Photograph by Jill Greenberg/Corbis Outline
Kristen Bell squeezes her five-foot-one-inch frame between two bouncing eight-year-olds in matching yellow day-camp shirts and slips a few tokens into a hot pink Skee-Ball machine. On cue her ammunition—five white balls—lands with a clunk. She palms one in her right hand, gives it a toss, and groans. “These aren’t regulation,” she says. “They’re not made of wood, and they’re too small.”
Bell may look a bit buttoned-down in her pin-striped blouse and stiff black boots, but she is the first to admit she’s a Skee-Ball freak. Once the 30-year-old actress even considered installing a machine in the Hollywood home she shares with her fiancé, actor Dax Shepard (Bell abandoned the notion, she says, because $2,000 seemed too much to pay for an arcade game, even a beloved one). Bell exudes a mix of sass and snark, and to watch her adopt her pitcher’s stance—petite body curved forward, arm cocked tight—is to understand: Bell’s got mad Skee skills.
Since 2004, when she won the lead on Veronica Mars, the cable series about a teenage detective that would provide her breakout role, Bell has often made a living not looking her age. Her new movie, the Touchstone comedy You Again, about a feisty publicist who discovers her brother is marrying the woman who was her archnemesis in high school, is no exception. Bell plays two versions of her character: the present-day grown-up Marni and, in flashbacks, the acne-prone adolescent Marni.
It’s hard not to see the dual role as a metaphor for her career. “I think I’m in the process of graduating,” says Bell. “But it’s still a strange, in-between period.”
Bell grew up in a suburb of Detroit. Her dad, a TV news producer, and her mom, a registered nurse, divorced when she was two. As a kid, Bell likes to brag, she played on an all-boys baseball team for two years. “I was such a tomboy that I was unrecognizable as a girl,” she says. She immersed herself in the theater program at her Catholic high school, and by her sophomore year she was auditioning for film jobs. After graduation, Bell moved to New York to attend the Tisch School of the Arts but left during her final year to star in the Broadway musical version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. That would be the first of several stints on Broadway that ran the gamut from Reefer Madness to The Crucible.
Bell moved to L.A. in 2002 and spent the next two years auditioning for a string of TV shows, but she landed few parts. After a two-episode arc on Deadwood and a couple of made-for-TV movies, she scored Veronica Mars.
Last Christmas Bell’s fiancé received a photo from the actress’s mom. Taken when she was a girl, it shows Bell standing in the middle of a Chuck E. Cheese’s, her face beatific. She remembers the source of her bliss: Skee-Ball.
Since then Bell’s developed a winning strategy. She shuns the lower-scoring easy holes and focuses her energy on the most difficult ones. She slings balls up the ramp, banking them off the side of the cage and aiming straight for the impossibly small, high-scoring holes in the upper corners.
“I’m a firm believer in always going for the 10,000s,” says Bell, her grin wide as she yanks a long curl of pink tickets from the flashing machine. “Go big or go home, I say.”
Her first opportunity to go big on film was the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In it she portrays the title character whom Jason Segel, the movie’s writer and star, is trying to forget. Produced by Judd Apatow and featuring several actors from his slacker-guy coterie, Sarah Marshall gave Bell the chance to hone her comedic timing while also playing her age for once: 26.
“It was, like, ‘Oh wow, this is a fantastic feeling to not have to erase the last ten years of my life before I attack a part,’” says Bell. “There’s so much growth that happens in that chunk between 16 and 20.”
No wonder she was eager to reprise the role of Marshall—a shallow, self-absorbed actress—in a cameo in the recent sequel Get Him to the Greek. “I love that she is the not-so-likable girl. I love that she is an antagonist,” says Bell. “But hopefully you don’t walk away hating Sarah Marshall. There’s nothing funny about perfection. What’s funny is people trying to be perfect, but they’re actually not.”
Unlike many of her nightclubbing peers, Bell is a bit of a homebody. She arrives at the interview with her purse stuffed with food magazines, and she’s quick to recognize (and be impressed by) a scar on my forearm. “Oven burn?” she asks, and when I answer yes, she offers her wrist to display her own pale stripe.
When she cooks, she’s just like everyone else—an aspiring chef trying to master a recipe. That just-like-everyone-else feeling can be hard to find and maintain for an actor, says Bell, “because the world puckers up when your butt cheeks walk by—literally. When you have 100 yes-men in your life, it’s difficult to stay who you are.”
One way to combat yes-men is to emulate great women, she says. She adores Cher (“She’s fucking awesome!”), her costar in the movie musical Burlesque, which is due in theaters in November. You Again, which opens September 24, allowed her to rub elbows with three seasoned costars: Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee Curtis, and the so-hot-right-now Betty White. “Working with people like that—there’s a moment of intimidation, but it passes as soon as you realize that these women don’t keep working for decades because they have bad personalities.”
Ask her to list her role models and Bell ticks off stalwarts Kathy Bates, Toni Colette, and Tilda Swinton. “Despite my being categorized as an ingenue, I have a strong desire to be a little bit weirder,” says Bell. “I mean, Tilda Swinton? She’s about as weird as it gets. Don’t get me wrong, I feel very lucky because I really enjoy doing comedy. I always want to snow-globe my life a bit—just shake it all up, you know?”
Unfortunately the glass prize case into which Bell peers, clutching her stack of neatly folded tickets (60,000 points’ worth), is fresh out of snow globes. In her price range is a miniature back scratcher, a pair of neon-glowing eyeglasses (“I had a pair and wore them until they broke,” she says), and a bundle of Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob pencils. Dissatisfied, she approaches a little girl who is standing near a giant blinking wheel.
“Hey, would you like my tickets?” Bell asks gently.
“Do you want my tickets?” Bell repeats more loudly to compete with the sirens and bells. “I can’t use them.”
“Um, I don’t think I’m supposed to…” the girl mumbles.
Bell smiles reassuringly, places her tickets in the girl’s hand, and walks away. Next stop, the batting cages.