After standing up for the underdog as the titular teenage private eye in Veronica Mars, Kristen Bell continues the good fight as a vocal LGBT ally. Currently starring as a smart and sassy management consultant on Showtime’s House of Lies — and as a news reporter in the big-screen whale tale Big Miracle — the 31-year-old Burlesque beauty and Gossip Girl narrator opens up for the first time about how marriage inequality has stalled her plans to wed fiancé Dax Shepard.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: When did your relationship with the LGBT community begin?
Kristen Bell: I’ve always done musical theater, but I wasn’t necessarily aware of gay people while growing up in Michigan. I knew I was attracted to a certain male personality, but it was an unwritten love because no one in my high school was out of the closet. That’s why attending NYU was such a wonderful, joyous musical theater experience for me: About 70% of my friends during college were gay.
How did your upbringing inform your views on LGBT issues?
I didn’t know anyone who was openly gay, so it wasn’t addressed. I wasn’t taught to treat gays with respect; I was taught to treat everyone with respect, so I never grew up with a prejudice against any race or sexual orientation, and that’s the gift I was given. When I got to New York, I was like, “Wow, gay people are awesome!” It was a sort of celebratory acknowledgement of the acceptance my parents talked about.
You’ve supported Friendfactor, a social media website that connects straight allies with LGBT causes. You even wore an Old Navy gay pride T-shirt to the May 2011 launch event in New York.
Fuck, yeah. You bet your balls, I did. I hosted that event with Chelsea Clinton because I thought it was absurd that New York hadn’t passed a marriage equality bill yet. In about 10 years, knock on wood, I think we’re going to be embarrassed as a nation about our behavior on this issue. It’s going to be exactly like what happened in 1970, when people were like, “Whoa, 1960 sucked. We should’ve let everyone ride the bus.”
Friendfactor founder Brian Elliot mentioned in an interview that you dedicated your own Friendfactor Friend-setter page to one of your best gay friends.
I dedicated it to my friend Greg, who I went to college with. He’s been one of my best friends since 1998, and I love and adore him. After I moved to New York, a lot of lovely men and women that I knew started to come out of the closet, because they felt comfortable being in an atmosphere that was finally accepting of them. It breaks my heart when I think about what some of my gay friends have gone through. I’ve heard them say things like, “But I’m wrong, I’m a disappointment,” and none of it’s true, of course. There’s so much bullshit that idiots preach. No matter what your beliefs are, nobody is bad or wrong because of the way that they were born. Why anyone would tear anyone else down, especially for reasons that are so intimate, is beyond me. It almost doesn’t infuriate as much as it confuses me.
Do you feel a responsibility to use your celebrity for political statements?
No, because I know .0001% about politics, but I do feel a social and ethical responsibility to combat prejudices. I have a responsibility to my own values.
What are your thoughts on the Hollywood closet?
It’s a sensitive issue. If you feel more comfortable living a private lifestyle, then that’s your right. I know it can be terrifying, so I don’t fault anyone who isn’t ready to come out. But if you’re a person in the spotlight, I do think it’s of paramount importance that you realize how much good you could do for people who look up to you. Look at my dear friend Zachary Quinto, who I’ve known for more than 12 years: Zach came out when he was ready, he did it for his own very specific reasons, and I’m wildly proud of him. If I struggled with an issue like this, I hope that I would be able to set that kind of example, because I’d want someone to set that example for me.
When you’re close friends with a closeted actor, is it stressful to keep that secret guarded in the public eye?
Well, I wouldn’t guard them any differently than I’d guard a straight friend and their personal life. Thankfully, I was never asked a question about Zach’s sexuality, but if a journalist ever asked me about anyone’s sexuality, gay or straight, I’d probably slap them in the face and say, “Check yourself.”
Did you ever encourage Zachary to come out publicly?
He didn’t come to me for counsel about that, but Zachary needs no encouragement from anyone. He has known exactly who he is since the day I met him.
Does an openly gay actor no longer jeopardize his status as a romantic lead?
