Ads for new flick Forgetting Sarah Marshall have popped up all over the country, white posters and billboards proclaiming in thick black ink, "I'm so over you, Sarah Marshall," "My mom always hated you, Sarah Marshall," and, "You do look fat in those jeans, Sarah Marshall." Thing is, Kristen Bell, the Detroit-born actress, couldn't be less like the titular role she plays this month. Well, except for, you know, she's blond, petite and a TV star trying to become a movie star (remember Veronica Mars; that was her). Otherwise, we can say this for certain: if you were ever in love with Kristen Bell, you're definitely not over her, your mother (and your father and probably everyone else you know) loved her, and it's pretty much impossible for her to look fat in anything — including, we'll bet, balloon pants.
At the moment, Bell's giving directions to the friend who's driving her around Los Angeles. She's chatting about the Judd Apatow-produced Sarah Marshall, but the conversation rises and falls in fits and starts; there's some tricky L.A. street navigation to contend with.
The navigation part is nothing new. The actress is a perpetual-motion machine and she's heading to New York in a few days to begin shooting a new romantic comedy called When In Rome.
Born and raised in Huntington Woods, the 27-year-old Bell graduated from Shrine Catholic High School in Royal Oak; her parents had divorced by then, her father, a one-time TV news director at Channels 2 and 50 in Detroit, had moved to Arizona, while Mom, a registered nurse, continued to work in the area.
The acting bug, if there's such a thing, had taken hold even before her teen years, though Bell says her desire to perform wasn't some epiphany. "It was just something I knew that I loved," she says. Her first stage audition, in fact, came when she was 11 years old. She eventually almost landed the lead in Detroit-shot indie Polish Wedding, but, when Claire Danes got the role, Bell was relegated to standing silently beside the star.
"It was like being on a sports team for me," she says of her youthful acting pursuits. "[Theater's] what I looked at as my sport, my after-school activity. It was just a natural progression to study it in college."
She left Detroit for Manhattan and New York University's Tisch School of Arts, where she was, by all accounts, relentless in her pursuit of the craft. She eventually left college six credits shy of a degree for a role on Broadway in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Because those six credits were attendance-based theater classes, she's never had a chance to graduate; Bell had become a working actress and time suddenly became scarce.
She credits her Detroit roots for much of her post-New York success, especially surviving the Hollywood machine; Bell's blue-collar roots taught her to focus her ambition into a work ethic that has obviously paid off.
"I think that's why I was so determined at a very young age," she says. "By 15, I had my work permit. It was not ever something I was forced to do, my mother didn't make me work, but I was definitely taught the value of money. There's less of that going on [out here] because so many people have an opulent lifestyle — I'm very glad I was taught the value of working hard."
After appearing on Broadway a few more times, including with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney in The Crucible, Bell made her big move to Los Angeles in 2002, a geographical maneuver that resulted in two years of bit parts in a wide variety of TV shows and failed pilots before scoring two major roles in 2004 — a politician's kidnapped daughter in David Mamet's Spartan and a two-episode stint on HBO's Deadwood. Then came Veronica Mars.
"Oh, I miss it so much," Bell says of Veronica now, despite that the show, which lasted for three seasons, was canceled a year ago. "We all still get together every couple of months for dinner or to play running charades. That's such a rare thing, especially a year after a show's been canceled."
Veronica Mars made Bell a heroine of fanboys everywhere; Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon — the king of geek-cool — even dubbed it his new favorite show. But the ratings never equaled the fan enthusiasm and the ax fell last June. Within no time, Bell, already a fan of superhero drama Heroes, was cast as a sexually repressed vixen with an electric touch on the hit show, which pretty much solidified her as the epitome of cool in the growing "geek-chic" movement.
"You know what, I wasn't seeking out geeky roles," Bell says, answering why her career sits in such a quirky place. "I was seeking out smart roles. Not necessarily that the character be intelligent, but the project be intelligent. It just so happens that a lot of those are written by geek-chic people, written by that subculture that you might call a nerd. The thing I love about the geek-chic culture is, you love what you love because you love it. You're not trying to fit in. People who dress up in stormtrooper costumes in 100-degree heat are not trying to fit in, per se. They're doing it because they love it — and who cares? It's about people following their heart, and I've always done that."
She continues, "It's one of the highest compliments I could've received to be accepted into this community that is fiercely intelligent and doesn't accept just anybody."
Which makes one wonder how she went from Veronica Mars and Heroes to co-starring in a Judd Apatow movie, especially considering how ridiculously crude the writer-producer-director's projects tend to be (emotional poignancy aside, they're universally pretty base; consider The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad ... and so on).
As out of place as one might expect Bell to be, though, partly because Apatow productions tend to be male-centric with one-note female characters, it should be noted that Bell's Sarah Marshall actually represents the most complex and fully realized female character in an Apatow movie yet (leaps ahead of Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up, for example). Sarah Marshall is a TV actress with a hankering for big-screen fame and sleazy musicians. She's a complicated, inadvertent satire of Bell herself.
"The irony was already dripping from the script when I first read it," Bell says. "[Sarah] had just had her show canceled; I had Veronica Mars canceled two weeks prior. The sincerity in the scene where she finds out is real; I was really devastated when the show was canceled."
Bell goes on to wonder aloud about why she fit in with the Apatow gang so well. In a way, she's really just one of the guys.
"I feel really good at acting like a girl," Bell says about Sarah Marshall's presence amid a host of foul-mouthed men. "That's definitely an aspect of my personality people find surprising, because I do have a bit of a sailor's mouth. I do have a dirtier sense of humor than most people would expect to come out of a 5'1" blond, blue-eyed girl. I guess I grew up a bit of a tomboy. Not a fierce tomboy. I did name my dolls boy names and I did try to change my name to Matthew at one point. I don't know, I don't have a problem being a girl — but I also don't have a problem dropping the facade and being more of a guy."
In other words, Mom would love her. She's smart, she's sincere, she's the girl next door. Your dad will love her because he can trade dirty one-legged hooker jokes with her. You should be desperate to be in any position to tell her that she looks fat in any pair of jeans. What's funny is why this all makes sense; she's a Detroiter after all.
"It definitely taught me to keep my head screwed on straight," Bell says of the Motor City, the rock upon which she leans. "There's so much access to everything out here [in Los Angeles]; you can become disillusioned very quickly. But I think keeping in touch with my friends and my family, remembering a different lifestyle, it helps me be who I want to be, I think."
Forgetting Sarah Marshall hits theaters on Friday, April 18.Cole Haddon is film writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org