If the leading roles Kristen Bell played on television — hard-boiled private eye Veronica Mars, management consultant Jeannie van der Hooven on House of Lies, and most recently Arizona dirtbag Eleanor Shellstrop on The Good Place — have something in common, it’s that they are all very good talkers. Eleanor may not be as clever as Veronica or as ruthless as Jeannie. But as she tries to find her way out of the cosmic mess of the NBC comedy — which takes place largely in a fundamentally broken version of the afterlife — she consistently manages to conjure storms of verbiage to match the best that Bell’s previous alter egos could deliver.
Not surprisingly, Bell herself is good at talking, too. When I visited the set of The Good Place’s fourth and final season this summer, we spent over an hour taking refuge in her trailer from the brutal heat, discussing her experience of making the series, getting ready to say goodbye to it — and, perhaps, to regular acting work for a while — and the meaning of making a show about being good at a time when the world seems so bad. True to form, Bell had a lot to say about every subject.
How did Good Place creator Mike Schur first tell you about the idea for the show?
I had done two episodes of Parks and Rec, but didn’t really know him and was always secretly desperate to work for him. He called my voicemail and said, “Hey, Kristen! It’s Mike Schur. I just, I don’t know, I had this idea, and I think you need to be a part of it. And I just want to pitch it to you. That’s all I’m asking.” And I was so excited. It was like, I can’t believe one of my idols in comedy just called and said he thinks he has something for me. I thought I was dreaming.
And then I went into his office for what was supposed to be a lunch meeting, and it ended up lasting about three hours, because Mike is an incredible orator. I don’t know anyone else that can hold the amount of details in their head that he can once he decides what a story is. So he pitched me something very close to this, told me about it for 45 minutes, then we talked in-depth about a couple questions I had. And when he told me the story — this is before the pilot had been written — he said, “And then in Episode Six, your character would say something like,” and then he would say it. And then he would say, “Chidi’s character would answer,” and he would answer with the joke. He had sections of his dialogue written already, and he hadn’t even written the pilot. He’s crazy like that. And I was just slack-jawed at the amount of moxie it took to pull the rug out from under people in Episode 13. I thought it was a really cool twist.
I discovered that he and I were both preoccupied with what it means to be a good person, because it’s something that I think about a lot. And he’d told me that he had the idea for this pilot when he was at Starbucks and waited to put money in the tip jar until the barista could see him do it. And he walked out feeling so guilty about feeling like he had to do that, since he thought he was a good person. I question myself like that all day, and most of the time at night through my dreams. How do we share Earth? Not one person owns Earth. We’re here together. We are one big family, whether we want to admit it or not. And in a family, people have to cooperate or it’s dysfunctional and how do you do that? Are there rules? Should there be rules? Who has ideas about the rules?
Do you find yourself thinking even more about morality and ethics and how to be a good person since you’ve done the show, or is it about the same as when you started?
It’s the same as when I started. Because again, I was very preoccupied with it. I am sort of an empath, so I can feel vibes from other people and also am just generally sensitive to how people are being treated. I’m about the same amount of self-aware in my striving to be a good person. What I’m more aware of is death. Way more aware. And especially how he’s wrapping this season up has really got me thinking.
Has your thinking about what happens after we die changed over the course of doing this?
Not really. I believe I identify as a humanist, if you were to ask me spiritual questions, so I do believe that we end. I do believe that we become fertilizer. The way I was raised was to actually think of heaven and hell as very real places, and as an adult who has now mildly studied a broad range of topics, to me that doesn’t make nearly as much sense as just following science. But this show, to me, is more of metaphor for how to live your life and why, and that there are greater reasons. And sometimes those reasons can’t be explained. Sometimes those reasons are feelings.
You’d been hoping to work with Mike for a while. Did the reality live up to the anticipation?
No. Surpassed it in a way that there’s not enough English language to tell you how impressed and in awe I am of his human being-ness. I’ve worked with a lot of funny, cool people. He sets a tone like no other. He has been curating people throughout his however-many years he’s been working in this business that are simply the nicest, coolest, chillest people you could imagine, that are also good at their job.
He sets a tone of civility that I’ve never experienced before, and I now will demand on shows I work on, and that level of civility far surpasses the project. It is about his relationship as a human being and how it affects you as a human being. You work for him, but you can come to him and say, “I know this puts you out, I’m sorry. My daughter’s dance recital is Friday night at six o’clock and I’ve missed the last three. Is there any way we can figure this out?” And he will figure it out for you. And everyone on his team works like that. I’ve seen him be the kindest person I could ever ask to work for.
