Kristen Bell: Sassy Is the New Cute

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

Kristen Bell is cute. Cute like a butterfly trinket on the end of a charm bracelet. Cute like cotton candy wrapped in marshmallows -- covered with sparkly sugar crystals.

Thank God for her sailor mouth and acerbic sarcasm. Otherwise, emo girls might've wiped that smile off her face by the end of the eighth grade.

As it happens, the 27-year-old actress turned out to be something of a counterculture icon, even if that world's not really her cup of tea.

"If you want to collect action figures, more [expletive] power to ya, you know what I mean?" she muses, referring to the legions of self-professed geeks who have embraced Bell since her starring role as a smack-talking teen detective on the CW's "Veronica Mars."

It's that juxtaposition (cheerleader looks and an outsider's attitude), she says, that sets her apart from the bevy of blondes she encounters at every audition. Including the one for the role of Sarah Marshall in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," a new coming-of-age-as-you're-pushing-30 comedy from Judd Apatow's gang.

"I think I have a lot of tact, but I also think I was blessed with a big personality, and I don't think I need to hide that or conform to anything, just because I'm supposed to look like the girl next door," she says on the phone from Hawaii, where "Sarah Marshall" was filmed and where she has been "forced" to return for the movie's publicity blitz.

It was that big personality that prompted Bell's mother to enroll her in voice lessons and urged her, at age 11, to try out for a youth theater production in her native Detroit suburbs. She was cast as a banana and a tree in her first community production, and by her senior year of high school she was applying for early admission to New York University's drama program.

She got in but never finished; Broadway got in the way of her studies. Bell landed a role in the short-lived musical "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," then was cast opposite Laura Linney and Liam Neeson in a revival of "The Crucible" and appeared in the Kennedy Center's Stephen Sondheim festival.

At 22, she moved to Los Angeles, thinking, she says, "if I'm ever going to take a risk, it's going to be now." But it didn't turn out to be much of a gamble: Three days after Bell arrived, she was hired for a guest spot on the FX show "The Shield." One gig led to another, and in 2004 she was plucked from the more than 500 women who auditioned for the title role in "Veronica Mars."

"It was just luck, again, that [the show's creator, Rob Thomas] saw that I have some sass to me, and that's exactly what he wanted. Someone that your first impression of wasn't going to be exactly what she brought to the table. She may have looked a little softer or sweeter, and when she opened her mouth, she was just full of spitfire," Bell says, seemingly of both herself and her character.

The show was praised by critics but canceled by network executives after three seasons -- and replaced with a reality show searching for the next member of girl group the Pussycat Dolls. "Clearly it was an emergency in the Pussycat Doll department," Bell snaps.

But the actress hasn't exactly needed to file for unemployment. In addition to "Sarah Marshall," she narrates the CW series "Gossip Girl" and has appeared in six episodes of the sci-fi drama "Heroes" on NBC. Films that will place her alongside the likes of Meg Ryan and Anjelica Huston are also in the works.

In each production, she will be pretty. Which is part of the plan -- and the facade.

"If I looked like some dark, pierced chick, that would be typical -- of, like, the words that come out of my mouth," she explains. "It works to my advantage, because to succeed in Hollywood, I think you have to have something unexpected. Nobody wants typical anymore."

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