By the time she was twenty-four years old, actress Kristen Bell had a resume that most seasoned performers would envy. She had starred on Broadway while still in college and had several film credits under her belt by the early 2000s. But it was thanks to the small screen and her debut as a teen supersleuth on cable channel UPN's hit drama, Veronica Mars, that shot Bell from obscurity to stardom. Although the show, which premiered in September 2004, did not fare well in the ratings,it struck a chord with a core group of watchers who immediately launched hundreds of fan sites. And even the most cynical critics were wowed by the quirky new program, its interesting dialogue, and especially the smart and sassy Bell.
Kristen Bell was born on July 18, 1980, in Huntington Woods, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, to mom, Lorelei, a registered nurse, and dad, Tom, a TV news director. Although her parents divorced when she was still a toddler, in interviews Bell recalls that her childhood was a happy one. Her father remarried when she was four years old but still remained close to his only child. Bell formed a bond with her new stepmother and two stepsisters. "I really feel close to both families," the actress revealed to Michelle Caruso in a New York Daily News interview, "because I was split pretty evenly between the two."
It was apparent from early on that Bell had a talent for performing. From kindergarten through eighth grade, she attended Detroit's Burton International, a multicultural school for gifted children. She also took singing lessons and tap-dancing lessons. Bell admitted to Caruso that her initial attempts at acting were less than spectacular. When she auditioned for her first part in a community theater production of Raggedy Ann and Andy, the would-be performer "flipped out" and cried. Regardless, Bell joined the cast "in the complex dual role of the banana in the first act and the tree in the second act."
While attending Shrine High School in Royal Oak, another Detroit suburb, Bell continued to sharpen her acting skills by performing with Stagecrafters, a community theater troupe based in the same city. By age fourteen, Bell even had her own agent but, as she told the Detroit News , the budding actress chose to remain in metro Detroit so that she could "live like a real kid." Plus, Bell was starting to make a name for herself locally. According to her high school principal, Thomas Kirkwood, "[Kristen] was very enthusiastic, driven and entertaining. It was clear that she would be an entertainer."
Shortly before high school graduation Bell was accepted to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU). Her
"Veronica has this inner strength that says, 'I am woman, hear me roar!'"
joy, however, was short-lived. In 1998, right before her eighteenth birthday, Bell's best friend, Jenny DeRita, was killed in a car accident. Jenny had been a fellow Stagecrafter, and she was the one who really pushed Bell to pursue acting. "My whole world was turned upside down," Bell told Michelle Caruso. The heartbroken teen stayed in her room for days and even considered not going to NYU. With the help of her family Bell managed to pull herself together and headed for New York in the fall of 1998, a different person. As she told Caruso, "I realized my perspective had changed. I don't take things for granted anymore. That was literally the start of my adulthood."
A trained soprano (high-pitched vocals), Bell studied musical theater at NYU, appearing in several campus productions, including the musical Hair. In 2001, during her senior year, she was lured to the Broadway stage when she was tapped for the role of Becky Thatcher in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Bell decided to quit school just four credits shy of graduating with her degree. As she commented to Jennifer Armstrong of Entertainment Weekly, "The weird thing is they gave me credit for bringing people coffee as an intern, but they wouldn't give me credit for being on a Broadway stage every night."
In 2002, Bell continued her Broadway acting, appearing in The Crucible with Oscar-nominated actors Liam Neeson (1952–) and Laura Linney (1964–). She also starred in an off-Broadway production of Reefer Madness. Later that year, at the urging of friends, Bell decided to head for Los Angeles. Within weeks, she landed a part in the season premier of the police drama The Shield; she also had a costarring role as Alison Dodge in the Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie The King and Queen of Moonlight Bay (2003).
