Spreading out a blanket under a tree in L.A.’s Griffith Park, Kristen Bell kicks off her shoes, plops down and slathers sunscreen on her two towheaded daughters, Lincoln, three, and Delta, almost two, who play with Legos and a puzzle and occasionally wander off to explore.
“Mommy has to talk for a while, so let me know if you need my attention,” the star of the hit summer send-up Bad Moms explains in a decidedly good-mom sort of way, as her sister-in-law keeps a watchful eye. “I just want to give you the heads-up, okay? I will be talking.”
Ted Danson, who costars with Bell in NBC’s new afterlife comedy, The Good Place, describes the actress as a master multi-tasker who FaceTimes with her kids between takes. Delta visited her every day on set during shooting of the series, which wrapped in August on the Universal lot; the show premieres with back-to-back episodes Monday, September 19, before moving to its Thursday slot on September 22.
“She ruins a lot of takes,” Bell says of her toddler. “Ted and I will be doing a scene, and she’ll hear his voice and yell, ‘Papa!’ from behind the camera. Or she’ll get in a fight, thinking someone is taking the last of the dried apples at craft service, and yell ‘No!’ at some crewmember. She’s loud, but everybody is very understanding. The priority is that mama and baby can have a little time together.”
Danson, who has been friends with Bell since they shot the 2012 film Big Miracle together in Alaska, took the interruptions in stride. “We all just plow through, knowing we’ll come back and fix it later,” he says.
The juggle isn’t easy, but Bell makes it work. Any day she got a break from shooting — like this day — she pulled Lincoln out of preschool so they could hang out together.
They spent this morning painting “The Future Is Female” T-shirts for the birthday party of one of the kids of her Veronica Mars costar, Ryan Hansen, later that afternoon. In between, she combines a park play date with her emmy interview.
The result is a kind of happy chaos. When one of her girls accidentally steps on the tape recorder, hitting the off button, Bell offers to redo anything deleted. When Delta grabs an extra piece of cheese, Bell urges her to finish the one in her other hand first. And when Lincoln gets frustrated that she can’t quite climb into her stroller by herself — but absolutely refuses help — Bell handles it with patience and calm.
“No-Drama Discipline says, don’t break them,” Bell says, citing a bestseller on child development. “You’ll raise a very healthy adult if you don’t try to break them.”
In The Good Place — from creator–executive producer Mike Schur — Bell plays the ethically challenged Eleanor, who gets into a nice afterlife neighborhood because of a clerical error.
Danson’s character, Michael, a celestial architect, is slowly driven mad trying to discover why things are going awry in his perfect little world. Meanwhile, Eleanor desperately tries to change her ways so she can stay, “because the other option is the Bad Place,” Bell says.
“You get a taste of the Bad Place in the pilot,” she adds. “They say, ‘We’re not allowed to show you what happens there, but we can play a brief audio clip.’ And I believe in the audio clip, if you listen closely, they’re screaming, ‘A three-headed bear! Oh no, not the hooks!’”
Bell loves playing morally flawed characters and has done so since starring in the 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But after spending a couple of hours with her, it becomes obvious that if there is a good place we go after we die, Bell is getting in, no questions asked.
Consider that, as a kid, she became a vegetarian because, “I didn’t like looking at my dog while I ate a hamburger,” she says. “I thought that was gross and confusing, not compassionate enough to allow me to sleep at night.” More recently, she began perusing GoFundMe websites late at night, which resulted in her supporting a preschool for Syrian refugees in Germany, among other projects.
She also spends her birthdays moving homeless people into homes, designs T-shirts for the No Kid Hungry organization and volunteers with foster teens who become moms. Still, Bell manages not to sound self-righteous — perhaps because of her self-deprecating wit.
“I love giving unsolicited advice,” she says. “It’s the thing I hate most about myself. I hate that I love it, I do. I schooled my friends on micro-greens. When I found out that micro-greens have a higher vitamin content than regular salads, it is all I talked about for a week.
