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Kristen Bell: A Hollywood Princess

December 12, 2013  |  1:56pm
Kristen Bell: A Hollywood Princess

Ever since the 2004 premiere of Veronica Mars, Kristen Bell has been in the spotlight. Just maybe not quite as ubiquitously as in 2013.

The year began with the second season of her role co-starring with Don Cheadle in Showtime’s critically acclaimed House of Lies, whose dark-yet-whip-smart portrayal of the seedy side of big money management consulting is a neat picture in miniature of much of the excesses of our current corporate regime.

She was in the headlines much of the rest of the year, as well, before ending the year by making her childhood dream come true—she’s now officially a Disney princess, with her star turn as Anna in Disney’s holiday offering Frozen. It’s consciously an attempt to return to the glory days of the Disney musical, and it largely succeeds, if at times in surprising ways.

But first, let’s set the record straight. Despite the epic cuteness involved in the idea that Bell got the part in Frozen by sending in tapes of herself singing Disney songs as a girl, it’s—unfortunately—just not true. “Those are actually two different stories that I think got combined by a mystery blogger,” Bell laughs. “I did love Disney animation growing up. And I loved to sing. So when I was little—eight, nine, ten—I would record myself into my boombox in my room, singing Disney songs. I’d do, say, all the Little Mermaid songs, and then I’d label the tape and put it in my closet. I don’t know what I was doing it for, but I thought, one day maybe I’ll need this. And in an interview I jokingly said, ‘And then I sent those tapes into Chris Buck and he hired me.’ But that was just a joke.”

The real story might not be quite as storybook, but its pretty great all the same. “The reality is that I had auditioned for Tangled quite a few years ago,” Bell confides. “You know, these Disney movies take years to make. And this one took an exceptional amount of time, because we had a couple of different script rewrites. But I had auditioned for Tangled, and the casting director told me, ‘Look, if this doesn’t work out, I really want you to meet Chris Buck, who is directing the next Disney film. So I sat down with Chris, after the audition, in the Disney commissary, and he told me that the next film was going to be a much more traditional Disney musical. I think he was appealing to the fact that I have a more traditional musical theater voice.”

“The irony is, I think this is the most untraditional movie Disney has ever done,” Disney’s newest princess continues. “It’s not in a box. You know, for a long time you saw the damsel in distress. Then, at the turn of The Little Mermaid, you saw a girl who wanted to see the world. And then, as it changed even more through Mulan and others, you saw a girl who was a tomboy and wanted to be accepted. But we really have never seen the reality of the dynamics between the character in this film. I mean, just to have a Disney movie that’s not about romantic love. A film about the love and support of family, ultimately. It’s just a sharp turn for their movies, I think. It’s really special because of that, I think, and I’m really glad that this is the one I was able to be a part of.”

That emphasis on family, and specifically on sisterly bonding, is something Bell could relate to, having grown up with two half-sisters. “I had a very normal relationship with my sisters,” she remembers. “There are moments where I thought that they were evil, and there were moments where they were my very best friends. I think that’s how siblings relate to each other. Often times, the dynamic is angry or fighting, but with siblings in particular, there’s this underlying loyalty that you don’t have with anyone else—not even with your parents. It’s really neat to have that only with your siblings. You have that a little bit with your friends, but you don’t fight with your friends nearly as much as you do with your siblings. But at the end of the day, you would defend their lives.”

Bell is, of course, best known for her live-action work where audiences can, you know, see her. Facial expression and body movement are more important to performances than casual fans realize. And not every actor makes the transition to voice work easily; it brings great challenges of its own. “It really depends on your director,” Bell says, “far more than in other projects. You’re alone in a booth recording dialogue, so you have this ultimate freedom, but in order to create usable recordings you look to your director to tell you if you’re on track for the tone of the scene. If there’s a fight scene, am I way angrier than the other character’s recording? Or are we matched up? So in that respect I really relied on Chris and Jen. They’re so brilliant, and they worked together so brilliantly.”

“Chris has this kind of scope,” she explains, “of being involved with Disney for so long, and knowing how to create these sweeping scenes, and the whole machine work in creating the visuals, and having the story work, and having people connect to it emotionally. And Jen [Jennifer Lee] is such a specific writer. She and I were very much on the same page with Anna and her motivation, and where we wanted there to be jokes, and where we wanted to keep pushing her to be funny. Because everyone involved in this movie agreed with me that the jokes shouldn’t all belong to the sidekick. That’s not fair, and it’s not realistic. I’m a goofy, funny, awkward girl, and I don’t have a sidekick. Why not give the heroine some comedy for once? I was able to record with Idina [Menzel] all of our more emotional scenes, which was helpful.”

