Kristen Bell sits perched on a picnic table bench at Griffith Park wearing jean shorts, a pinkish button-down top and cornflower blue Toms espadrilles. The 30-year-old actress, blond hair tied back in a ponytail, watches as her two dogs explore the grass. She occasionally chastises: "Park it, Lola! Eh-eh, Shakey, you know better!"
Bell is surprisingly relaxed considering what's going on in her life at the moment. Her new movie, "You Again," costarring Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee Curtis and Betty White, hit theaters Friday. Later this fall she'll be appearing in "Burlesque" with Christina Aguilera and Cher. She's just begun shooting "Everybody Loves Whales" with Drew Barrymore. On top of all that, she's the voice of the narrator on "Gossip Girl."
But despite her busy work schedule, Bell — who made her name playing a young detective on TV's "Veronica Mars (2004-07) — is casual and talkative. She lets a scheduled one-hour interview spill over into three hours of discussion about image, acting, fashion, values and life.
Refreshingly, there's no suggestion of a stereotypical "look-at-me, I lunch at a certain Chateau" Hollywood actress or a star who has just a few minutes to chat in a hotel penthouse as a manager impatiently taps his watch. Instead, the actress with the golden-girl looks comes across as someone with her feet firmly planted on the ground.
"Who I am as a human being is first and foremost," Bell says. "If I don't separate this business and my sense of self, I'll never survive. If I become Kristen Bell the actress, I lose.
"I live in a constant state of pinch me," Bell adds. "I know I'm lucky.... When you're so blinded by wanting to fit in because you want to be a starlet or you think Lindsay Lohan has it made, we've all seen those examples. Nobody has it made."
In addition to an understanding of her place in the world, the petite actress also seems to have found her personal style. Though no less self-critical than the rest of us, she knows how to work with what she's got. Her Twitter bio ("5'1 is the new 6'2") perhaps sums up her attitude.
That self-awareness has translated into success on the red carpet, where she often wears short dresses that don't overwhelm her small frame.
At the 12th annual Costume Designers Guild Awards in February, she shimmered in a nude and gold Stella McCartney cocktail dress. At the Los Angeles premiere of "Couples Retreat" last October, it was a white and silver Marchesa mini that paid homage to the art of Grecian draping. The strapless number was finished with streams of silk cascading from hip to knee, creating an ethereal illusion of elongation. ("I loved that dress," she says.)
At the 2008 Teen Choice Awards, she sported a sleek tan tank and high-waisted pink skirt by her favorite designer, Jenni Kayne, which won thumbs up on best-dressed lists across the board.
"She has a minimalism that is never simple," Bell says of Kayne's designs. "A clean style that is never muted. She uses classic looks and spins them ever so slightly, making them always appealing to the eye. They let the person live in the clothes, not vice versa."
In her daily life, Bell mostly likes to dress for comfort, though she has a few tricks for "stepping up" a casual evening.
"I gravitate toward things that look equestrian or nautical. Mostly classic looks," she says. "But I will admit sometimes there are days when you feel like upping the ante and can justify wearing some gorgeous 5-inch heels to the movies because, hey, you're sitting down the whole time, anyway."
Fashion wasn't always on her radar. "I didn't grow up reading WWD or Vogue. I always wore a school uniform. When I came to Los Angeles, I began to see all sorts of fashion and realized that it stimulated me."
Born and raised in a suburb of Detroit, Bell got the acting bug early. "I was too little to play sports, so I joined a theater club when I was 12… I also sang a lot around the house, so my mom got me into voice lessons, and I trained operatically as a soprano when I was young."
She started acting in local productions in 1992, did TV commercials and took acting lessons. After high school, she attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, studying musical theater for a time, leaving in 2001 to play the role of Becky Thatcher in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" on Broadway. The next year she appeared in a revival of "The Crucible."
In 2003, Bell migrated from the Broadway stage to Los Angeles, auditioning for what seemed like an endless succession of television pilots. She couldn't catch a break. Until, one day, she did. And that was "Veronica Mars."
When the show premiered, a Times reviewer wrote: "Bell does such a good job playing the world-weary Veronica that she manages to get away with voice-over lines like 'I'm no longer that girl' and 'The detective in me knew something was wrong' without sounding silly. She channels the charisma, smarts and frustration of Angela Chase, Claire Danes' character in 'My So-Called Life.'"
Then came bigger movie roles in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Serious Moonlight," "Couples Retreat," "When in Rome."
Were her parents supportive of her interests? Not entirely. "My grandpa was a cameraman, and my dad is a news director. Everyone was really concerned about the amount of rejection involved in the career path I wanted to take."
And what about that rejection thing? "It stinks. Especially when you feel you did a really good job. But what you have to blanket it in is [the attitude that] 'I wasn't rejected … I just wasn't right for this job.' It's got to be that way, because any other attitude, and you'll disintegrate."
So, if fear of rejection is something you have to, well, reject, then risk is something to embrace? Bell quotes one of her idols, Eleanor Roosevelt, on the subject of audacity: "You must do the things you think you cannot do."
"Look, I'm a woman; I have insecurities," Bell says. "My calves are too thick.… I look at those [magazine covers] and see exactly what any senior in high school does when they look at any photo of themselves. I break myself down. It's a struggle not to, because it's ingrained in us as women."
Then how does she open herself up to face the red-carpet firing squad? "How do you go to a day job when you have a pimple on your face?" she says. "How do you go to high school knowing you made out with someone you shouldn't?
"My struggles aren't bigger than anyone else's and, if anything, they're substantially less because of the perks I get. I have a hair and makeup team before I'm on camera. It's all a balance of your own insecurities and knowing who you are," she says.
Bell's ability to self-analyze is part of her charm. At last May's Met Ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, her golden coloring was the perfect canvas for the strapless gray bespoke Diane von Furstenberg dress she was wearing. She looked like a beauty queen getting snapped by a hundred photographers — not even flinching.
"Come on," she says. "Most of the night I thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?' Mila [Kunis] and I stood in a doorway while everyone walked in. We rated dresses and giggled, thinking security would realize we didn't belong and throw us out.… I even sat next to Christian Louboutin! I felt like a fish out of water and like Cinderella at the same time."
For Bell, being in the spotlight has an advantage beyond invitations to the ball. She also gets a public forum to promote the causes she cares about. She's been involved with the charity Invisible Children (http://www.invisiblechildren.com), which helps children affected by war in East Africa. She's also immersed herself in Mycharitywater.org, whose goal is clean water for everyone. In both cases, via Twitter, she's able to interact with her fans and let them know she's not just the face of a campaign.
"It's a personal connection, which is me taking a stand and saying, 'Here's what I love,'" she says. "But it's also being positively reinforced. I'm trying to say thank you via Twitter to the people who donated, so fans can say, 'Wow, I'm not just throwing $5 out the window because I like Kristen Bell movies. I'm getting a response from her,' and there's more of a bond."
Bell says she enjoys the path she's on and just wants to maintain her focus. "I want to do what I know is good. I'm a really good girlfriend [she's engaged to actor Dax Shepard of NBC's "Parenthood"], I'm a really good friend, I'm a good mama [to her dogs], and I'm a pretty damned good cook — those are the things that come No. 1 as a constant mantra."