Kristen Bell: 'I truly believe a lot of the teachings in the Big Book of AA should be taught in elementary school'
With her latest film about to open, Kristen Bell talks about motherhood, depression and taking the Twelve Steps, writes Donal Lynch
There are moments when you wonder, as an interviewer, if Kristen Bell has heard the question. But, in her case, silence always means the same thing: she's thinking. Hard. Whether it's her own mental health, the trials of motherhood or the secret of her enviable marriage, Bell is probably the Hollywood actress least likely to lapse into banal platitudes and cliches.
A pregnant pause is followed by an interesting meditation on doing the Twelve Steps, without needing the pretext of addiction. She weighs her words out like they were jewels.
"I try to never give the same rote answers," she tells me. "I think everyone deserves as close to the truth as you can get."
That thoughtfulness is what has made Bell an unusual property in Tinseltown. While other actresses cultivate an aura of untouchable glamour and star in perfume commercials, Bell hosts a popular web series (about family life) and, along with her husband, Dax Shepard, stars in viral YouTube ads.
Her persona is more like that of a chat show host: warm, intelligent and relentlessly self-deprecating. "I want other moms to know that they're not the only one with someone else's pee on their shirt," she tells me. "That's all of us."
Now 38, Bell grew up in Michigan where she was named best-looking girl in her high school. Her parents - a TV executive and a nurse - divorced when she was two years old, and she has two stepsisters from her father's second marriage. She was a budding child actress, acting in a string of local production and TV ads, but it was 2004 before she shot to fame playing the titular Veronica Mars, a kind of Buffy The Crime Scene Investigator, in the cult US drama.
That was followed by her turn starring alongside Russell Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It was her voice work as Anna in Frozen which made her a superstar, however, and it's no surprise that Bell's sugar-sweet tones are still in hot demand: four of her last five film projects have been animated features, including her upcoming release as Jade in the animated action franchise Teen Titans Go! To The Movies, a superhero satire which is aimed at kids but which features the type of sharp writing parents can also enjoy.
She says that while she's happy that her two daughters - Lincoln (born 2013) and Delta (born 2014) - will get to see the movie, that wasn't a motivating factor to get involved in the film.
"I wouldn't say I prefer making films my kids can see though because I think I didn't really change that much as an artist after having children. I changed as a person, and as a mother of course, but not as an artist. My kids are not all that big on talking about me at all. They hate when it comes up that I was in Frozen."
Motherhood has provided a rich seam of material for Bell who broadcasts a warm and witty web series called Momsplaining, which is now part of Ellen Degeneres' chat show in the US.
She is fiercely protective of her daughters and earlier this summer confronted paparazzi in America who were trying to take pictures of the two girls - she says she feels sad that "was even necessary".
She says motherhood opened her eyes in other ways, too. "I had wished I had known I would live in a permanent state of annoyance of the fact that every cliche you could imagine about motherhood is actually true.
"When you become a mother you notice your heart is all of a sudden walking around outside your body and you have to watch all of this unfold. One of the things I've really had to learn is that you can't and shouldn't protect kids from everything. Protecting can quite often backfire."
Bell has been open about her mental health difficulties and says she has accepted that treating her depression with medication is the correct course of action for herself. "I looked at a support system I have around me. My mom is a nurse and she sort of taught me what depression was. I am not afraid to lean on people, to call a friend or talk to my husband. I know that's the way I can be the best wife, the best mother, the best Kristen."
Demystifying the issue and rendering the solution into smaller practical steps was also key for her, she says. "It's like fixing your car. First, you have to identify what the problem is. And it can feel like a vulnerable place to admit my head's broken a little bit, I think I might need help. The more people who talk about these issues, the more people will be able to find help."
Bell and Shepard's obviously shared sense of humour has made them one of the most enviable couples in Hollywood and she tells me that she was inspired through his battle with drugs and alcohol - he has been sober for 14 years - to undertake aspects of the Twelve Step programme herself.
"I truly believe that a lot of the teachings in the Big Book (of AA) should be taught in elementary school. They're not selling anything, they have no religion to offer you. Basically it is how to perform a fierce moral inventory; it's checking in with yourself to make sure that your self-esteem is coming from esteemable acts and from inside yourself. I think it's the healthiest way to live and the happiest way to live. That's how we live together at home. That's how we solve problems."
Despite the spate of recent accusations from actresses about harassment and pay inequity in Hollywood, Bell says neither affected her. "I did discuss it with my husband, how come so many women experienced it, and his take was that I was too savvy for people to sense that they could get away with it.
"If there has been an inequitable pay gap in my early career I would have justified that by telling myself that I didn't really carry the same weight as that person. Some of what has come out, I've got to say it's left me slack-jawed and really opened my eyes as to what women do experience in the industry."
- Teen Titans Go! To The Movies is in cinemas now