earth.
Do you think Eleanor and Chidi should explore a romance? Or does a platonic friendship suit them?
Well, I’m partial. I root for Eleanor and Chidi. I think there’s more there. I read with the candidates we had for Chidi when they all auditioned, and I felt something so special about William [Jackson Harper]. I felt I could have chemistry with him. During his audition, I kind of fell in love with him. He’s unbelievably charming, although very quiet when you first meet him. It takes him awhile to come out of his shell, but once he does, he’s incredible charming. Because I see a lot of William in that role, yes, I think Chidi would be wonderful for Eleanor.
You two really do have such great chemistry.
Aw, I’m so happy you say that. I absolutely adore working with him. If you ever interview him, he’s incredibly smart. He just wrote a play that he produced in New York. He’s a pretty dreamy human being. I really feel like next year, should we be lucky to have another go, Ted and I will not be interviewed anymore. It’ll be people noticing Jameela [Jamil] and Manny and William and D’Arcy [Carden]. They’re a very special cast because everyone is so sparkly, so no one blends in. It’s really fun to know that you were lucky enough to come across all of these other actors that have this “it” factor, you know?
Although The Good Place has yet to be renewed, what would you like to see the show take on for a potential second season? Did Mike lay out a grand plan?
Yes and no, and I’m not saying that to be coy. [Laughs.] Because there are so many afterlife sci-fi elements, Mike laid it out very broadly and I know a few of those ideas. We still have to reveal what happens to Eleanor, so it’s hard to me to comment on where I’d like season two to go without giving things away. Ah! What I will say is that, with Mike, everyone wants to do him favors. Everyone loves him. He has an uncanny ability to make a show feel like family in a very genuine way. He’s a human being first, and a show creator second. People come back to Mike Schur, and I know I always will.
What can you tease about Eleanor’s fate?
It’s going to get really, really weird.
How weird are we talking?
Very weird. Mike made a unique commitment in the beginning that was, “I would like every episode ending to feel like a season-ending cliffhanger.” He did a pretty great job at that. Every step that takes Eleanor closer to her fate hopefully keeps the audience interested in learning where she ends up. I will say, the show gets even more bizarre. You’ll see a lot more of the surrealist elements in the afterlife — like the giant sinkhole in the middle of the road, or how people can fly if they feel like it. A lot more of that. It’s not like anything I’ve seen before. There are very few shows where you can honestly say that and know you’re not being hyperbolic or dramatic, but this really is one of them. This show isn’t set in a coffeehouse. The last four episodes will definitely be something people have never seen before.
After this season, do you have a newfound appreciation for philosophy and ethics?
Yeah, I believe I do. I’m very humbled by the bigger brains that have existed in the world and how deeply they’ve thought about being human. It definitely made me want to sit down and read some of it. Although I saw all of those kinds of books piled up on Mike’s desk when he was writing the original pilot — because he read every single one of those books that the characters reference on the show — and they are dense. It’s not the reading I can do when I have two toddlers biting at my heels. [Laughs.] Being exposed to it at the level that I am, it gives me a lot of confidence in the human race. Whereas things I might be seeing currently give me less confidence in the human race, the fact that there have been so many philosophers that have actually thought about the unique way we have to find harmony at this stage of planet Earth, it’s inspiring to know that their teachings are written down for when we stumble and fall as cultures or as societies. It’s really nice to know that those guidelines are there.
The Good Place loves peculiar frozen yogurt. If you could create an ideal froyo flavor, what would it be?
[Laughs.] Nap, nap, nap! Or full cell phone battery charge, c’mon! If you ever pause the show when we have all of the frozen yogurt flavors listed, there are about 25 that didn’t really get seen that are pretty brilliant. But mine would for sure be nap. When you just feel like you’ve taken a tasty, tasty nap.
This interview has been edited and condensed.