Kristen Bell is best known for loving sloths and playing sharp-tongued teenage private investigator Veronica Mars, but this month she's taking on a weightier role. "The Lifeguard," a Sundance Film Festival debut that hit theaters last Friday, stars Bell as Lee, a 29-year-old who leaves her meandering life in New York City to move back home. Lee is quick to correct anyone who calls her 30 -- an age complex that cements itself when she falls for a 16-year-old who frequents the pool where she lifeguards.
Bell understands the ickiness that comes with the movie's romantic age barrier, but she also won't pass judgment on her character's actions. "She really doesn't acknowledge the age difference and so I didn't either," Bell said in an interview with HuffPost. The 33-year-old star knows a bit about making relationship resolutions. She and her fiancee, Dax Shepard, made public their plan to skip the whole wedding thing until the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned, calling it "rude" to invite guests who can't partake in their own matrimony but must witness hers.
It's Bell's earnestness -- and the cult following that the little-watched but much-praised "Veronica Mars" saw during its three seasons -- that makes her such a beloved star, and that genuine nature resounded during Bell's interview with HuffPost Entertainment. We talked to the "Lifeguard" actress about her new movie, being a viral sensation and what's ahead for everyone's favorite P.I.
Congrats on the film. This is a complicated character that you're exploring: In some ways she’s kind of an everywoman, and in some ways she has a very unique story. How did you find ways to relate to her?
Well, I mean, I think that the macro problem in her life is that she had expectations as to where she would be and how she would feel, and I can relate to that. I have learned that expectations are the opposite of happiness. I’ve never had as dramatic an experience as she has had, where I looked at my life and said, “This is nothing I want.” I’ve never experienced that, but there have been moments when I’ve woken up in a cold sweat and I’ve said, “I thought I’d have this thing figured out by now, I thought I would have felt satisfied by now. What’s aching me? Why am I so hesitant to join this herd of adults? And where does my adolescence end and my adulthood begin?” And I think that is the most relatable subject matter of all, even -- I’m gonna go broad with it -- for this generation.
There’s a trend in entertainment right now, seen in the TV show “Girls,” wherein a lot of projects are exploring this same topic of mid- to late-20s angst and restlessness. Do you think the inundation of that subject is an accurate reflection of the Millennial generation?
I do. ... It's a very appropriate subject matter to be exploring. I think there are normal rules; there are a lot of unconventional lifestyles, especially living in New York or L.A., where you can choose to let your adolescence live well into your 40s and 50s if you feel like. And the problem with humans is that we don’t even acknowledge how much we crave structure, and when there’s a structure we tend to be a lot more ... what’s the word? The word is not "satisfied." We can be more comfortable. All these options now create so many different lifestyle choices that it’s sometimes overwhelming. The subject matter, specifically of "The Lifeguard," I think it also speaks to where the economy is. A lot of people are going to college and they’re racking up tons of debt, and they have to move back in with their parents.
One line in the film that struck me as poignant was, “You’re 16, you have your whole life ahead of you. You have no idea how lucky you are right now.” How much do you agree with that notion, and do you feel, as someone who’s around the same age as your character, that you would pass that advice along to any 16-year-old?
First of all, let’s take a moment to acknowledge what a great writer Liz Garcia is. Second of all, I hesitate to give advice to any age group because everybody is different. Do I feel like 16-year-olds are lucky because they have their whole lives ahead of them? Absolutely, but that perspective is only gained when you’re 30 years old. When you’re 16, 50 percent of you feels like I’ve got all this shit figured out, no biggie, I’ve never been smarter in my life. Fifty percent of you feels like I cannot believe this caste system that I have in my high school; will I ever break out of this? Will life ever be better than this? So it’s hard.
Playing a 29-year-old who is entering into a fairly illicit relationship with a 16-year-old, did you find it easy to get into her shoes and understand how those emotions would come about? What kind of common ground were you able to find with that odd experience?
The great thing about the way Lee is written is that she doesn’t acknowledge the age difference. She acknowledges that there’s something hidden about their relationship, and there’s a temptation that she’s hesitant to grasp. But she really doesn’t acknowledge the age difference and so I didn’t either.
In looking at Lee and comparing her to characters you’ve played on shows like “Heroes” and “Veronica Mars,” which are just much more action-driven and are a lot more over-the-top in the way those stories are structured, what do you enjoy more? Do you enjoy doing human drama like this, or do you prefer the action that you’ve been equally known for?
I enjoy them both, but this one is more challenging. It’s very uncomfortable to sit still; it’s much easier when you have a motive or you have props or a superpower or a lot of storyline to move really quickly. It’s much more uncomfortable when you just have to sit still and be vulnerable in front of a camera and do absolutely nothing. It’s way more uncomfortable.
Coming out of the festival circuit can allow for more originality. Do you ever say you're tired of playing conventional roles? Do you say you just want something weird this week?
