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You hear all sorts of clichés about how life is like this, life is like that. People compare it to baseball or golf or a box of chocolates. But in the case of Kristen Bell, a poker cliché fits best. So here goes:
If life is a poker game, Bell’s résumé is her tell. If you study it, you can get a good read into her personality—and why she’s so successful. Check out her last 10 years: She’s done musicals and drama on Broadway (imagine that one of your first jobs is working opposite Laura Linney and Liam Neeson in The Crucible in front of a live audience). She’s done dark drama for film and TV (Spartan for David Mamet, Deadwood and The Shield for HBO), headlined her own show (Veronica Mars), and moved into the challenging world of comedy (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and then romantic comedies (When In Rome). Oh, and she’s also done extensive voiceover work (the narrator of Gossip Girl, her likeness for the Assassin's Creed video game franchise) and recently joined the long list of young Hollywood talents who screamed in a Scream movie.
What does this tell us? It’s all theoretical until I ask her: This diversity of material suggests someone who deliberately seeks a challenge and tries new things. True?
“A hundred percent true,” she admits. “I love breaking out of my comfort zone. I love doing things that scare me. Very few actors can pick and choose what they want to do. But at the same time, I’ve been on a great path that has surprised me. I started in musicals in New York and then moved out to L.A. and for the first year was only cast in really dramatic stuff. When I booked Veronica Mars, there was so much comedy involved; I didn’t even realize how much I loved that, too.”
She wasn’t always this willing or open. Her first real lesson in the dangers of a closed mind came early—lucky for her. She was also smart enough to understand that going against her first instincts can lead to great things.
“The audition for Deadwood was on a Saturday morning, and it was far away, off in Van Nuys or somewhere,” she says, and all she could do was rattle off reasons in her own mind why she shouldn’t bother. “I didn’t really identify with the character in the script, and I knew it was going to be dark. I’m not dark. I’m too bubbly, too blonde, they’re not gonna want me, why even put the effort in?”
And yet she went. Why? Two reasons. One, auditions, which are job interviews for actors, can be valuable work experience. And two? “I didn’t have anything else to do.”
Even when she got there, waited and finally started, the negativity in her brain hung on hard. “All of my instincts said, ‘You’ll never book this; don’t bother.’ That was my fear talking. And then I ended up in a work session with [show creator] David Milch, and he said, ‘Kristen, I really think you can do this.’ ”
She got the job. And learned even more as she worked it. “Thank God that David thought I could do it because it ended up being so much fun. The character was a sociopath lesbian thief. I’m sure those are the first three words you think of when you think of me.”
Bell knows a lot of people see her as “that bubbly girl who thinks she’s vaguely funny,” but talking to her, that’s not it. Bubbly suggests vacuous, self-involved, superficial. Nope. She’s enthusiastic and friendly, yes, but works from a well of intelligence and common sense. This especially comes through when she talks about her charitable activity, and you see that her habit of stepping out of her comfort zone applies here, too. Bell is now very much involved in Invisible Children.
Some background: A friend of hers had traveled to Africa intending to make a documentary on what was happening in Sudan, but fate intervened. “On their way to Sudan, while traveling through northern Uganda, the truck in front of them was blown up,” she says. “They had to spend the night and uncovered this problem where for more than 20 years the army had been abducting children and forcing them to fight. They discovered the longest-running war in Africa no one reports on. They taped their entire trip, and when they came back, they cut this movie called Invisible Children.” (Watch the trailer at SUCCESS.com.)
Her friends became so passionate about the cause that they started the Invisible Children charity. “Uganda is ignored by the rest of the world,” she says. “They don’t have oil. There’s nothing in their soil. They have no technological advances. They’re just other humans. I had to help. It’s like I was meant to be exposed to this issue.”
Bell works hard to raise both awareness and cash. She partnered with New York jewelry designer Satya to come up with a special necklace to help Invisible Children—a design in gold showing a tree of life. “This piece is really a conversation-starter,” says Satya, co-founder of Satya Jewelry. “It gets people talking, which spreads the word about Invisible Children and Uganda. We’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from one piece of jewelry, but my goal is to raise so much more. It’s wonderful how powerful an item can be when it has that story behind it. People are proud to wear it.”
Satya, who donates a portion of her entire business’s proceeds to many charities every year, works with other celebrities on co-designing jewelry to help raise money and awareness for their causes. She only works with serious people because, as far as their motivations, she’s seen it all. “Some people get involved in charities for the wrong reasons. Kristen is amazing. She is so heartfelt and driven. She really wants to make a difference in Uganda.”
“I’ve loved Satya for a long time and always thought she has a brilliant eye and better heart,” Bell says. “One of the ways I can be of service is make something beautiful like this necklace, and Americans, because of our culture, like to purchase things. That’s not a judgment. It’s just what we do. If we can sell necklaces and get the message out as well as raise money, it seems like the responsible thing to do.”
Bell, who has met the children she tries to help in Uganda, also wonders if American generosity can sometimes be misplaced. “The most frustrating part is to encourage people to take an anthropological standpoint. We’re not trying to go over there and say, ‘You poor things; you need shoes, you need showers.’ That has nothing to do with it. It’s raising the money, raising awareness and getting Americans to understand that we don’t have to convince the rest of the world to live like us. The bare minimum that every human being deserves, simply because they’re human, is peace. That’s number one for me. The goal is to promote peace no matter how their culture chooses to live. Americans have an instinct, not a bad instinct, but an uneducated instinct to say, ‘Oh, they must need the same things that I need.’ They don’t. We have to accept the beauty of other cultures and realize that our one and only goal is to not lose lives.”
See? Bubbly is definitely the wrong word.
And so the pattern emerges: Open-mindedness and a willingness to face the unknown—to listen and try to understand the unknown—lead to opportunity. They lead to a fuller life. They work for Bell and probably also work for many people you know. They can also work for you. It’s simply a matter of, just once, pushing your deepest beliefs aside and stepping into that unknown to see what will happen.
And yes, it’s supposed to be uncomfortable, says Bell. At first.
“Being scared is a challenge,” she says. “You can embrace it or run from it. I embrace it. It makes you feel alive. Life is meant to be lived, right? I have an adventurous spirit; I like doing things that scare me. Mind you, I acknowledge that I like it better after the fact. Not necessarily while I’m doing it. But I know that it yields great results. It positively reinforces that if I do something that scares me, I’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment and generally discover something about myself. It’s a fun way to live.”