"And then at the end of the week I thought, ‘Kristen, I don’t know why anyone is friends with you. You’re so annoying.’” Jealous types could be annoyed by Bell’s seemingly perfect life.
She has a glamorous marriage to actor Dax Shepard (Parenthood); a yard full of fig, mulberry and plum trees; and a garden where she grows the organic produce that goes into her family’s meals.
She was voted prettiest girl in high school, and she’s so thoughtful that she declined to tie the knot with Shepard — her fiancé since 2010 — until 2013, when gay marriage became legal.
She performed on Broadway at 20 and has a flawless singing voice that landed her the role of Disney princess Anna in the animated film Frozen. And the veteran star of Veronica Mars (the UPN–CW series as well as the subsequent feature) and Showtime’s House of Lies has proved that she’s equally adept at comedy and drama on TV, film or stage.
Yet Bell also has an edge. “You look at her, and she’s perfect,” Danson says. “But there is something in Kristen lurking underneath. It’s not necessarily dark, but she has a devilish kind of sense of humor. She is that slightly sarcastic, sardonic kind of character.”
Bell’s edge stems, perhaps, from having weathered a few bumps in the road. She grew up in a Detroit suburb with parents who divorced when she was young, and, while in high school, a close friend of hers died in a car accident. She has suffered from depression and anxiety since her college days at New York University.
Nevertheless, Bell has little tolerance for self-pity. “I don’t believe in letting trauma haunt you and making an excuse for it for very long. For a minute, it’s okay. Then get your ass to therapy. Get over it. Also, do you know why? Because we’re not in Syria, that’s why.”
Bell says her marriage isn’t always as perfect as it appears in the hilarious “sloth meltdown” and “Africa” videos she and Shepard have posted online or the cute commercials they star in together for Samsung home appliances. “I fight with my husband a lot,” she says, “and we go to therapy and work our shit out. I’ve been telling the whole story.”
In fact, Bell publicly disclosed her struggles with anxiety and depression for the first time this spring because, she says, “I felt like I had a particular responsibility — not because I suffered from it, but because I portray a very bubbly, optimistic human being, and it’s not entirely responsible for me not to tell the complete story.”
When preparing for an April interview, “I said to my husband, ‘What am I going to talk about?’ Because I get slightly nauseated when I hear actors talk about their process. I don’t want to just talk about my career. I’m so bored by that topic.
"And he said, ‘Why don’t you talk about your struggle with anxiety and depression?’ I was initially very nervous because I am susceptible to the same shame stigma. And then I thought, ‘No, I absolutely should take this opportunity to talk about it.’”
Bell takes medication and checks in with herself regularly to make sure her mood is on track. “If I’m feeling wonky, I write out the pros and cons of my life on a piece of paper,” she says. “And if everything is going great and I’m still feeling negative, then I know it is my serotonin.”
Her condition does not interfere with work. “There’s not a neurotic or needy bone in her body,” Danson says. “She doesn’t soak up any extra oxygen. Her focus is so much on doing the work and going home, which to me is ideal.”
Schur (Master of None, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) agrees that Bell is a consummate pro on set, and he respects her for being so open.
“There is a glossiness and sheen to Hollywood, where you’re not supposed to present yourself as someone who has real-life problems,” he says. “That she’s freely talking about them — and hoping whatever she has to say will help other people — is yet another sort of intimidatingly cool thing about her.”
Her candor and sincerity — tinged with that edge — made Bell the perfect choice for the out-of-place Eleanor in The Good Place, says Schur, who first met the actress when he was a writer for Saturday Night Live and Bell was starring on Broadway in The Crucible.
“She couldn’t have been more than 20,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Who is this incredibly self-possessed youngster, just large and in charge in New York City?’”
After Bell guest-starred on Schur’s Parks and Recreation, he knew he wanted her for The Good Place (exec-producing with Schur are David Miner, Morgan Sackett and Drew Goddard).
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine, on sale September 13, 2016.