There’s this longstanding, toxic thesis of the business, which is that some geniuses need to be assholes in order to be geniuses.
Give me a break. That’s an excuse for you to not do your internal work. That’s what it is. In fact, I’ve only ever seen Mike be grumpy once. It was recently, and it was about the salmon bowl he ate, because he didn’t think it was as good as everybody else who was like, “This place is going to be great for lunch!” “Oh, I love that place!” “Oh I love that place.” And then the writers had ordered food, and I was walking into the writers room, and Joe Mande stopped me and he was like, “Thank God you’re here! Mike needs to be cheered up. He’s just really in the dumps.” And I was like, “What? Mike?” And sure enough, he was sitting in his chair and he was all closed off. He was like, “You guys talk about it all the time, and it’s the same thing, any restaurant, it’s just food. Sometimes it’s a little bit better, but its just like, This is the same thing.” And he was complaining about people that value certain things over other things that are pretty similar. Like, this beach is better than that beach. This wine is better than that wine. He’s like, “They’re just all luxuries and they’re all wonderful, but we don’t need to [argue].” It was the one time I’d ever seen him grumpy. It was hilarious(*).
I’ve seen certain people that have had that tortured-artist thing, and I’ve seen them do really great work. I feel like they can dig into things that are very edgy and raw, and I understand why people say that being tortured lends to great creativity. I don’t think unkindness lends to creativity. In fact, I think the opposite. I think it’ll kill you.
(*) I inquired with Schur about the salmon bowl incident, and about the only other story anyone mentioned of him losing his temper, when someone in the writers room tricked him (a Red Sox die-hard) into watching a Yankees highlight video. He replied: “I don’t care about food that much, and everyone kept talking about how this one place had an AMAZING salmon bowl, and I said, ‘I don’t like salmon because it smells and tastes like ocean garbage,’ and they said, ‘No no no, you don’t understand, blah blah blah.’ So I ordered it, and it was a slimy sea slug on a bed of weird grain, and I groused about it for like 11 hours. On the other thing: We accrue a number of random video clips over the course of a year — strange pieces of internet detritus that we stumble on while procrastinating — and the links are in the menu bar. I went to the bathroom once and while I was gone they re-routed one of my favorite links to the Aaron Boone home run in 2003. I clicked on it and lost my mind. I’m not proud of it. People were scared. I had to apologize. You would’ve laughed really hard.”
You came into the show knowing everything that was going to happen in the first season. Most of your co-stars did not. What was that experience like?
I didn’t think too much about it as a secret I was keeping, because my character didn’t need to know. But she knew she didn’t belong. So she already knew something was fucked. So, if I thought I was supposed to be in the Good Place, maybe I shouldn’t have known the twist. But I think it was kind of beneficial. Especially because Eleanor needed to be so suspicious towards the end. I didn’t think about it that often, to be honest. I didn’t think I was withholding something. I was falling in love with all of them, obviously, and we were becoming close. But I was almost more like excited and had anticipation as to when they would read the script, or how Mike would drop that bomb. And I had a very easy time keeping the secret. I mean, Ted [Danson] told everybody. He didn’t tell the cast here, but he told all our mutual friends. I’m shocked I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even tell my husband.
When did he find out?
When he watched it.
What was his reaction?
He said, “You know what? I’ve kept this to myself, but the one critique I have of your show is that you don’t show enough Ted. And you don’t ever show him solo. And I want to know more about Ted’s character. [But] now I realize you could never have shown him solo, because he would have done this.” There’s not a shot like that the first season. And he said, “That’s so interesting, because the whole season I’m like, ‘Why don’t they ever stay on Ted? Give me a moment. What is Michael thinking?’”
What is it like working with Ted?
[Smiles broadly.] I mean, he’s my best buddy. He’s so much fun to be around. He’s just joy personified. He’s witty, and he’s happy. And he’s happy from the moment he wakes up until about 3:00 p.m., and then he gets sleepy. And that’s when we try to wrap up. He needs a lunchtime nap. Everything about him is cute. And I don’t mean to say that to — what would be the word? — emasculate him or something. I just, when I see him, I just want to run into his arms and hug him. I have a teddy bear feeling about him. He’s just fucking fun. He’s with it, we giggle all the time together. He’s kind and respectful to every person that has ever crossed his path, whether it was walking down the street or working with him for four years. He deserves the title of National Treasure.
