The Good Place's D'Arcy Carden on Not Becoming a "Weird Little Narcissist"
It was just three years ago that audiences first met D'Arcy Carden as IRL virtual assistant Janet (whom she fondly describes as "Siri with a body") on NBC's twisty afterlife comedy The Good Place.
But unlike Siri or Alexa, whose existence is relegated to a subservient role, Carden's Janet is constantly evolving — be it her discovery of love (which she finds with Manny Jacinto's Jason), or the presentation of her demon-thwarting combat moves. We learn more and more about Janet each episode, while she, too, learns more about the human condition.
Carden's performance reached its peak last December in the season 3 episode "Janet(s)," wherein she puts on a one-woman show, stepping into the roles of all four of the show's misplaced humans (played by Jacinto, Kristen Bell, Jameela Jamil, and William Jackson Harper). Aided only by each character's clothing, Carden must deliver impressions so convincing that we visualize the missing cast member with each line. She does just that, and more, turning in a performance universally lauded across the media landscape. (The show itself is nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Comedy category.)
Carden arrives on set in the early hours of a July Tuesday, looking supremely un-Janet-like in a pair of wide-leg pants and sneakers, and requests a medley of Rihanna and Fleetwood Mac for her shoot. When the purple skirt and vest are off, she relaxes into a quiet comfort that, combined with the fact that she's now a fixture everywhere you look (The Good Place, Barry, Broad City), makes it hard to believe that just three years ago she was a relative unknown. Carden worked as a nanny (for Bill Hader's kids, no big deal) and on an NYC bus tour before landing the role that would come to define her career thus far.
Still something of a Hollywood newcomer, she returns to a point that has marked her relationships with fellow actors: "they're just people." That may go for her, too, but she's a remarkably cool one who happens to spend her days paling around with Ted Danson and occasionally re-reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
As The Good Place embarks on its bittersweet fourth and final season, Carden meditates on the show's "perfect" ending, meeting her idols, and the "horny teen stuff" that decorated her childhood bedroom.
InStyle: You guys had your final table read recently; what was your reaction to reading that final script?
D'Arcy Carden: Like a mix of emotions. It's sad and it's happy at the same time. I think there's a Kacey Musgraves lyric about that. It's a perfect finale. I love it. But it's really sad. We cried a bunch of times throughout the reading. Like every single person at one point. You'd hear a pause and you'd look over and they would be composing themselves.
You had a few odd jobs before you were cast in The Good Place. You were a nanny, worked on an NYC bus tour. Do you think these experiences shaped you as an actor?
I think so. I mean there's a funny thing with acting. When you're an actor, you just want to act all the time. You could do it all the time every day as much as possible. But the thing about being an actor is that you need to be doing these other things in your life that give you the experience that then you can draw upon to actually act. So you know, I remember when I was in college and I was majoring in theater [at Southern Oregon University], there was a Shakespeare festival near my school, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And we had this actor come and talk with us, which happened all the time. But this one particular actor was one of my favorites; respected him a ton and I'm a big fan of him. He was like, "Take any other classes than acting. Like do your acting classes, but take everything else you can possibly take, and do things that are not acting so that you can actually learn and get life experiences."
I'm an actor and I love actors, but we're a weird bunch. It's good to sort of broaden your horizons with other things. Otherwise you just become a weird little narcissist.
So you have a lot of friends in the comedy world: Bill Hader, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson … Is there anyone who sort of served as a mentor when you first broke into it?
Yeah. You know, Abbi and Ilana in particular, they're peers, like we came up at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre together. Sometimes you think of a mentor as someone that's years older than you, but they were steps ahead of me career-wise and they were making their own stuff and really taking charge of their career, but also they were (and are) two of my best friends, so [they were] always there for the weird questions.
And then Bill has always been great and continues to be great and is there with advice and to talk through weird things. This is a very weird business in that there just is no clear outline of what you're supposed to do, so it's very helpful to have people to talk to that have sort of been through this before, whether it be Ilana, Bill, Zach Woods. And then, you know, someone like Ted Danson who's been in business for a minute, or Henry Winkler. These are people that I turn to a lot and are wonderful, lovely friends, but also have great advice.
You've worked with all of these comedy icons — Ted Danson, Henry Winkler — who is another dream co-star that you've yet to work with?
Well, I love Catherine O'Hara so much. But I was just thinking like if I met her, would I even be able to speak? That's the only problem. But you know what, I thought that's how it was going to be with Maya Rudolph. Early in season one, I remember the co-stars were talking about dream guest stars and I remember I said something like "my dream guest star would be Maya Rudolph, but my fear is that I wouldn't be able to look at her and talk to her or act with her." And then like a week or two later, Mike Schur, our creator, said "I got a great guest star for the judge. It's going to be Maya Rudolph." And now she's like a true, deep, wonderful, good friend that I talk to all the time.
