She is very visible – a blonde in a bright shirt in a restaurant where everyone else is wearing black, and the most famous face in the place – yet brandishing her underwear doesn’t make her blush. “One thing I really want to do publicly – like on social media – is a, ‘What’s in my bag?’” she says, referring to the fashion magazine features that are usually just plugs for lip gloss. “Like actually videotape myself and go, ‘This is no bullshit. Here is what’s in my fucking bag.’”
In The Good Place, Bell would be forced to substitute “bullshirt” and “forking” for those swear words. On Earth, her goal is to tell everything like it is, as though every day is an exercise in Celebrity Demystification. She is publicly seen as a Very Good Person, an empath who volunteers for a half-dozen charities. Thanks to The Good Place – and honestly, just being a celebrity in these tumultuous, take-a-stand years – she is often turned to as an oracle of ethics. “I personally think it’s a responsibility that if you’re lucky enough to have been handed a microphone in your short time on this planet, use it. Use it.”
Within her radius, I tip extra, and yet she still tips twice as much. And yet she prefers to play characters who are selfish creeps. “That’s what I feel like!” she protests. “Look, I consider myself a very nice person and there are plenty of times I want to scream at someone on the street. And Eleanor does that – she tells people to eat their farts.”
Bell and her husband, the comedian and actor Dax Shepard, are aware that their marriage inspires awe. While they were dating, he surprised her on her birthday with a live sloth, and her ecstatic, sobbing meltdown went viral. The day the supreme court legalised gay marriage, she proposed to him on Twitter. Internet strangers reply to their tweets with hashtags such as #RelationshipGoals. Instead of leaning into the mystique, Bell prefers to talk about the hard work they do every day to stay together. Couples therapy, sobriety, the challenges of monogamy, and their constant bickering, which they recently allowed people to eavesdrop on during an episode of Shepard’s podcast Armchair Expert, where they relitigated whether or not he gawped at her chest on their first date.
“I’m the polar opposite of my husband and that is not hyperbolic. We disagree on 99.9% of things and we argue all the time,” says Bell with affection. The 0.1% of things they share, she notes, are crucial. “We both have the type of brain that likes to be stimulated by the devil’s advocate point of view, so it totally works.” Plus, they were both born in Michigan.
As a child, Bell was a talented mimic. She would repeat unusual accents, Broadway warbles, even entire Lee Press-On Nails commercials from memory. Her parents split up before she was born, so to help her single mother earn extra cash, Bell began modelling for local newspaper ads when she was a pre-teen. She was small and cute, which made her perfect for posing with karaoke machines and kids’ bikes. “Every now and then, someone would bring a circular to school and be like, ‘Is this you? Ew!’” says Bell. “Kmart underwear and training bras was particularly embarrassing.” Her mother, a practising Christian, enrolled her in a Catholic high school, where she heard all the conservative fear-mongering that kept her gay friends from musical theatre hidden in the closet. Despite her daily religion classes, Bell refused to mimic their homophobia. “Definitely, people in my community had the same idea about lifestyles they were unfamiliar with, but I never had a point where I remember going, ‘Oh, being gay is OK!’ I was always like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
“I was so hungry for weirdos,” says Bell. “I couldn’t be Stepford if I tried.” She pauses and reconsiders. “Well, maybe I could fit that box, but I don’t want the people around me to fit that box.” So as soon as she graduated, she moved to New York. “My first memories were just being slack-jawed at the amount of stimuli from other people and immediately recognising that I found my people.” They were in her acting classes, in her first gigs on Broadway, and even today, she refers to the crew of The Good Place as “my family members”. Bell uses the word “tribe” a lot. It’s part of her current thinking about how humanity can improve. Now that she has producer-level clout, her last three projects have instituted what she calls a “no jerks policy”. This includes no sexual harassment, no making people uncomfortable, no passive aggressiveness, and if she spots a director being rude to a crew member, they won’t be hired back.