My conventional role is really sassy and snarky and cool, and no, I don’t get tired of that. So I don’t get tired of playing the quick-witted girl, but I’m lucky to be able to have been cast in some roles that are like that. If I was playing the quote-unquote girlfriend, you bet your ass I’d be sick of it. So I’ve gotten to play roles like Veronica Mars where I’m like, "I get this punchline, though. I like it." Do I want to experiment sometimes and play in a different movie like "The Lifeguard," where I’m not sassy and I’m not funny and I’m not smiling all the time? Absolutely. But the pigeonhole that I’ve been thrown into is the best I could possibly imagine.
You mention you enjoyed being able to play the sharp-tongued character. Do you consider yourself more of a comedic actress or a dramatic actress?
Wow. I don’t know because I started out doing much more drama. I came from doing theater in New York, where I did “The Crucible,” which is not exactly a romantic comedy. And then I did the first season of “Deadwood” and was on “The Shield,” which is dark, and I have done a fair amount of drama, but I feel like what I’m known for and what I have more fun doing is comedy.
Speaking of comedy, you basically became a viral sensation recently with your love of sloths.
[Laughs] Yes, that has been my most successful project of my career.
How does it feel to be a viral sensation? In the moment, once you realized that little thing took off as much as it did, what was that experience like?
It was -- how do I explain it? -- it was jaw-dropping every step of the way because I was on the tail end of two press tours. So by the time it’s this interview that we’re doing, I’d done essentially 200. So I was completely out of stories and I had nothing more to talk about. And I had to go on “Ellen,” and I said to Dax, “I’ve got no more stories.” And I’m going on to promote [“Big Miracle."] And he said, “Ya know, 'Ellen' is a primarily female-driven audience; why don’t you show that sloth video from last year? That’s still funny.” Because around our house, it’s kind of a big joke because I had a panic attack and it was very funny. And I just brought it because I needed some content, and I had no idea that it would -- I mean, I knew it was funny, but I didn’t know that it would be as beloved as it’s been or as comical as it’s been. So I don’t really know how to explain what it feels like to be a part of it because also it had happened a year prior to me showing the video. I lived with knowing that embarrassing moment for a long time.
Did you get on the Internet after it happened and look at people talking about it?
I didn’t look at what people were saying about it because I don’t read a lot about myself; I find that to be terrifying, and I would shoot myself in the forehead before I’d have a Google Alert. But I did watch the number climb. Like, I remember the next morning, I realized that it was on the Internet, and I said, “Oh, Dax, that’s on the Internet.” And I think I just went on to see how they cut it together, and I think I saw like 400,000 hits, and I was like, “What the fuck?” And I mean, it just kept rising, and I was like, "This is unreal." [The video has since risen to almost 17 million views on YouTube.]
So, do you have people approach you in the street and want to talk about just that instead of your work?
Absolutely! Are you kidding me? Absolutely.
You also, through your Twitter feed and in interviews, have taken political stances on various issues and really been an advocate for certain causes. When did it start that you and Dax were going to hold off on marriage until DOMA was overturned?
It started with us discussing that we wouldn’t ever really want a wedding because we both get a lot of attention in our daily lives. And I don’t fault anyone who wants a wedding, but I don’t have a desire to have a day be all about me. If anything, I’d much rather step into the shadows and not have everything revolve around me. Because as an actor, you often have a spotlight on you, and I don’t want to create experiences like that in addition to my career. ... And then it naturally turned into a conversation about, well, also, who wants a wedding when only a portion of America can get married legally? And the fact of not wanting a party: What, we’re going to have a party and 30 percent of the people we invite can’t get married? Like, that’s just rude.
So now DOMA has been overturned, and where do you go from here as someone who didn’t want a wedding?
I still don’t want a wedding, but I will marry that man. We will sign our papers now. We still have no desire for a wedding, but we will now happily participate in the legal binding of our marriage, knowing that everyone in California can.
The "Veronica Mars" movie features a ton of celebrity cameos: Jamie Lee Curtis, Justin Long, James Franco. Who was the best?
I would say, oh God, I don’t know. You know what? I know who I’d say and I can’t say that person because they’re not released yet.
So there are more that we don’t know about?
Yes, a couple more.
Can you tell me any names other than Jamie Lee Curtis, Justin Long and James Franco? Any others?
I would get killed if I did, but there’s someone in the beginning of the movie -– and you’ll know who I mean –- there’s someone in the first five minutes of the movie who I think is the coolest cameo ever.
Exciting! Is this person a legend? Will we be floored when we find out who it is?
I was, and our whole set was in a fit, a tizzy, because this person was on set. There’s a certain niche that this person fills. And listen, there are a fair amount of people who will be unimpressed. But for me, you couldn’t get better. If you’re kind of a nerdy brainiac in any sense of the word, you will love this person.
Click over to HuffPost TV to see what else Bell had to say about the "Veronica Mars" movie.