Well, Zach has always been sexy to me, even though I knew he was never interested in me. It doesn’t make him any less sexy, onscreen or off.
In 2010 you starred as hard-drinking diva Nikki opposite Cher and Christina Aguilera in Steven Antin’s Burlesque, a film that could’ve only been made by a gay man.
A boatload of gay men, really. Most of the men working on that show were gay, and that’s where most of the great ideas came from. It was pretty special. I just loved that whole atmosphere, with the showgirls, the big hips, and lots of makeup. It was a ton of fun.
I’ve attended a cocktail party screening of the Burlesque DVD at an apartment full of gay men. Have you had any similar experiences?
No, but only because I can’t really sit through my own work. I find myself nauseating to watch.
Burlesque didn’t exactly get the best reviews. How did you feel when it took on a life as a cult classic in the vein of Showgirls?
Oh, I love that it’s become a guilty pleasure, especially among gay people. Of course, Christina Aguilera and Cher are also very vocal in their support of the gay community, so we’re all over the moon that they’ve celebrated the movie. Truth be told, it was really a love letter to the gay community in many ways.
Have you kept in touch with Cher?
Yeah, I’m happy to be able to tell you that I do keep in touch with her. I absolutely fell in love with her on that movie, because she’s so hilarious, honest, and original. She texts me at random times, maybe once a month. She loves to text. She usually texts me, “Hey, bitch. XO, Me.” She’s a really special woman who’s done it all and done it brilliantly. I’m in awe that I know her.
While shooting Burlesque, you told Health magazine, “I’m 99 percent sure I will leave this movie a lesbian.” How’d that work out?
Well, the women on that film were just so beautiful. Thank God for Dax Shepard. Unfortunately for all the women in America, he’s the most charming, adorable human walking the planet, so I couldn’t make the switch.
I’m not sure if you’ve set a Google Alert on yourself, but that lesbian quote went totally viral.
I don’t have a Google Alert on myself because I’m not a fucking lunatic, but I do have a habit of giving ridiculous soundbytes that I later hear about from my publicist. At the House of Lies premiere, someone asked, “Do you think you and Dax will have a little comedy baby?” I said, “Absolutely. It’ll be our gift to America.” Of course, that became a headline, and I’m praying that people know I was being sarcastic. But you know what? If you don’t get my sense of humor, oh well.
Because you’ve been engaged for more than two years, reporters often ask about your wedding plans.
Yeah, I get a ton of questions about when Dax and I are getting married. I usually blow them off because it’s nobody’s business. To be honest with you — and this is the first time I’ve ever said this to a journalist, but it feels like the perfect time and place — the reason we’re not rushing to get married is because I don’t feel appropriate taking advantage of a right that’s denied to my best friends. That’s why we’ve been so hesitant. Dax and I have talked about it a lot, and this issue is very important to both of us. We’re just standing up for what we believe in. Period.
Thank you for sharing that.
You’re welcome. Listen, we’re on your side. I recently tweeted about this embarrassing poster that shows how many states where you can marry your same-sex significant other and how many more states where you can marry your cousin. It’s fucking ridiculous.
You currently play Jeannie, an ambitious management consultant, on Showtime’s House of Lies. The series also tackles a storyline that’s particularly resonated with LGBT viewers.
Yes, Don Cheadle’s character, Marty, has a son named Roscoe who is a cross-dressing 12 year old. The storyline is about how Marty deals with it. What do you do with a son who auditions for and gets the role of Sandy in Grease? How do you deal with a son who wants to go shoe shopping and has an obsession with Juicy Couture? When you see a child that young identifying that way, what’s your course of action to best support that? It’s an interesting topic that no one’s really handled like this before, and it’s explored beautifully in the show. When I first read the script, I thought it was very smart, and I felt it was really necessary to put that on television. It’s a great step toward making that a more acceptable topic.
A gender-nonconformist character on a comedy series always runs the risk of being exploited for cheap laughs.