After that, Bell's career skyrocketed. In early 2004, having been in California for little over a year, she took the title role in the Lifetime original movie Gracie's Choice, the story of a courageous high-school student who fights to adopt her younger siblings after their drug-addicted mother abandons them. The role was Bell's
Bell also began 2004 with a recurring role as Flora Anderson in HBO's wild west drama, Deadwood. Bell's next leap was to the big screen, where she appeared in the thriller Spartan, written and directed by legendary American playwright David Mamet (1947–). Although her role as Laura Newton, the kidnapped daughter of the president of the United States, was relatively small, it brought Bell a good deal of exposure. In fact, the film drew the attention of producer and writer Rob Thomas (1965–), who was casting a new television series called Veronica Mars.
Bell, however, was not a clear choice for the role of the lively seventeen-year-old detective. When Thomas created the series, he had not envisioned a five-foot-two, perky blonde with a sunny smile. Instead, he thought much darker. According to Bell, who spoke with Craig Byrne's NeptuneSite, Thomas describes Veronica as a cross between Twin Peaks, an edgy drama from the early 1990s, and Dawson's Creek, the teen soap opera that Thomas wrote for in the late 1990s. Regardless of her blonde, girl-next-door looks, Bell beat out seventy other hopefuls and won the part of the teen sleuth who is wise beyond her years. And Thomas was glad he cast her. As he told Jennifer Armstrong, "Without Bell, Veronica wouldn't be the wry delight that it is."
The show is set in the upper-class, seaside town of Neptune, California, where everything is not as picture-perfect as it seems. Veronica's best friend, Lilly Kane, is killed, and her sheriff dad, Keith Mars, accuses Lilly's powerful tycoon father of being the killer. Veronica's world is shattered. Her mother abandons the family, and Veronica, once one of the most popular girls at school, is suddenly an outcast. By day she bravely stands up to the taunts of her cruel classmates with the help of her new sidekick, nerdy Wallace Fennell. By night she turns into a savvy sleuth who helps her father in his new private investigation business. Her biggest case is figuring out who really killed Lilly.
When Veronica Mars debuted on September 22, 2004, critics went wild and heaped praise on Thomas for his intricate plot twists and clever characters. Barry Garron of the Hollywood Reporter called it "one of TV's only bright spots." He further enthused that the show "has comedy, deathly serious drama, parody and danger, ingredients not typically mixed together. The result is a new TV flavor, and it's delicious." The press was especially kind to newcomer Bell. According to Variety's Phil Gallo, Bell "gives a multilayered performance, and is as charismatic as she is tough and intelligent." After only a few episodes, Kristen Bell was a huge hit on television.
When the show moved to its permanent time slot on Tuesday nights, more and more viewers started tuning in until there was a loyal following. Hundreds of Web sites, such as The Temple of Veronica Mars, sprang up almost overnight. UPN launched the Official Veronica Mars Site, where fans could log on to chat
Veronica Mars may be the new girl sleuth of the twenty-first century, but the original teen detective, Nancy Drew, is now over seventy-five years old. Although Nancy Drew originally appeared in print in 1929 she still shares many similarities with her 2005 counterpart. Like Veronica, Nancy was originally a blonde; she comes from a single-parent home; she works closely with her father, Carson Drew, a well-known attorney; and she frequently solves cases assisted by her two friends, Bess Marvin and George Fayne. More importantly, according to "The History of Nancy Drew," Nancy, like Veronica, is "the embodiment of independence, pluck, and intelligence."
Nancy Drew was the product of American author Edward Stratemeyer (1862–1930) and his Edward Stratemeyer Syndicate, a writing company that churned out popular series for young people. Favorite characters, such as the Rover Boys, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins, appeared in book after book, and eventually became literary heroes. Because readers gobbled up the stories, and Stratemeyer could not possibly keep up with the demand, he hired a crew of ghostwriters (authors whose work is credited to someone else) who fleshed out his original outlines.
