Kristen Bell is the Platonic ideal of the adult theater kid — lively, bubbling with personality, able to conjure enthusiasm for anyone or anything — and her biggest roles have usually required her to channel that energy into an adjacent register. As teen private eye Veronica Mars, it was “spunky.” Forgetting Sarah Marshall went somewhere slightly more acerbic. She brought a bouncy excitability to Frozen’s Princess Anna that bolstered a blockbuster and put her vocals in kindergartens across America. And for The Good Place’s Eleanor Shellstrop, that’s manifested as a sort of freewheeling dirtbagginess she’s trying to use as a force for good.
Her latest film, the Netflix feature Like Father, plays to and against this tendency in her performances. The premise splits the difference between a fluffy family movie and a character-driven drama: A wedding gone wrong sends her on a bender with her estranged father, played by Kelsey Grammer, which ends with the both of them coming to on the cruise ship she’d booked for the honeymoon. Scenes turn on a dime from leisurely hijinks to emotionally charged screaming matches, and careful calibration from Bell made it work. In a candid conversation over the phone with Vulture, she discussed her approach to the character as well as the virtues of mixing business with pleasure, her plan for a Bad Moms sequel, and the memory of witnessing an American tragedy firsthand.
I’d imagine Like Father posed a certain set of challenges for you in the way it switches tones, going from light comedy to a much more serious register. What does balancing those two elements demand of an actress?
I looked to Lauren [Miller], our director, to keep me in line and within the appropriate tone. But I must say, I do gravitate towards projects like that because I think life is really complex, and sometimes that’s the most accurate representation of life, something with tonal shifts. Even on a light and happy vacation, there can be a dangerous emotional undercurrent, which is what this film carries. A dramedy is a closer approximation of real life, as opposed to a goofy comedy that’s all jokes front to back, or a hard-to-watch dramatic film that makes you feel like you can’t breathe because you’re crying so much.
Looking over your IMDb, I noticed a trend with vacation movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Couples Retreat. On movies about people on vacation, to what extent does the cast also get to enjoy what they’re pretending to enjoy onscreen?
Full disclosure: Girl, you know I go for these projects. I used to make a joke, after Couples Retreat and Sarah Marshall, that I was going to fire my agent and hire a travel agent. The cast gets to enjoy these things quite a bit, yes. The logistics are usually such that shooting in a tropical location is light dependent, so that means the minute the sun begins to set, you’re probably off work. You get to take in the humid air or a coconut on the beach. We were in three different countries, two different states, and then on the cruise ship for this film. The problem was our good friend Hurricane Irma attempted sabotage. We were in Fort Lauderdale when the hurricane warnings started getting really real, so we had to halt production and send all the camera equipment out of state, I believe for insurance purposes. But the crew could not leave, because we had 80 people and we would not be able to get back in state. All we could do was hunker down. We drove around and eventually ended up staying at the Epcot resort in Orlando, because they had a functional generator. We had to take a week off and spend it indoors waiting for the rain to stop.
Okay, but the rest of it! Jamaica was lovely. It is something to behold, when your work forces you to go somewhere beautiful, you feel very lucky. I was eating pancakes in a scene a few days ago, and they were delicious, and I was like, “This is my job!”
The Good Place returns for its third season this fall. Has being on the show spurred you to take stock of yourself, morally speaking, like the characters do?
Yes, though I will say I took the job because I felt such a connection to Mike Schur in that when he pitched me this logline, we found we had already both been preoccupied with quote-unquote “what it means to be a good person” for a long time. That’s something I wake up thinking about probably, if I’m being honest, because of my intense codependency. But I believe it’s morphed into something healthier as an adult, where I do want people to like me, I do want people to feel good and not bad. I do want to promote happiness and reduce suffering. I’ve labeled those as codependent qualities, but they’re also the qualities of a friend you’d want to have … I think about these things more specifically since having started the show, now that I can put them into terms of philosophers like Kant and Aristotle, whether I’m a utilitarian or not. I have settled on being a moral particularist, a theory proposed by Jonathan Dancy — who’s actually Hugh Dancy’s father — where you don’t have to choose between stricter disciplines.
What’s really stuck with me is one throwaway line, about how the vast majority of souls don’t make it into the Good Place. Kind of makes it feel like the default in life is to be a bad person — has this role brightened or toughened your outlook on the world?
Ooh, you’re gonna love season three. But I’d definitely say toughened. Big time. It’s a very strange paradox: Doing this show does give me hope, because the undercurrent I find so beautiful is that these four people need each other precisely because they’re greater than the sum of their parts together. Especially with Eleanor’s relationship to Chidi, and where we left off in season two, they’re going to get a second chance on Earth. His ball of molecules needs her ball of molecules, and vice versa. That resonates with me, that’s how I feel about my relationship with my husband and with some of my friends. People keep you in line, whether they lead you by example or challenge you with critical thinking. I like this idea, that we need each other, and that that doesn’t need to make you feel bad. The idea is that we’re helpless without one another, but we have one another. We gotta share the Earth, whether we like it or not.
