Why Kristen Bell Loves Playing Characters Who Are 'Inherently Unlikable'

Kristen Bell has played a lot of memorable characters over the years, but some of her favorites are the bad ones. Talking to Vanity Fair about her experiencing playing the titular character in the 2008 romantic comedy "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," Bell explained, "The cool thing about that movie, what I learned from that was I really gravitate towards playing characters who are inherently unlikable on the page." She describes Sarah as a "narcissist" with a big ego, but "she's still a human being," and it was a lot of fun for Bell to find that part of her underneath.

"Everybody has something likable, relatable, identifiable about them," Bell said. "Even the people that are written like terrible human beings on the page." Maybe that's what drew her to "The Good Place" years later, playing a self-declared Arizona dirtbag named Eleanor Shellstrop. While Eleanor does become a good person throughout the series, it's safe to say that she was pretty terrible throughout her actual life on earth. 

Eleanor steals, cons the elderly, and casually litters. Every time we flash back to her life, it feels like the show's trying to one-up itself in terms of how terrible Eleanor's capable of getting. Maybe the highlight of awfulness is when she lies to her friend about ripping her dress, leading to the friend having a public meltdown and going viral online as the "Dress B****," which Eleanor and her roommate exploit for a lucrative T-shirt business. Despite how awful her character gets at certain points, Bell refers to her time working on "The Good Place" as "the happiest four years I've ever had."

Not the only one

Of course, Kristen Bell isn't the only star who loves playing unlikeable characters. Most shows and movies have at least one sleazy, unethical character in them, and the performer playing them always seem to be having the time of their lives. Be it Neil Patrick Harris's villainous Barney Stinson, Aziz Ansari as the perpetually-selfish Tom Haverford, or basically everyone in "Always Sunny," there's something appealing about a character who the story doesn't need you to care about. As Cameron Diaz once said in an interview about "Bad Teacher," the movie where she played a borderline monstrous main character: "Playing Elizabeth was very liberating, only because you really don't care. She doesn't care, so you can't really care."

There's also the benefit of low expectations: on those rare occasions where these characters do the right thing, it makes more of an impact. It's what makes Eleanor's character arc in "The Good Place" so fun to watch: within a couple of episodes we've gotten used to Eleanor being ridiculously selfish, so every time she does something nice — even if it's just the bare minimum you'd expect from a functional member of society — it makes for an incredibly wholesome experience. It's always fun to peel back the layers of a "bad" character and see what makes them tick, and that's exactly what makes Kristen Bell's performance here so consistently compelling.