Young female heroines were featured in previous Stratemeyer series, but they were usually fairly traditional. With the introduction of Nancy Drew, a new kind of independent woman was born. The credit is given primarily to Mildred A. Wort Benson (1905–2002), who wrote twenty-three of the original thirty Nancy Drew stories. (Although the name "Carolyn Keene" appears on the book covers, it was simply the pen name [alias] shared by the many writers the Nancy Drew series had over the years.) According to "The History of Nancy Drew," Benson was tired of what she called the "namby-pamby style of girls' series books, and she had no intention of characterizing Nancy as namby-pamby." The feisty ghostwriter believed that girls could do anything boys could do, and she instilled that same feistiness in her character.
Benson was twenty-four when she wrote the very first Nancy Drew mystery in 1929, The Secret of the Old Clock, and she continued to breathe life into her favorite girl detective for the next thirty years. When she quit the syndicate in 1959, Edward Stratemeyer's daughter, Harriet, took up the pen and wrote the majority of the original series, which consists of 175 books. The early Nancy Drew mysteries are still being reissued by Simon … Schuster, which purchased the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1984. The company also produces a modern-day version of the series called Nancy Drew: Girl Detective, as well as other spin-off series, including The Nancy Drew Notebooks and The Nancy Drew Files.
with their favorite teen detective. By the end of 2004, however, the fate of the show was in question. Although over 2.7 million viewers were watching the show every week, it was not doing well in the Nielsen ratings, coming in a disappointing 122 out of 133 programs. (Nielsen ratings were developed by the Nielsen Media Research firm in the early 1960s, and are used to gauge what television shows Americans watch during what times.)
Despite the lukewarm ratings, UPN gave the green light to a full season of episodes. A gleeful Bell celebrated by buying her very first house, located in Los Angeles. And although committing to a weekly series meant long hours, sometimes stretching into fifteen-hour work days, the twenty-something actress was not complaining. "I just feel very lucky to be where I am right now," she told Ray Richmond of the Hollywood Reporter. Bell felt especially fortunate to be working with such a wonderful cast and crew. She became particularly close to actor Enrico Colantoni (1963–), who plays her father on the show. "He's one of the most generous individuals I've ever met," Bell told Craig Byrne, "and has really like taken on the role of father in my life."
Bell also felt lucky to be playing Veronica, whom she considered to be a strong female character and a definite role model for young girls. " Veronica Mars is not like anything else on television," she commented during a chat on E!Online. "It's rare to see girls that empowered. She's so scrappy and such the firecracker. It's nice to be able to hold your own in a 'man's world'."
Like Veronica, Bell is frequently described as energetic in her own right. And in 2005, she was setting the entertainment world ablaze. In addition to her television program, she starred in two feature films, Fifty Pills, a college comedy, and the thriller Deepwater. Bell also appeared in Showtime's musical comedy Reefer Madness. As she told Michelle Caruso, however, her priority was to "act her heart out to make Veronica Mars a hit."
Given her hectic work schedule, Bell has little time for anything else, but she does enjoy getting together with friends to sing karaoke. She is devoted to her dog, Lola, who perches under the director's tent while she is working. She also carves out time to spend with her boyfriend, Kevin Mann, a high school swim coach and independent film producer. And, despite all the celebrity hype, the actress remains grounded. I'm not involved in the business of becoming famous," Bell told the Detroit News , "And that's the advice I give to younger aspiring actors. Work onstage and do the little roles. In the end it's not important to be seen. It's important to do."
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Richmond, Ray. "Spotlight: Kristen Bell (UPN's Veronica Mars)." Hollywood Reporter (December 2004): p. 26.
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Madden, Mekeisha. "Huntington Woods Native Is Over the Moon Starring in UPN's 'Veronica Mars'." Detroit News (September 22, 2004). http://www.detnews.com/2004/screens/0409/22/d01-280930.htm (accessed on August 10, 2005).
Nguyen, Lan N. "Kristen Bell's a Tough Act to Follow." iVillage Entertainment. http://entertainment.ivillage.com/celebs/interview/0,,73r3smcc,00.html (accessed on August 10, 2005).
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Veronica Mars Web Site. http://www.upn.com/shows/veronica_mars (accessed on March 26, 2005).