On the new Showtime comedy series House of Lies, actress Kristen Bell plays Jeannie Van Der Hooven, a talented and highly ambitious member of Marty Kaan’s (Don Cheadle) team of management consultants. Crafty, flirtatious and a bit mysterious, Jeannie does everything she can to keep her personal life personal, but she’s not above getting down and dirty with a different guy in every city she visits.
While at the TCA Winter Press Tour, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with Kristen Bell for this exclusive interview to talk about how the head of the network approached her directly about doing the role, the appeal of doing more provocative storylines, how much fun she’s having working with the extremely talented Don Cheadle (who is also an executive producer on the series), how she never would have imagined that she would have her toes sucked on TV, and that she craves diversity in her acting roles, but is also spontaneous when it comes to choosing projects. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Kristen Bell: I was approached by David Nevins. He just called me up and said, “Would you be interested in this?” I already felt a spark of excitement, after being directly approached by the head of the network. Also, knowing that Don Cheadle was attached, it would have had to have been horrendous for me to not have said yes. Luckily, when I read it, it was brilliant and it was a very easy decision.
How much did they initially tell you about Jeannie Van Der Hooven, and how much have you been able to contribute to her?
Bell: They did not tell me a lot, at all. She wasn’t the main focus of the pilot, and they were trying to make me happy or satisfied by saying, “She’s going to unfold. It’s going to be a big character.” But, in all honesty, I didn’t really care. I liked the people I was working with. I liked the material. I was excited to work with Don Cheadle. Even if I was only in one scene an episode, it didn’t really bother me. I don’t crave being the main character. So, for the pilot, I wasn’t given a lot of info. But then, as we started to shoot the season, you see Jeannie’s hometown and her parents and where she came from, and you understand her more. So, I was given all those details by (show creator) Matt Carnahan, once the season started.
When you do something like this and it’s developed over the course of the season, what sort of backstory did you do for the character?
Bell: Well, I didn’t know a ton about her backstory for the pilot, so any questions I had, or to figure out how she would react to certain situations, I just asked stand-alone questions and asked Matt Carnahan if this is what he pictured, as well as our director, Stephen Hopkins. They kept me on track. But then, as we started the series, we all sat down and talked about our characters. I think it was of paramount importance that we knew who they were prior to meeting them because it’s very difficult to play a believable slick rick type person without knowing what the building blocks are, or how they got there, to be such a shark.
Bell: Yeah, it’s flattering. Our writers did a really good job of balancing everybody’s characters out and making them specific enough to interact with each other. No character is like another, on this show. They do not blend together. They are all very, very dynamic and very different personalities, which is what is so interesting about the show.
In going back to television, what made Showtime the perfect pairing for you? Was it because of the freedom you have there?
Bell: Yeah, it was the freedom to be a part of more provocative storylines, and it was the shooting schedule. Doing 12 episodes versus 22 is night and day, in difference in your life. When you shoot 22 episodes a year, you’re lucky if you see your family once at Christmas. Shooting 12 episodes a year, you actually get to interact, as a human being, with your friends and your family. For me, I can fill my cup up with real human interactions that allow me to be an actor. If I had no basis for relationships, as Kristen Bell, the human, I couldn’t be an actress.
What’s it been like to get to work with Don Cheadle and develop the relationship between your characters?
Bell: He’s so exceptional, it blows my mind. I’m so jealous of him, in every way. He’s a better human being than he is an actor, and he’s a damn good actor. He’s a storyteller, by nature. He elevates all of the material around him. He’s extremely easy to work with because his goal is to tell a great story and have fun while doing it. He has zero ego, which is sometimes surprising for an actor that’s that talented and established, I would imagine. He’s just really, really fun to work with. I can’t say enough good things. I adore him and, secretly, I’m just jealous of everything he does because he’s wonderful.
Bell: We had one management consultant sum it up and say, “Your only goal is to attach yourself to the host and bleed them dry.” It’s not unlike an actor’s job. You are to walk in every room and appear necessary to the other person, to make sure that they need you, by the time you part ways, and that they call you again. The goal in management consulting is to manage the company from the sidelines, basically. We walk in and, using our powers of manipulation and bullshit techniques, get them to sign us on for a contract, and then pass all the after-work to the junior executives at the company, and then we go catch the next fish.
Is she the kind of person where you feel like there isn’t anything she wouldn’t do, or does it ever weigh on who she is?
Bell: In the beginning of the season, I thought there was nothing she wouldn’t do. But, she starts to ask herself that question, towards the end of the season. Jeannie is very compartmentalized, so she has a strange ability to effortlessly lie to other people, as well as herself. That starts to catch up with her, throughout the course of the season.
When you hear Don Cheadle go on Jimmy Kimmel and say, “Just give it time, Kristen Bell will drop trou on the show,” does that make you nervous at all?
Bell: What are these pervs talking about?! All right, I see how it is. I’m going to YouTube that interview. That’s amazing! I could take them both at the same time, with my eyes closed. They wouldn’t even know what hit them. No, I’m not afraid of Don Cheadle and/or Jimmy Kimmel. No, it doesn’t make me nervous. You know, I wasn’t pressured at all by the network. As racy as Showtime is, the nudity is voluntary. When I had scenes of a sexual content, I wasn’t asked to take any clothes off. I was asked, “What are you comfortable with, in this scene?” The approach is paramount. I don’t feel like I was forced to do anything. But, I’ll drop trou, if Jimmy and Don really want me to.
Bell: Never! I read that and I almost fell out of my chair. But, Matt Carnahan is a weird motherfucker, and there are people that like that. You know what? I didn’t hate it. It was weirder than I thought it was going to be, but it wasn’t unpleasant. People love feet. What is it about that? It takes all kinds. Showtime gets weird, and this show gets weird, which is what I love about it.
Are there a lot of times, when you get a script, that you wonder how you’re going to pull it off?
Bell: There was one scene where I had to dance in my underwear, but it was supposed to be sexy, which was so difficult for me to get the guts up to do. If it were funny, I could pull it off, but it was supposed to be genuinely sexy and I don’t have that gear. It was really making me giggle ‘cause I was insecure. I got through it with a couple of pep talks from the female writer who wrote the episode, thank god, but that one was difficult to get through.
How quickly will viewers get to learn more about Jeannie’s background and why she is the way she is?
Bell: About mid-way through the season. She is very clandestine in the first four or five episodes. You don’t know a lot about her and she plays up her mystery for very specific reasons, and then you find out why.
Bell: In the pilot episode, I loved working with Greg Germann. I think he’s so funny, so fantastic, and so quick. And, he makes a lot of appearances, throughout the whole season, because we just can’t get enough of him. I really liked his through-line and I liked working with him a lot.
What do you look for, when you’re considering projects to sign on for?
Bell: It’s less strategic than you think. I crave the diversity because I’m an actor and it’s more fun to play different types of characters, but I’m pretty spontaneous as well, so I don’t rule anything out. I don’t say, “I would not ever do a horror movie,” because tomorrow, the best horror movie ever written could come across my desk. So, I try to keep my options open. I just look for good material that I can connect to.
With the people involved, it’s more about trusting that they will elevate the material, and being excited to work with them. I feel that Don Cheadle has made a lot of great choices in his career. I think he’s really smart, he’s really savvy, and he’s really talented. To hear that he was attached to something, I became immediately interested. But, I’m pretty spontaneous when choosing projects, I think. It’s more difficult then just going, “Well, here’s what I want to do next,” and then waiting until it comes to you because you’ll never get a job again. So, you have to work with what you’re given. I’m really lucky. It’s all about what opportunities are available to you.
House of Lies airs Sunday nights on Showtime.