Recently, she went to a lecture by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker and has fixated on caveman behaviour, which she refers to as the “outdated software in our brains”. Her cornerstone belief is that humans weren’t meant to live in large groups, not even places as fabulous as Manhattan. That we were meant to live in villages of 115 people, max, which is why we tend to be immediately suspicious of anyone unfamiliar. “If you and I met a couple thousand years ago in a field, we would probably kill each other,” she explains, with her friendliest smile.
Today, we’re less violent – at least, face to face – yet online, especially in 2018, that primal group-think is being battled with keyboards instead of clubs. “After the [presidential] election, the amount of hatred I saw from everywhere made me feel – and I could dare speak for my collaborators on the show – that The Good Place was more important.” This is good timing, as the show’s third season, which premieres on Netflix on Friday 28 September, starts off with Eleanor and her afterlife friends Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto) alive and back on Earth with their deaths reversed, stumbling through a second chance at self-improvement, which comes with a new round of sinful temptations, such as when fatuous philanthropist Tahani publishes a best-selling book on enlightenment that gives her the Oprah-level fame she desperately craved.
“There’s no bigger space that egos exist than in the non-profit world,” says Bell. Tahanis are real – and she would know. Bell’s current list of charities covers a staggering amount of ground: animal rights, prostate cancer, stem cell donation, Alzheimer’s disease, international child hunger, domestic chid poverty and young mothers raised in foster care. On birthdays, she and her friends prefer to furnish apartments for homeless people transitioning off the street rather than going out to a bar, and, this week, she will make her United Nations debut as an ambassador for the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund.
“My job is not to go into politics,” Bell stresses. “My job is that I have the ear of 18-year-olds because of The Good Place or Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” It is almost impossible to imagine how she fits everything in. “Honestly, every day you quit at seven, throw in the towel, scream, and then wake up and do it all over again,” she admits. “I know from the outside it can look like, ‘Oh! She’s got it so together! And has a career that looks nice and is doing all these things with these charities.’ But I am struggling to keep it together on a day-to-day basis, and I know that’s what everyone feels like, so that’s what I like to see in my characters.”
Still, she is questioning how much Hollywood loves anti-heroes. There are plenty of them in the news – do we still need them on Netflix? (Witness Bell and Kelsey Grammer as an estranged daughter and father in Like Father.) Is there a way to break Hollywood’s insistence on pitting heroes against jerks, especially when most people, even her, are both? Bell points to Frozen, the Disney blockbuster for which she voiced the lonely Princess Anna. In the first versions of the script, the frosty Princess Elsa was more of a traditional bad guy. What if they broke the mould? “In the final draft, it was like, ‘No, not only does she not need to be forgiven for anything, she’s the most sympathetic character in the whole piece,’” says Bell. “It’s a much more complex story when there’s no villain.
“I want to watch someone fight for the underdog, I want to watch a hero without a cape,” says Bell. “I want to watch someone trying to be good like Eleanor.” Which means it’s the right time to resurrect Veronica Mars, the TV show about a teen detective that made her a household name. Next month, she is jumping back into production for eight new episodes that will premiere – in the US next year. “It’s not high-school crime any more,” says Bell. “It’s going to be Veronica as an adult, so it’s going to be different … and I mean that from an emotional perspective of what Veronica’s dealing with. She’s going to take on much bigger problems.”
For now, though, Bell is continuing to handle her ordinary problems, such as answering her daughters’ questions about death. “When you tell [your kids] some gigantic mythical story that they can sense is not true, they know you’re lying to them,” she says. Reading her kids scripts of The Good Place as bedtime stories, with its flying shrimps and roguish devils, is out. Yet her kids seem to be absorbing her own straight-shooting spirit. Recently, while preparing for the death of their grandfather, her five-year-old shocked her with another huge question: Did she need to pack her toy shovel for when he passed away? And where were they burying the body? On the side of his house? Bell beams with pride. “She was all problem-solving!”