From writer/director Liz W. Garcia, The Lifeguard tells the story of Leigh (Kristen Bell), who flees to her suburban hometown when her career and love life both come crashing down. Once there, she moves into her old room with her parents, hangs out with old friends, and reclaims her former job as a condo-complex lifeguard, without ever thinking about the affect her actions will have on those closest to her.
At the film’s press day, actress Kristen Bell spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about wanting to play a character that doesn’t have reason to smile, why she wanted to work with Liz Garcia, the challenge of finding out she was pregnant while doing the movie, and that it was both fun and exhausting to be so vulnerable. She also talked about the experience of returning to Veronica Mars, the ease she has working with creator Rob Thomas, having various Kickstarter backers on set, every day, fulfilling her dream of bringing a Disney princess to life, for the animated movie Frozen, and why it was important for her to make the character quirky and goofy. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
KRISTEN BELL: Yeah! I was very much in the mood to experiment with a project where my character didn’t smile, at all, or didn’t have reason to smile. I wanted to play someone who didn’t smile. I tend to gravitate towards and am offered parts that are very bubbly and perky and tonally similar, and I wanted the opposite. I wanted to try something new, and this came around at the perfect time when I thought, “I’d love to play someone not perky.” I was previously a fan of Liz Garcia’s writing, and I was just flattered that she invited me into this.
Was this one of those projects that you had to meet with the writer/director to make sure that you were on the same page with the tone?
BELL: First-time directors are always scary ‘cause directing is terribly difficult. I think acting is light years easier than directing. I didn’t meet with her, but we did have a very long conference call about what she wanted to do with the script. She just pitched me all of her thoughts, and she was very well-prepared and so well-spoken. Two sentences into a conversation with her, on the phone or in person, you realize she’s a girl you want to be friends with. She’s a real cool cat. And she delivered. I had an excellent experience working with her. She’s very vulnerable, but she has clarity of vision and she’s open to collaboration. She’s all good things. I really, really like Liz Garcia. I probably would have been much more hesitant to do a role like this under a male director. I don’t know what that says about me, but it’s just comfort, I guess. I don’t know if there’s any big story behind why I wouldn’t be as comfortable. Sometimes you just want to be around another woman to feel really, truly safe, and I felt really, truly safe with her. I felt like when she wrote these scenes, they’re extremely graphic and extremely provocative, but not exploitative, at all. I don’t know why it turned out like this, but I knew I was comfortable with her.
Did this end up being more of a challenge than you expected?
BELL: No, it turned out to be the challenge that I thought it was going to be. It was hard. It wasn’t easy. I naturally wanna be spunky and smiley. To turn that down or off and play someone who’s depressed was hard. I certainly have those aspects, don’t get me wrong. I’m not always in a good mood, by far. But to allow people to see that side of me, when I’m used to presenting the happy side, was a little bit of a challenge. It was also a challenge because I found out I was pregnant on this movie. I went to Pittsburgh pregnant, and I didn’t know it. So, my reality was a bit challenging because I was so tired, but I didn’t know why. I was like, “Well, I have mono. Let’s just wrap this movie up, and I’m gonna go to the hospital because I have mono, obviously.” And I didn’t. I had pregnancy.
Why did you just assume that you had mono?
BELL: I don’t know. Isn’t that where you get really tired? I just heard that was a tired disease, and I was just so tired, all the time. I just remember my friends were like, “I can’t get out of bed. I think I have mono.”
You are very emotionally naked and vulnerable in this film. Was that fun for you, or was it just totally exhausting?
BELL: Both. It was fun and exhausting. Mamie [Gummer] was really great to work with ‘cause she’s so open and vulnerable. And Liz had an exact idea of the temperature she wanted each scene to be. She knew how she had to gauge the temperature of each scene, in order to sequence the movie and tell a story, but she would also let us roll with it. So, Martin [Starr] would improv, and staying vulnerable was a little bit of a challenge. I often, even as Kristen, present such a, “Oh, I’ve got this,” attitude where to bring the opposite to the table was challenging, but it was a lot of fun. It’s my work, but I work in a creative industry. My work isn’t terribly hard, it’s artistically explorative, so I have no complaints.
Do you feel like the key to growing up successfully is finding a balance between childhood and adulthood?
BELL: Yeah! I don’t know, necessarily, if there’s a key to growing up, other than to allow yourself to be. I think there used to be a mold, when our parents grew up, of marrying your childhood sweetheart and having a kid. And then, about 20 years ago, whenever the mold was shattered, some people grow up at 20, some people grow up at 30, and some people grow up at 40. There’s no definition anymore. Your adolescence blurs right into your adulthood, and I think that’s okay. I think people who struggle to define themselves might never be satisfied because there is no definition. Living with responsibility is important, but I don’t really think you have to grow up. I don’t feel like I’ve grown up. I have a lot of responsibilities, but I don’t think I’ve grown up.