Dare I say it again — there's another weird thing about this business. You love people from afar for so long and you're fans of them. And then when you meet them, you remember they're just people, like just really, truly, just people. And sometimes they're good and sometimes they're bad. And in the comedy world that I sort of run in, I've been lucky to have a lot of good and really not a lot of bad at all, which is like, thank God. And I'm sure at some point that'll change because some people are good and some people are bad. But I've been on the good side so far.
Yeah it can be really heartbreaking meeting your idols.
That's another thing, with Maya in particular. It's like I've loved her so hard for so long, and what if she didn't [live up to my expectations]? Because also part of my love for her is like, "Oh, she's going to be the best person in the world, also." Not just that she's a genius and funny, but she's also going to be the best person in the world. But what if she's not? But guess what? She is, she really is.
The Good Place is doing this sort of rare thing now where it's ending on its own terms. That seems to be the opposite of the trend these days. Even limited series are going for that second season and breaking past the original source material. When it comes to your preferences as a viewer, are you more of the "less is more" mindset, or do you just want to see your favorite characters and worlds in any context that you can get them?
I am a little bit torn on this because I always have actually been a "less is more." And I remember even, maybe not as a kid, but as a younger person when something would jump the shark, which is a Henry Winkler term, I think — it's something from Happy Days — but you could feel it when a show went a little bit too long and that was such a bummer of a feeling. And I'm trying to think of when I realized that you could just end it on your own terms. But when Mike Schur told us that we were ending I had a lot of thoughts and I was sad and I wished he would change his mind. But also I was so impressed that he would make such a cool decision to end it when we're sort of in our prime. To me it's such a cool move. And I felt the same about Broad City; they could've gone years longer and I thought they ended at such a cool moment.
So on The Good Place you play Janet, which you've described as "Siri with a body." She's not human, but she's developed more human qualities throughout the seasons. As an actor (and a human), how do you get into that zone and access that? Do you find yourself paying careful attention to Siri and Alexa in your free time, or … ?
Yeah I do, I mean literally. I know that sounds a little silly, but I definitely do. I know Janet isn't a robot, but paying attention to robots in different movies, or I often will watch videos about robots on YouTube. You've got some good ones out there. I know she's not a human, not a robot, but there is some human and there is some robot in there. So it's good for me to keep that in mind. I never want to go too far in one direction with her. The easy thing would be to just play human, or to just play robot. So the way I sort of access the robot part is thinking of it as innocence and thinking of it as youth, and thinking of it as childlike. And so I try to infuse some of that into Janet, some childlike wonder, because you can't play computer, you know what I mean? Otherwise you're just pretending. You have to find something. So my way in is not exactly a child, but something innocent.
That's so interesting. Do people ever come up to you in real life and talk to you like you're Janet?
Most of the fans of The Good Place are very cool and very smart and very respectful. And occasionally I'll get like a "Hey Janet." But it's usually with a smile, no one's like demanding [an answer]. I've lucked out because fans of The Good Place, fans of Barry, and fans of Broad City are my kind of people. If they stop me on the street, it's usually someone that I'm happy to talk to.
In "Janet(s)" you take on the roles four different costars. So much has been said about this episode, and rightfully so, it's incredible. But my first thought was that it must have been liberating to sort of break free of Janet's uniforms.
Yes it was. I really loved, loved, loved those costumes.
Do you ever fantasize about giving her a makeover?
Well we've gotten to do Bad Janet, right? But in neutral Janet, yes, I mean with my hair and makeup team at the show, we've been like, "Oh, it'd be fun to update her," but the decision that we sort of made season one, I'm kind of strict with keeping it and I think Mike is too. Janet is Janet. If we just changed her hair and makeup or updated her costume or whatever, I don't know … I really like that we know what she is and we can rely on that. We can rely on that purple suit and that brunette wavy hair and the same lipstick.
I luckily love the costume. That is a question I get a lot out in the world — if I hate the costume. I'm like, "No, I love the costume." But doing "Janet(s)" was really fun. I really loved Jason's tracksuit, so much. That was my favorite. I loved Tahani's dress. I would wear Eleanor's pink sweatshirt and jeans. And also Chidi's look is cool. I felt cool in those glasses. But man I loved wearing Jason's tracksuit. I was very jealous of Manny. I thought, "If you wanted to change costumes with me for season four I'd be down." But he did not want to.
At the Comic-Con panel Mike Schur hinted that there'd be a new Janet in the fourth season?
Can we expect a Janet showdown of sorts?
That's a fun idea... