Kristen Bell sits perched on a picnic table bench at Griffith Park wearing jean shorts, a pinkish button-down top and cornflower blue Toms espadrilles. The 30-year-old actress, blond hair tied back in a ponytail, watches as her two dogs explore the grass. She occasionally chastises: "Park it, Lola! Eh-eh, Shakey, you know better!"
Bell is surprisingly relaxed considering what's going on in her life at the moment. Her new movie, "You Again," costarring Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee Curtis and Betty White, hit theaters Friday. Later this fall she'll be appearing in "Burlesque" with Christina Aguilera and Cher. She's just begun shooting "Everybody Loves Whales" with Drew Barrymore. On top of all that, she's the voice of the narrator on "Gossip Girl."
But despite her busy work schedule, Bell — who made her name playing a young detective on TV's "Veronica Mars (2004-07) — is casual and talkative. She lets a scheduled one-hour interview spill over into three hours of discussion about image, acting, fashion, values and life.
Refreshingly, there's no suggestion of a stereotypical "look-at-me, I lunch at a certain Chateau" Hollywood actress or a star who has just a few minutes to chat in a hotel penthouse as a manager impatiently taps his watch. Instead, the actress with the golden-girl looks comes across as someone with her feet firmly planted on the ground.
"Who I am as a human being is first and foremost," Bell says. "If I don't separate this business and my sense of self, I'll never survive. If I become Kristen Bell the actress, I lose.
"I live in a constant state of pinch me," Bell adds. "I know I'm lucky.... When you're so blinded by wanting to fit in because you want to be a starlet or you think Lindsay Lohan has it made, we've all seen those examples. Nobody has it made."
In addition to an understanding of her place in the world, the petite actress also seems to have found her personal style. Though no less self-critical than the rest of us, she knows how to work with what she's got. Her Twitter bio ("5'1 is the new 6'2") perhaps sums up her attitude.
That self-awareness has translated into success on the red carpet, where she often wears short dresses that don't overwhelm her small frame.
At the 12th annual Costume Designers Guild Awards in February, she shimmered in a nude and gold Stella McCartney cocktail dress. At the Los Angeles premiere of "Couples Retreat" last October, it was a white and silver Marchesa mini that paid homage to the art of Grecian draping. The strapless number was finished with streams of silk cascading from hip to knee, creating an ethereal illusion of elongation. ("I loved that dress," she says.)
At the 2008 Teen Choice Awards, she sported a sleek tan tank and high-waisted pink skirt by her favorite designer, Jenni Kayne, which won thumbs up on best-dressed lists across the board.
"She has a minimalism that is never simple," Bell says of Kayne's designs. "A clean style that is never muted. She uses classic looks and spins them ever so slightly, making them always appealing to the eye. They let the person live in the clothes, not vice versa."
In her daily life, Bell mostly likes to dress for comfort, though she has a few tricks for "stepping up" a casual evening.
"I gravitate toward things that look equestrian or nautical. Mostly classic looks," she says. "But I will admit sometimes there are days when you feel like upping the ante and can justify wearing some gorgeous 5-inch heels to the movies because, hey, you're sitting down the whole time, anyway."
Fashion wasn't always on her radar. "I didn't grow up reading WWD or Vogue. I always wore a school uniform. When I came to Los Angeles, I began to see all sorts of fashion and realized that it stimulated me."
Born and raised in a suburb of Detroit, Bell got the acting bug early. "I was too little to play sports, so I joined a theater club when I was 12… I also sang a lot around the house, so my mom got me into voice lessons, and I trained operatically as a soprano when I was young."
She started acting in local productions in 1992, did TV commercials and took acting lessons. After high school, she attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, studying musical theater for a time, leaving in 2001 to play the role of Becky Thatcher in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" on Broadway. The next year she appeared in a revival of "The Crucible."
In 2003, Bell migrated from the Broadway stage to Los Angeles, auditioning for what seemed like an endless succession of television pilots. She couldn't catch a break. Until, one day, she did. And that was "Veronica Mars."