What did it feel like to return to Veronica Mars, who you started playing when she was a high school student? How was it to revisit the character now, at this point in your life?
BELL: I feel like I’ve lived a lot of life, in between shooting Veronica Mars initially and shooting it now. I was pinching myself, the whole time. I just was so lucky to have an excuse to see all those people again. That project profoundly affects me, all the time. I love that character. I’m really, really lucky that there are a fair amount of people who feel the same way. Veronica Mars affects them, and they want to see more of her, and I was happy to be sharing that boat with people.
Are you surprised that the movie finally actually happened?
BELL: Hell, yeah! We’re talking about it right now, and it’s still surprising to me that we’re talking about it in its past tense. We won’t wrap this interview up with you saying, “Do you think there will be a Veronica Mars movie?” That’s fascinating!
BELL: Yeah. I don’t think it’s going to put the studios out of business, by any means, but I do think it’s a really interesting platform to put the power in the hands of the people and ask them what they want. Go on there and give them the option, and they’ll either fund it or they won’t. There’s no clearer answer. We pre-sold our movie, and a series of experiences surrounding the movie. It’s a fascinating way to do business. And I’ve never experienced as many responsibilities as I had on this project because, besides playing the character, we had anywhere between 2 and 40 people from Kickstarter, as extras during the day. Not just between set-ups, but between takes, I would turn around and say, “So, where’s everybody from?” Initially, I thought, “I’ll never be able to accomplish this with a smile on my face. It’s too overwhelming.” But as I did it each day, I thought, “I’m never exposed to people outside my industry.” I met a trauma counselor who has crazy therapy sessions with people, anywhere from 16 to 60, who have had intimate sexual traumas in their lives. I met teachers and dentists and cooks. It was cool, from a human perspective. And none of them were creepy.
Fandom can get creepy, real easily. They were all awesome, smart, respectful and super cool, and I’m happy to have met them. I gave journalists almost the boot, during the whole shooting of it. I’ve had people say, “Oh, you didn’t have journalists on set.” But oftentimes, you’re talking to journalists because it’s a mutual back scratching and you’re getting press for your movie. We already had the movie funded. My producers were my Kickstarter people, so they’re the people I was paying attention to. And we were making a documentary for the Kickstarter people, so I had a documentary crew following me, and EPK every day, and then all the Kickstarter people. The journalists were on the outer circle of observing and trying to get information where they could. It was just the first time I’ve ever been a part of a project with that much confidence. It really acknowledged that the fans were producers.
Did the character come back instantly, or did you have to find her again?
BELL: I was really nervous, going into it, ‘cause I’ve changed a lot. I worried about, “Will I be good, at all? Will I look stupid? Will I even remember who she was?” Actors have all these weird sensory things, so I worried that it wouldn’t feel right. But right when I started, I remembered that I have a connection with (creator) Rob Thomas that I don’t have with any other writer. I feel as though he’s writing words that are already in my brain. He’s the only writer where I never struggle with memorization. He can write me an entire page of dialogue, I’ll read it through twice, and never have to look at it again. It doesn’t make sense to me. Our relationship was sprinkled in fairy dust. It was meant to be. It’s so cool! And I forgot about that. So, working with him again made my heart swell.
BELL: It’s very, very cool. The even more special part of it is that, when I went in, I had all these ideas ‘cause I’d thought about it for such a long time. I didn’t want to play a princess with good posture. That summed it up for me. I wanted to play someone who was weird and awkward, who put her foot in her mouth, was goofy, and was more like a real girl, or more like me, I guess. Now, I feel like that’s what kids might gravitate towards. She’s someone a little bit goofier than the normal heroines in animation. So, I pitched that, every step of the way, and Chris [Buck] and Jennifer [Lee], who directed the movie, received it, every single time I suggested it. I lucked out like crazy because I was always pitching weird things. I was like, “She should be talking to herself,” or “Maybe she trips here.” They were like, “Great, go for it!” And every time I’d see little screenings, they kept it in. She’s, by far, the goofiest heroine I’ve ever seen, in a Disney movie. So, I’m proud that I was able to make it what I wanted. I feel like I broke a little bit of a mold. For girls that are goofier, it will be a nice example.
BELL: Just pieces. Not a full cut, but chunks. I’m really excited!
Can you see yourself in the character, at all?
BELL: A little bit. In her mannerisms, yeah. They videotape you, the whole time you’re recording it, so she’s got some weird facial expressions. She’s animated, to say the least, no pun intended. The characters are really funny. Every character is unique. Normally, you have the heroine, and then you have the sidekick who has all the jokes, but they let me have a ton of jokes, as the heroine. And Idina [Menzel] will blow your mind, every time she opens her mouth. She’s just awesome. She has the power ballad of the century. It’s very cool. And then, to meet her and have her be as diminutive as she is, but to know that what’s inside her is that voice, it’s fascinating.
The Lifeguard opens in theaters on August 30th.