Whatever it was, it worked. Even paired with a co-star like Broadway legend Menzel, Bell is a standout in the role. Which despite her largely non-musical career so far, shouldn’t really be a surprise—she majored in musical theater at NYU’s Tisch School, one of the foremost training grounds for top-shelf Broadway talent. Watching Frozen, it’s hard not to start counting down the months until it becomes a Broadway musical itself, buoyed by the financial success of the movie and the track record of its composers, Bobby and Kristen Lopez, the team behind breakout hits Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon.

And Bell herself, with that Tisch training and her own history on Broadway (she left Tisch early to star in the Broadway musical version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), would seem a perfect fit to help launch the stage version. Would she be willing? “Oh, definitely,” she says. “I want to work forever for Bobby and Kristen Lopez. I think they’re two of the most talented musical theatre writers out there, and I think they’ve kind of reinvented musical theater. And I’m a musical theater junkie, but even I can admit that shows had gotten a little typical and drab. But they’ve infused this fun and catchiness and, in the case of The Book of Mormon, a sort of fun pervertedness. They’re smart, smart, writers, and they’re very funny. So I would absolutely entertain the idea of a Frozen musical on stage. Or any other musical they wanted me to be a part of!”

It’s that same enthusiasm and eagerness that led Bell to make headlines this year spearheading the most successful Kickstarter campaign of all time. Cult favorite TV show Veronica Mars, which first catapulted her to fame in 2004, had been canceled in 2006. But Bell and Rob Thomas, the show’s creator, kept hearing from fans newly discovering the show. Like Arrested Development, Veronica Mars only got more popular after its cancellation (“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine,” in the words of Obi-Wan). The clamor for a Veronica Mars movie grew louder by the year.

Finally, Bell and Thomas decided to give the fans a chance to help make that happen. They opened a Kickstarter campaign with an ambitious goal of raising $2 million. But they didn’t raise $2 million. They raised over $5.7 million. “I still can’t believe I was a part of it,” gushes Bell. “We were always the little show that could; we weren’t supposed to get a second season, or a third season. Our fanbase wasn’t supposed to grow over the seven years we were off the air. We weren’t supposed to be allowed to make a movie from a TV show that was canceled so long ago. But there’s a little bit of fairy dust on this project, and there always has been. Of course, I think that’s because of Rob Thomas. And I’m an unending optimist, and I thought, why not? We’re always asked when we’re going to make a Veronica Mars movie, and maybe this is the answer.”

Thomas wasn’t quite as sanguine about the prospects at the beginning. “Launching that Kickstarter campaign,” Bell remembers, “Rob believed in us wholeheartedly, but because he’s very realistic he was also nervous. He said, ‘What if we raise $89?’ And I said, ‘Well, then we raise $89, you know? We’ll shoot it in my backyard.’ But we took a chance, and thankfully everybody was ready to jump on board. And the numbers that we ultimately hit were jaw-dropping. We had no idea we’d get there. It’s really absurd if you think about it. But what’s cool is that the people spoke. We didn’t have a gun to anyone’s head. They wanted this; we just created the webpage to make it so. We just presold our movie to our fanbase. And the whole movie, every single step along the way, every decision was made based on whether the fans would be happy with it. The fans that bought experiences to come to set and be extras; that was at times more important than getting the actual scene work done. We wanted to acknowledge that they are our financiers; they are our bosses.”

Besides her roles as actor (both musical and non-musical) and historic crowdsourcing mogul, Bell also takes her stature as a public figure seriously and uses it better than most to take on another role—activist spokesperson. Unlike many in the public eye who are vocal about their causes, Bell somehow never seems to annoy with her messages. Even when there are a lot of them. “It’s funny,” she says, “it’s difficult to navigate because I very much want to be a part of everything, and I often—and by often, I mean all the time—commit to too much. Last week I was caught on my lunch break trying to film three different PSAs. Everyone else is eating lunch, and I’m holding my iPhone up to my face and trying to get a white background behind me and squinting and seeing if I can hear it correctly. Because I don’t have time to actually shoot a PSA, but it’s World Aids Day, and it’s for Takalani Sesame, which is the South African Sesame Street, and their main character Kami is HIV-positive, and that’s the way they teach the children of that nation what it’s like to live with HIV. It’s brilliant, and it’s important, and I have a friend who works there and asked if I would do a PSA. And I said, ‘Obviously!’ So I’m knee-deep in commitments, and I don’t regret it. And people give me advice not to dilute my brand—that if you speak out about everything no one will listen. And I agree with that to a point, but really I let my gut make the decision.”