He’s just so lovely. He’s lovely, lovely, lovely. And I’ve been so spoiled to be able to have grown this close to him. And we [Bell and husband Dax Shepard] have. We drove our our rented motor home one time up to [Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen’s] house in Ojai and parked in their driveway and camped for a week. And they were confused as to why we weren’t staying in the house. But we were like, “Don’t worry, we’re hillbillies. We’re good out here.” And then we ate dinner with them every night. We visited them in Ojai numerous times. One time my husband was out of town, and I just went with my kids. We stayed there, and my kids call him Papa Ted. I mean, he’s just a human dream.
I was talking to Jameela [Jamil] this morning about—
Oh, wait. Let me continue. I didn’t give him enough credit for this.
He’s also — you’re in the best hands possible. There’s so much trust in his eyes when you look at him, because he is thinking about being in the moment. He’s thinking about making the scene work. He’s thinking about how to make his stuff work, but also how not to mess you up. You can work with a great actor, and they’re stepping all over your shit, and you’re like, “Hold up, there’s two people in the scene.” He’s excelled at everything in the storytelling business in that he’s a phenomenal scene partner. I didn’t give him enough credit for how good of an actor he is.
Your other co-stars, this was basically their first significant job. For Jameela, it was her first acting job of any kind. And she told me that for the first half of the first season, she couldn’t even look you in the eye. She said she would look over to Will when playing scenes with you because she was afraid to make eye contact.
[Laughs.] She looked me in the eye! She’s being dramatic. We were fine. We lucked out so much with how quickly everyone who was green was not green anymore. They were all very prepared and nice to work with from day one. Nobody was having weird panic on set, which sometimes can happen. Or not vibing or something. We met each other, and we were all like, “Ah, this feels right.”
What’s it like working with William Jackson Harper?
I’m going to sound like such a broken record, because I really do love these people. Will and I call each other “swolemates” because we work out together. We get swole.
He is very swole.
He’s so swole. And he’s taking me to his workout classes, and I’m taking him to my workout classes. So we call each other “swolemates.” I fucking love that kid. He’s weird, man. He can get me laughing like [only] a handful of people. Ted makes great acting choices, Will makes weird acting choices — and it’s awesome. He has morphed Chidi’s anxiety into the most interesting thing to watch. You know how, when someone’s doing something truly weird from a real, real weird depth of their soul, you can’t take your eyes off them? If you were to watch someone have a panic attack and it felt typical, you’re bored. But watch Will have any of Chidi’s panic attacks, and he’s always making some weird nasal sound, or his hands are doing something funky, or he’s like, “Oh, no!” All of his vocalizations… he’s just fucking fun.
It’s a romance where your memories keep being wiped and you’re at different levels of knowledge of one another, and sometimes you fall back in love only because you’re told that you were in love before. Has that been challenging to play?
It has been. Especially because it’s not a typical love story for a variety of reasons. For the reasons that you mentioned, the resets. But also, it’s a 30-minute comedy. In a love story, you sit and stare into each other’s eyes. You hold each other’s hands. You kiss. You hug. You don’t really do that on 30-minute comedies. Will and I are very conscious as to where to place physical affection. Because I think you do have to show the audience some level of physical affection in order for them to buy you. When we make eye contact, I will say I think that goes a long way to saying we’re in love. But we’ve tried to be a lot more physically affectionate when we can.
[Our conversation pauses for several minutes as Bell shows me photos on her phone of all the menu items from the Season Three episode where Eleanor and friends eat at an America-themed restaurant in Australia called Cowboy Skyscraper Buffet.]
What is it like for you as an actor to have this density of jokes in every background? You turn the corner and suddenly there’s a sign that says, “Lasagne Come Out Tomorrow.”
It makes me so fired up to be at my job, because clearly there are so many people that are excited about it. They just keep writing jokes, they keep putting things in, everything is well thought-out. When we had to turn in papers to Chidi, when [our characters] were studying with him Season Two, we got our papers [from the prop department], and Jason’s was two different types of loose-leaf. Four different types of colored ink. And at the top it said, “Jason Mendoza, age 27.” Why would he ever put his age on there? And everybody’s was individualized like that. And they were written out.
How does it feel knowing the show is almost over?
I suppose exactly the way it would feel at the end of your life. I just didn’t quite get enough. I want a little more. I know it has to end, but I didn’t quite get enough and I want a little more.
