On a 34-degree Sunday in early October, Kristen Bell stands in the parlour of a dilapidated mansion in Los Angeles’ Historic West Adams neighbourhood wearing Lanvin resort and pulling faces at the camera. “Like you want to make a baby laugh!” directs photographer Yu Tsai, and Bell, skilled funnywoman and, as of this past spring, new mother, obliges by unleashing her full rubber-face arsenal: cheeks puffed, eyes popped, tongue out. When the action breaks, her face relaxes into its default symmetrical planes of Nordic loveliness. At 33, the actress, a veteran of TV series (including the beloved Veronica Mars) and film for more than a decade, can turn it on and off like a pro.
During the next setup, Yu Tsai pauses to address a wardrobe issue. He and the stylist crouch at Bell’s knees and adjust the infelicitous draping on a pair of sparkly peach trousers. “We’ve got to style this so she doesn’t have a penis!” he cries.
“Good luck,” Bell purrs under her breath. it’s a throwaway line and nobody’s listening, but handled with her precision instruments—the cut-glass voice, still recognizable as the insinuating narrator of Gossip Girl; the sharpshooter comic reflexes—it lands like a dart piercing the bull’s eye. Thwack.
“That combination of all-American cuteness with subversive wit is a surprise whenever you run across it,” says Matthew Carnahan, her boss on Showtime’s House of Lies. “Kristen looks like a little china doll. And then she’ll say something, and your jaw drops and you can’t stop laughing.”
Bell currently has three upcoming projects that showcase her versatility as a performer. she’ll realize a long-held dream of starring in a Disney movie when she voices (and sings) Anna in the animated film Frozen (out November 27). House of Lies, the caustic cable comedy in which she plays the ethically and romantically challenged careerist Jeannie Van Der Hooven, returns for a third season on January 12 (The Movie network at 10 p.m. ET/PT). And in the much-anticipated movie version of Veronica Mars, due in early 2014, Bell will reprise her indelible mid-aughts TV role as the jaded young detective patrolling a landscape of California noir.
Though best known thus far for her roles in Veronica Mars and ensemble comedies such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Couples Retreat, Bell has won even more fans of late just for being herself. During an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, she shared a home video depicting her unscripted reaction when her long-time partner, Dax Shepard, told her he had invited a sloth to her 31st birthday party. The clip, which shows Bell sobbing uncontrollably with excitement, pulled a staggering 17 million views on Youtube. (even now, “Kristen Bell sloth” remains one of Google’s top search suggestions when you type in her name.) Earlier this year, when Warner Bros. wasn’t convinced there was an audience for a Veronica Mars movie, Bell and series creator Rob Thomas took to crowd-sourcing (with the studio’s blessing) in an attempt to prove them wrong. The resulting campaign raised $5.7 million, shattering Kickstarter records and inadvertently crowning Bell a kind of Hollywood Norma Rae in the process. And after the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act this past June, Bell, an advocate for gay rights, upset gender conventions by proposing to Shepard via twitter.
Later on in the wardrobe trailer, she greets me in James Jeans jeans and Yosi Samra boots, her Vanessa Bruno print blouse hiked up to accommodate a chugging breast pump attached to a black hands-free nursing bra. Bell exudes a chatty Midwestern warmth, and at five-foot-one, she has a beauty of human rather than extraterrestrial dimensions. While pumping—which she does six times a day when separated from her baby daughter, Lincoln—she recalls with amused horror the audition that got her into NYU. For the big moment, she had selected “Your Daddy’s son” from Ragtime, a song first performed on Broadway by Audra McDonald. “Now, Audra McDonald has one of the best voices on the planet, and she is a beautiful, booming soprano, and she is black,” says Bell. “And the song is about a woman burying her illegitimate child in the backyard of someone else’s house. I went in like it wasn’t awkward for a 100-pound white girl to sing it! Because I just loved the music, it didn’t occur to me that it maybe was not PC.” She rolls her eyes at the memory.
Bell grew up just outside Detroit, a shiksa in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. She has no recollection of her parents being together—they separated when she was a baby— but has happy memories of a childhood split between households. “I don’t relate to people who come from a divorced family and call it a broken home,” she says. “Because I felt like the introduction of step-parents and step-siblings just ended up being more people I could hang out with, and more people who loved me and were there for me.” A self-described runt, Bell was too small to play sports, so at age 12, she started taking voice lessons instead: “I got involved in every musical theatre production within a 25-mile radius,” she says.
At that moment, a text arrives from Shepard, who’s with the baby. “Forgive me,” says Bell, dashing off a response. “I have a very delicious husband who keeps wanting to order food in and asking me the time.” (The term “husband” went from the colloquial to the literal 11 days after our cover shoot, when Bell and Shepard made it official at city hall.)
Though they both grew up in Metro Detroit, the couple first crossed paths in L.A. “We would not have been friends in high school,” she says. “He was a drug addict and he was wild, and I was very much a good girl who went to Catholic school. He is also five years older than I am, and he lived in Milford, which is a bit more drive-your-tractor-to-the-7-eleven-type Michigan, and I was closer to downtown Detroit.” The pair’s first encounter, at a dinner party, was “not electric,” she says. “And then two weeks later, I went to a Kings versus red Wings game—he was with someone I knew, and I was with my roommate, [Veronica Mars co-star] Ryan Hansen—and we ran into each other. It was on from that point.”
