Given her blonde good looks and beaming smile, one might assume Kristen Bell was destined for a career of playing fresh-faced girls next door and sweet, unassuming love interests. Instead the actor is slowly building an impressive résumé of prickly, multifaceted characters shaded with dark undertones.
"I know that a lot of girls with my 'type' tend to get pigeonholed, and I want to have a career with longevity and that also has a lot of character roles," Bell says. "I don't just want to be the ingénue, because I think ingénues are boring."
Her roles thus far have been anything but. There was her two-episode stint as a foul-mouthed con artist on HBO's gritty Western Deadwood; her harrowing turn as the abducted daughter of the president in the David Mamet film Spartan; and her work as a tough-as-nails teen in the Lifetime TV movie Gracie's Choice.
"Honestly, I think it's just been luck," Bell says of landing these complex roles. "Getting cast in, like, Deadwood, and playing that dark of a character was just lucky, because that was right when I came out to Los Angeles, and I was basically going to take whatever job I could get in order to pay my rent… Maybe it just appeals to a strange part of my personality that I'm not yet tapped into, because I think I'm fairly normal, but I think I find interesting characters, dark characters, characters far from my personality, to be just so much fun to play and to put the work into as an actor. I think there's nothing cooler than playing someone completely opposite [of] you."
This season she is inspiring buzz as the title character in UPN's Veronica Mars, a smart, twisty series that already has the makings of a cult classic. Veronica, a former popular girl who is now a high school outcast, assists her P.I. dad (Enrico Colantoni) with his caseload while trying to solve the show's main mystery: Who killed her best friend Lilly (Amanda Seyfried)? A show such as Veronica wouldn't work if the central role wasn't perfectly cast, and Bell fits the bill beautifully. She makes Veronica wise beyond her years without sacrificing any of the character's innate teenage vulnerability.
"I think I was the second girl to audition, and I was lucky that [creator Rob Thomas] had seen some things that I'd done before," she says. "I just thought that it was the best script that I'd read all season, and I went in there and I said, 'I'm basically gonna sit here until I get this part, so let's start talkin'—which is funny, because I think that's a very Veronica thing to say."
Bell will show viewers yet another facet of her range in Showtime's TV movie version of the satirical stage musical Reefer Madness, premiering April 16. She plays Mary Lane, an absurdly squeaky-clean teen who morphs into a hedonistic vamp after getting a taste of pot. The actor also starred in the play's Off-Broadway incarnation in 2001. "It was amazing for me to see the difference from when we were Off-Broadway, and we had a budget of $5, and we were cutting out cardboard teacups and saying, 'But when we do the movie, these are gonna be real teacups,'" she says. "And then being able to do the movie, where we had sets and lights and everything: You hope that your theatre audience suspends their belief in reality and says, 'But this is what it should look like.' We got to do that in the movie, which was amazing."
Bell says she didn't alter much about her performance for the TV movie version but thinks it's still a new take on the show. "Each [version of the show] has been different," she says. "I think I've played the same Mary Lane, but we had new cast members, so it kept everyone on their toes, and it kept it fresh and it kept it alive."
The Off-Broadway version of Reefer Madness wasn't Bell's first foray into the theatre; she got her start onstage. The Detroit native left New York University's Tisch School of the Arts a few credits short of graduating when she booked the part of Becky Thatcher in Broadway's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. "I just didn't want to turn down a Broadway show, because I felt that I could grow as much there as I could in class," she says. "Right now, I'll take an acting class if it's for me. At the time, I didn't have time to go back and take [class at] the school, to get the credits.… Actually, NYU called a couple of weeks ago and said they would help me try to get my degree, which I've been badgering them about for four years. That's kind of nice, because I do really want my degree. My degree's very important to me."
In addition to her appearance in Tom Sawyer, Bell played the title role in the musical comedy Sneaux, appeared in A Little Night Music at the Los Angeles Opera, and was featured in a Broadway revival of The Crucible, starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. She has also guest-starred on such series as The Shield, Everwood, and American Dreams. Veronica, however, puts her in a new league: TV star. Still, the actor says she doesn't exactly attract a mob when she goes out in public.
"I'm not really recognized, I think, as much as anyone thinks," she says. "I didn't have to alter my life at all. I also don't go many places, because I'm always at the studio shooting. I think that I still sort of get that longer stare of, 'Are you an actor, or are you friends with my sister?' What I very much enjoy getting is the fan mail [from] kids that say Veronica has helped them, or the fans that just like the show so much because it [is a show that] finally treats an audience with intelligence."
Bell also enjoys the experience of making Veronica. She has tremendous respect for the show's writers and says they always make themselves available when she has questions about the script or suggestions for the character. One of her ideas that made it into the series: Veronica's penchant for wearing a signature pair of necklaces, a tough girl leather choker and a delicate silver star. The actor got the idea from a friend of hers who wears similar jewelry. "[My friend] always wore [a choker], and then she wore a really dainty diamond underneath," she explains. "I just thought the juxtaposition of those two things seemed so strange, and I thought, 'That's the paradox that Veronica is.' Veronica wore those necklaces all season, I think, because that's what I feel like she looked like on the inside."
Though playing an iconic character such as Veronica is a sure way to put yourself on the map, it also means the actor in question may be forever typecast as that particular persona. Is that a concern for Bell? "I think it is a little bit, because I am not as much of a tomboy in real life, and up until Veronica Mars, I hadn't really played this much of a [tomboy]. So I hope that I'm not always a tomboy, because I think it's very important to show strong women on TV—I think there are way too many women depicted as victims—but I think there's also merit to showing vulnerability and delicacy as a female."
Certainly the actor has avoided being typecast thus far. She encourages other actors to stay in the game, even if they initially find themselves with less-than-challenging parts. "Stay dedicated and don't get discouraged, even if you are typecast, because there are always roles where you can expand your horizons, even if they're not publicized ones," she says. "If you're getting cast on television as the girl next door all the time, go do a play where you get to be a maniac—go do Medea—because I think that it's just as satisfying. I think the biggest illusion actors allow themselves to have is this perception that, unless it's public, it's not acting, or it's not important. I think that there's not a bigger myth in this business, because I have seen some of the best acting in my life in a 25-seat theatre in Nowhereville. People—especially my generation, the younger Hollywood now—can't let themselves get too caught up in that, because it's an unending road of not being satisfied." BSW