Generally regarded as a master of snark, Kristen Bell made it very clear she's capable of much beyond that at the Sundance Film Festival this year, portraying a crumbling, depressive 29-year-old in Liz W. Garcia's affecting "The Lifeguard."
The film -- screening in U.S. Dramatic Competition at the festival -- sees Bell's character Leigh quitting her job as a New York City reporter and moving back to her parents' house in Connecticut. She reunites with her high school best friends (Martin Starr and Mamie Gummer) and romances a similarly melancholic 16-year-old boy (David Lambert). It doesn't hold back when they inevitably start having sex: A scene set in the changeroom of the pool definitely stands out as one of Sundance's sexiest.
A very pregnant Bell sat down with Indiewire a few days after the film premiered, discussing said sex scene, the challenges of taking on a very dramatic role and, yes, her disappointment that despite giving her a literal voice, she didn't end up actually being Gossip Girl.
How did you get involved in this film?
Liz had sent the script to my agent and asked me to read it. I had previously been familiar with some of her writing and was already a fan. Initially I was just flattered she had taken in an interest in me. I'm very attracted to characters that are going through strange transitional phases. And I found the concept of deciding when your adolescence ends and adulthood begins really fascinating. And I also liked how risky of a writer she was.
I really enjoyed how authentic that transitional phase felt in the film. I'm roughly the same age as your character and grew up in a similar town. It was easy to relate.
Yes. Certainly it's relevant in my life as well. Some of my friends started their lives at 23. They started having kids and they were adults. Some of them still haven't done that. And I'm 32. You know, the lines are so blurry as to when you actually need to become an adult. It all sort of self-discovery. Whereas with our parents' generation it was very different.
This is a very dramatic, melancholic role compared to most of your previous work. How did you approach that? Were you nervous?
I suppose I was a little nervous. Mainly because it was unchartered territory. I'm used to relying on snark or cutesy stuff. I had to very much drop the veil of any of that and just allow myself to get pretty depressed in this role.
I don't think you smile once in the entire movie.
I'm so glad you noticed that because that was kind of a deliberate choice. I wanted a project unlike anything I'd ever done before and one of the ways I explained that was saying I wanted a project where I don't smile for the whole movie. This fit the bill. It's nerve-racking because you wonder if people are going to think you're believable. Or people are going to like to watch you do that. Because whether or not you think you're God's gift to acting or not, it does depend largely on the audience and what they want to see you do. So I was thrilled that Liz wanted to take a chance on me and that I was able to portray this low level of depression in this 30-year-old woman sincerely.
The chemistry between you and your onscreen BFFs Martin Starr and Mamie Gummer is impressive. What was your relationship like off screen during the shoot?
I knew Martin prior [Starr interrupts the interview by yelling from across the room: "Yeah, you did!"]. But just sexually [laughs]. But yeah I knew him from guest-starring on his show "Party Down." So I already knew I enjoyed him. Mamie I met on the set but we were very lucky in that the three of us got along as much as those characters. And spent the whole summer in Pittsburgh together acting the same on set and on camera as we did off. We were very lucky and it was a lot of fun.
What about David Lambert, who plays Little Jason, your teenage love interest? You two pull off something very tricky in making the audience -- or me, at least -- root for a romance that is clearly not in your character's best judgement.
That was definitely the goal. We didn't want to make it seem predatory at all. We definitely wanted to emphasize the fact that these two characters were each a little empty and vacant in their own ways and that they were fulfilling something within each other. He didn't have anyone caring enough to give him any advice or any female energy in his life whatsoever. And my character needed something that made her feel young and alive and beautiful again. It was definitely meant to be portrayed in a more of a star-crossed lover thing than anything lascivious.