We have LGBT members in our writers’ room and on our crew, and I believe it’s handled very respectfully. I feel that you can rest easy. I don’t think there’s anything offensive about it. There are definitely things about Roscoe that will make you chuckle, just because you’re going to chuckle when you see an adorably handsome young man wearing sparkles and Juicy sweatpants, but it’s never disrespectful. Most of the time you’re seeing his father’s vulnerability as he wonders how to do what’s best for his son.
House of Lies is also very racy, so it’s perfectly sandwiched between Shameless and Californication.
Yeah, it’s a sexy Sunday night sandwich for everyone — another one of my gifts to America. There’s a lot of T&A. It’s witty and smart, but it’s also very provocative, just as you’d expect from a Showtime show. If you like blampers and cupcakes, you’ll love the show, especially if you love chocolate cupcakes like those sweet chocolate Cheadle cupcakes.
Blampers and cupcakes?
Cupcakes are your bottom cheeks, of course, unless you’ve got a flat ass, in which case they’re called flapjacks. Blampers is my preferred word for breasts. It’s an Australian and New Zealand term for boobies. Dax shot a movie in New Zealand, and I love when he says it, so that’s how we refer to boobies around our household.
Will we see your blampers on the show?
No, not my blampers, but everyone else’s blampers. My blampers don’t come out.
Speaking of nude scenes, you were a part of one of the most famous male nude scenes of all time in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. During shooting, how long did you have to look at Jason’s Segel’s junk?
It felt like an eternity. And as much as Jason wants to say that he felt vulnerable, he wrote it, he knew what he was doing, so don’t give him too much sympathy. There was a point when we were doing a tighter shot, shooting from the shoulders up, and I asked the director, “Um, can’t Jason put pants on?” Everyone else in the room had forgotten he was naked. I guess there’s only so long before you become immune to a penis.
Veronica Mars was a critical darling and a cult hit. Were you aware of the show’s big gay following?
Hell, yeah. Veronica always stood up for the underdog, and many people in the LGBT community identify themselves as an underdog because that’s what America does to them. Veronica was always a friend to outsiders and very much against bullying of any kind.
Veronica also tackled various gay-themed mysteries. In one episode, a closeted lesbian cheerleader played by Kristin Cavallari blackmailed a group of her closeted classmates. The second season’s major rapist-murderer was a young man who had been molested by his baseball coach and was now struggling with his sexuality. Those types of “creepy gay villain” storylines are always risky, because they may encourage viewers to equate being gay with being a pedophile or being evil.
I think the point of how some of those Veronica Mars characters were written is that closeted gayness or stifling one’s true identity causes pain, torment, and hurt, and hurt people tend to hurt people. If you see a character doing something bad, and then that character admits that they’re in the closet or that they were molested or something, I believe it’s the writer trying to prove the point that bad things can happen when we stifle or abuse people. I certainly wouldn’t be a part of any project that I felt was disrespectful to anyone.
Have you ever played a lesbian role?
I played a role with lesbian interaction when I played Flora on two episodes of Deadwood. I saw her as an opportunist, and her sexuality fell under that umbrella. I tried to play her as a sociopath, and what she wanted in any given moment far outweighed anything else. There’s a scene where Flora seduces Joanie, who was a lesbian, but Flora was taking advantage of her, and it was meant to show Flora’s psychosis. There was actually a lot more of that scene that I shot with Kim Dickens, who played Joanie; they didn’t show it because it didn’t work for the scene, but we laid down on the bed and really went at it.
You also narrate Gossip Girl as the voice of the titular blogger. Fans know that Georgina has recently taken on the persona since Blair’s accident. But when the true identity of the original is finally revealed, what are the chances that she’s actually a gay man?
[Laughs] I would love it if Gossip Girl were a gay man — or a drag queen! I hadn’t even thought of that, but that would be brilliant. I’m actually going to suggest that as soon as possible.
Gossip Girl is well into its fifth season now. Are you still enjoying the gig?
It’s a job I get to do in my pajamas — what’s not to like? The studio’s very close to my house, so I often go in to record in my pajamas, most days just to prove the point that I can.
The Advocate, March 2012 issue; extended online version.