Recently Bell has been focusing much of her attention on a cause that she feels is often overlooked. “I just became really involved with this organization called PATH,” she explains, “which is People Assisting the Homeless, here in Los Angeles. It’s largely government-funded, but they do have about 35 percent donation-based funding. And homelessness is about the unsexiest problem you could identify. It’s not animal rescue or save the whales or recycling. It’s not cute. It’s gross. You think of a stinky, toothless alcoholic on the street corner. But the bottom line is, it’s a huge issue. There are 45,000 homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles. A lot of them are families. PATH has created a really easy way to be involved. They have created these Welcome Kits, where you can put together an entire apartment’s worth of furnishings, from silverware to towels to dishes, and you move a formerly homeless family in. And we’ve done that a couple of times over the last couple of months, and it’s been so rewarding. But I’m volunteering for them on Thanksgiving Day, and that’s kind of been my big advocacy thing lately.”

She can’t resist throwing in one more plug, though. “Also, one of my friends from Veronica Mars, Ryan, Devlin, who ironically played the rapist in the third season, has started this company called This Bar Saves Lives,” she adds. “And personally, I think that for-profit, for-good companies are going to be the future of business, especially givebacks as we’ve seen with Tom’s shoes. And Tom’s been thinking a lot about food givebacks. He was on this hunger project in Africa for a month, and he came back and basically started this granola company where for every bar that’s purchased, a lifesaving nutritional packet is donated to a child in need. They’re partnered with the biggest acute nutrition supplier in the world. And I want to support him in any way I can. So those are my two biggest obsessions right now.”

Bell takes her public role seriously, and using that bullhorn well is a priority for her. “I’m easily roped into anything,” she laughs. “I figure, I’ve been given a voice, why not use it? But we’ve only seen improvements in human life since we’ve all become interconnected. When people can get on their cell phone, or get on Twitter, when people can see what’s happening in other countries or explore an issue, or connect politically for campaigns—whatever it is, communication helps humans be better. So if I can be a conduit of any information, and if there are likeminded people who happen to be fans of mine and can say, ‘Oh, I want to help a homeless family move in’ or ‘Oh, I like giveback companies too,’ combines with my talking all the time, is a match made in heaven.”

And of course, that dedication to living the public life well also led her to make headlines in another ay this year. Bell and her fiancé, actor Dax Shepard, had decided not to get married themselves until their gay friends had the same right. When the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court, Bell proposed to Shepard. On Twitter. “What’s funny,” she explains, “is that we never intended for it to be an issue for us. We privately agreed that that’s what we wanted. But when you’re in the public eye, you’ve got eight million grandmothers to contend with. Around every corner you have someone saying, “When are you getting married? When are you going to have a baby?” People want to know. So we were asked often when we were getting married. And I think it was actually in an interview with The Advocate that I thought it was appropriate to say what our personal reason was, and that soundbite caught on, and other sources picked it up, and it kind of became our thing. Which was fine with us. It’s why we waited. I was so excited when it passed, and clearly when I proposed to him on Twitter, I was fully aware that that soundbite would get circulated again in the media, and that was my goal. We had been engaged years before that, but I wanted to draw more attention to the celebration of shooting DOMA down.”

It’s been quite a year for Bell, and perhaps the most important benefit of it is that she feels a greater freedom in choosing her roles now. “I read a lot of things; that’s how you find work as an actor, is by reading a lot. Some of the projects want you, and some of the projects you want. And I fight for the projects that I think are interesting or outside the box. Things I’d want to see. Earlier on, the decisions were different. Even with Veronica Mars, I was auditioning to put food on my table. I wasn’t necessarily auditioning because I thought these were such cool choices and strategies for my career when I was 24. I just thought I wanted to pay my rent. But I have stumbled onto a lot of quality projects. And now I can be a bit more discerning. But earlier on, and really just until the last couple of years, it was just luck.”

It’s always a good thing in Hollywood when the good guys get to call some of the shots. And Kristen Bell, our own Hollywood princess, is definitely one of the good guys.

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