I went to the movies last night, and you popped up during the trailers, narrating a documentary about pandas. You’re someone who’s known to have strong reactions to cute animals; were you just losing your shit during the entirety of the recording process?
I kept my shit together, because luckily, I was never on set while they were filming. I love these IMAX movies, I always try to bring my kids to them whenever the [California Science Center] has a new one because it’s the most immersive experience. Part of it is that they’re so committed to patience with these movies, just following an animal around for four years to put a story together. I would jump at the chance to work with any cute animals, but I was not allowed on set. I only kept my composure because we did not have pandas in the room.
Moving on — which of the following Bad Moms sequels would you rather see for the third installment: Bad Moms Arbor Day, Bad Moms Mardi Gras, or Bad Moms Martin Luther King Day?
Can I propose a fourth option? I’ve given this some thought. I really want Bad Moms’ Bad Grandmas’ The Hangover, to continue from the end of the second one with the grandmothers going to Vegas and getting knee-deep in trouble with Ken Jeong. They get involved in something shady, and then it’s an action film where the daughters rescue them. That, or Bad Moms Tahiti, so that I might go to Tahiti.
My favorite thing you’ve ever done is the Reefer Madness movie-musical, and it brings me great sorrow that the subject matter will probably bar it from the network TV live-broadcast treatment.
That it so richly deserves, yeah. Maybe when weed becomes federally legal and we can all laugh about how seriously we took it, who knows! At least the people with the right sensibility can watch the one we did, and recognize how it’s all just funny and absurd, and see why we made it.
I just love those people so, so much. I have a very special relationship with that film, because I was doing it onstage in New York during 9/11. We were all together during the event, which bonds you to people, dare I say more, than being in a show with someone, when you’re spending 12 hours together every day for six months at a time.
When did you start the production back up again? It’s a pretty lighthearted show, I can’t imagine how it would’ve played in the days after a tragedy like that.
We were Off Broadway at Variety Arts on 14th and Third, a theater that’s now closed. It’s difficult to articulate, because there are still so many emotions surrounding this: being grateful for our lives, the pain of having witnessed trauma. The quarantine line was at 14th Street, so we were technically below that. We were in tech, with the plan to open on September 13, and I had slept at Christian Campbell’s house because he and his wife had an apartment around the corner. I was up in Washington Heights, a 45-minute train ride away, and they told me to sleep on their couch so that we could just go around the block in the morning and get a little more rest. He goes running in the morning, and the rest of us are woken up by Christian telling us there are construction workers screaming in the streets. We rushed outside and walked to the theater in time to watch the second tower fall from the street. We tried to donate blood, then we went to our producer Stephanie’s apartment and stayed there for the next 24 hours. We just waited to figure out what was happening. It was scary, and I’m still grateful that I had a safe group of people to be with. It’s one of those things you never forget.
We still ended up opening the show. We agreed that we didn’t know what people were going to want, but we had to keep our minds busy. We thought it might bring some people joy, and figure we ought to do the job we’d been paid to do. For about three weeks, we performed in a 500-seat theater to an audience of four people.
I kind of owe my career to those guys. Andy Fickman, who directed Reefer Madness, and Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, who wrote it, and Christian Campbell, who starred, were the ones who convinced me to move to Los Angeles. I was like, “I don’t know anyone there, I don’t know how to do this,” and they told me, “Then we will be your family when you come out here.” It was the biggest opportunity I’ve ever had, and I had to be told to give it to myself. I went out there and lived on Kevin Murphy’s couch for a couple months, who was the lyricist. I absolutely would not be where I am today without them.
You haven’t appeared in one of these live TV musicals as of yet. What would your dream role for such a production be?
I’ve dipped my toes in the water, and had discussions for some of them. I definitely want to do one, I just love musicals. But that’s tough, because my dream role is probably something that’d never get green-lit because it’d be too obscure. Probably A Little Night Music. I don’t know that when Grease and Peter Pan are getting approved, that’s what people are looking for. They just assume he doesn’t do the numbers, Sondheim. Except Sweeney Todd.
I understand that you and Cher are on texting terms. Have you chatted with her about the new Mamma Mia at all?
I have not talked to her in a while, though we do keep in touch! I find her so adorable, the way she loves her emojis. Every now and then, I’ll wake up to a text that’s just a bunch of emojis. She’s a lovely human being. She’s the one who said to me, “If it doesn’t matter in five years, then it doesn’t matter.” I don’t know if she made that up or not, but it has rung true for me in many situations through life.
I saw that you left NYU one semester short of finishing up your degree. Looking at the list of people who have dropped out of NYU — John Waters, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Olsen twins — it almost seems like there’s more prestige in not graduating.
It didn’t feel that way at the time! It took a lot to convince my parents that I didn’t need a degree to act. I broke it down, like, “Look, I’m not practicing medicine!” They were worried about a fallback plan, which was probably the good-parent thing to do. Come to think of it, though, I do still kind of want to get that degree. The problem is that your grade depends a lot on attendance, and I don’t know that I’ve got the time to make it to these classes. But it’s good to know I’m in esteemed company, anyhow.
This interview has been edited and condensed.