Via email, Shepard extols his lady’s “optimism and unwavering belief in mankind” and explains the difference in their personalities: “I am always readying myself for each passing stranger to make a move for my wallet, while she prepares to receive a great new cooking tip.”
As we talk, Bell shares (for the first time publicly, she says) some of the anxiety she felt about introducing a baby to the mix: “I kept saying to him in all sincerity during my pregnancy, ‘I just don’t know how I’m going to like her as much as I like the dogs.’” (The other Bell-Shepard clan members include adopted pups Lola, a corgi-chow mix, and Mr. Shakes, a corgi-chihuahua. Sadie, a lab she rescued while volunteering at the Helen Woodward Animal Center post–Hurricane Katrina, passed away last year at the age of 17.) “I was being serious. Because I fucking love my dogs; they are my children. I love people the more I know them, and I didn’t know her. It could’ve been a water bottle in my belly, that’s about how connected I felt to her during my pregnancy. But within about 24 hours after she came out, my hormones reset, and they reprogrammed my feelings about her.” Now, Bell confesses, she’d rather spend her time with Lincoln than anyone else.
As for exactly how the baby came out? “I found it very important when making my birth plan to research both sides of the argument,” says Bell. “I tend to lean toward a more crunchy-granola, organic-type lifestyle, so I thought, I’ll bring the yoga ball, I’ll have a playlist. And we got there, and none of it applied.” After one particularly brutal contraction, she hollered for an epidural and never looked back.
Aside from maternal instinct, the baby’s arrival also tightened Bell’s privacy settings. “Dax and I realize it might make someone smile when we have sassy twitter fights, or when I tweet something that he says to me,” she explains. “I’m fully aware that it’s a tiny taste of our relationship. But the real day-to-day, we are extremely territorial of. I would really not like to see the aftermath of the first person who tries to take a picture of Lincoln. There are going to be a lot of stitches.”
She pauses and looks at her iPhone. “Can I tell you the text message I just got?” she asks. “He said, ‘Do you want noodles?’ And I said, ‘Yes. Pho, please.’ ‘Should I order now? I love you so much.’ And I wrote, ‘Order in 20 minutes. I’ll be home at 5:45.’ He responds with, ‘Titty party. Bone patrol launching boner boats now.’ What? I am married to an 11-year-old!” She wails in mock despair.
Bell arrived in Hollywood in 2002 with solid theatre credits but a solitary line in bizarro comedy Pootie Tang in her filmography; three days later, she booked her first real part. When, in 2004, she landed the lead in Veronica Mars, her youthful looks worked in her favour: At 24, she could still easily pull off 16. (The movie will take place 10 years after the series’ end.) The show’s fast-paced thrust-and-parry dialogue proved the perfect showcase for the actress’s quick wit and dry humour, and the series became a cult hit before it was cancelled after three seasons.
“Veronica’s ‘super power’ was that she was smart, and she didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about her. Kristen exuded both qualities,” says Thomas. “She isn’t as dark a person as Veronica, but she’s as smart. Kristen loves people, the human race. Veronica is more of a misanthrope; she isn’t going to get choked up about a sloth.”
Bell’s current recurring character, Jeannie on House of Lies, is paired both professionally and romantically with Marty Kaan, her unscrupulous boss, played by Don Cheadle. Larded with sex and swears and sabotage, the cable show marks Bell’s decisive move into on-screen adulthood.
I’ve been caught in an in-between stage most of my life,” says Bell. “I’ve always looked young but acted older. And some of the darker work I’ve done has been my favourite, because it’s not who I am in the day-to-day. I’ve had to struggle to convince directors I could play someone who wasn’t bubbly, which has always shocked me, because isn’t that the point of acting—to act like someone other than yourself?”
While some of her peers plot their careers as if running a presidential campaign, Bell chooses her roles based on instinct, a strategy she describes as “sometimes a great choice and sometimes an idiotic choice. But ultimately, I’m not tracking my career from a macro view as much as other people,” she says. “I like being happy in the day-to-day. I’m much happier down here.” At home, there isn’t a lot of actor-speak around the dinner table, either: “Our main rule is: Check your ego at the door, and be aware of when the other person is spinning out,” says Bell. “As artists, everything is vanity- and narcissism-driven: my career, the strategy behind it, the next level I want to hit, my photo shoot, how I was in my acting scene, my premiere. So we try to do a really good job of being human beings in the rest of our life.”
Part of her attraction to Frozen, the Disney film, was the opportunity to bring a fairy-tale trope down to earth. Bell’s Anna is more tomboy than debutante, and the character’s personality was influenced by her creative input. “I didn’t want to play a girl with good posture,” she says. “It’s so boring, and that’s not who I was as a kid—I was a little spazzy, and I talked to myself a lot, and I wanted to be friends with animals. I wanted to play someone who was goofier.”
Her phone goes off again. “Oh my god, we’re getting pictures!” Bell opens the image, a pastoral tableau of baby Lincoln sitting on a blanket in the yard, with a caption reading “Splendor in the Grass.” she stares for a moment at what she’s missing. Outside, the crew has gone home, the sun is setting, and Sunday evening is upon us. It’s time for Bell to get back to her real life.
Hair: Jenny Cho, Suave, The Wall Group.
Makeup: Rachel Goodwin, Chanel, The Wall Group.
Nails: Lisa Postma, Tracey Mattingly.
Flowers: Botany Flowers, L.A.
Editor: Briony Smith.
We’re hosting a Twitter chat with Kristen Bell this month! Have a question for her? Tweet it to us @FLAREfashion.