When Mike made the announcement that he was going to end with this season, how did that feel?
I almost hung up on him. Because he called me first, and I was in the car driving from Malibu shooting Veronica Mars, and I could tell by the tone of his voice. Also, he’s very forthright and inclusive and collaborative. He told me the whole of Season Two before we started that, told me the whole of Season Three. So, he called me and he was like, “Hey. So, I want to talk about this season.” And I was like, “You’re breaking up! You’re breaking up! Wait, wait! The only way I’ll be able to hear you is if, before you tell me whatever you’re going to tell me, you immediately promise to write me something else after this. That’s the only way that I’ll be able to hear you through all the static.” And he was like, “OK, I’ll write you something else after this.” I was like, “OK, fine. Continue.” Because I loved every minute of being here. We’re talking about some things that I think are really important, we wrap it all in a fart joke, and the hours are so civilized. Beyond the heatstroke from the European village, everything else really is the Good Place.
With Veronica Mars and House of Lies, you didn’t go into your final seasons knowing that would be the end. With this, you have. Have you been savoring it more as a result?
In what way?
In the way that it has struck a chord of awareness in me, that when I come to work I’m like, “You won’t always have this.” It’s definitely reminded me to really ferociously love the people around me. To have patience with my new jobs if they don’t run a ship like this. Because I could easily be so spoiled that I could go to other jobs and go, “Why don’t you run it like The Good Place? What’s wrong with you guys?” Remember to have patience, not everybody has curated people like Mike. But it’s also made me feel like — Mike has this weird way of making you feel like you’re a part of a greater good. Because you’re part of his team. And when he told us how it was going to wrap up, he’s right. That’s where it should end. And the most ethical thing for the story — which should be our main concern, not loving working with each other, not the paycheck we get, not staying on the air, not our resumes — should be, What does this story need to say? The best stories, I think, are the ones where they pay attention to where the story ends. Because otherwise we’re destined to become fatigued.
You’ve been dealing with this at the same time that Veronica has come back to life.
Yeah, it’s weird. But it’s also made me think oddly, maybe this is one of my last things. Maybe this is a great note to go out on. Do you know what I mean? I mean, not one of my last things. I just mean, I work a lot. I’ve always worked a lot. I’m very hungry for it. I love being here. I love filmmaking. I’m good at it, I’m very self-aware on set, I speed up the set rather than slow it down. And all that stuff gives me a ton of self-esteem. Coming here and knowing that I can fire people up with morale, and we can get great story told and also do it in a civilized manner, makes me feel really confident. But I have two little kids who are desperate for me to be home more. I’m 39. I’m just sort of like, maybe this is a great series to go out on. It’s not like I won’t work. Do a movie here and there, or guest-star and stuff. But maybe I won’t be number one on the call sheet anymore.
The show has really had its foot on the gas in terms of plot. If you look back over its many different phases since the end of Season One, is there one that you think it would have been fun to spend more time in?
I would have loved for us to have stayed on Earth longer, for two reasons. Number one, because the cast of characters could get bigger. And people like Leslie Grossman, who’s my mom — who I think is four years older than me — is so much fun to work with and so funny. Rebecca Hazlewood, who plays Kamilah, Tahani’s sister, is fantastic. Donkey Doug, forget it. Our cast of characters widened, and I was simply entertained by my own show, because there were all these new features to it. But [number two], I particularly loved [how those episodes] commented about Earth. That Cowboy Skyscraper Buffet is the perfect example. That chopped-off redwood tree, it’s been fucking killed to be in the restaurant. Those Native American statues have American flag sunglasses on and 4th of July flags all over. There’s so many things that they’re commenting on, and I find that stuff pretty funny.
The show was conceived in much calmer sociopolitical times. Now the world is a mess. Do you feel like a show about how to be a good person and what we owe to each other is more timely now?
Duh. Duh. Duh, duh, duh. Quote it. I have a theory about this — and it’s actually not my theory, it came from my husband. But, he said, “I think we’re craving positive entertainment now.” Eight years ago, five years ago, when the world felt safer, it felt OK to root for an antihero. Walter White was awesome, because the world felt safer, right? Now, the world feels unsafe, and I don’t think people want to turn the television on to that. I think they want to see people fighting for good. I think that’s why Veronica Mars was resurrected. I think people want to see just individuals fighting for good, trying to make a better life.
The fourth season of The Good Place premieres September 26th on NBC.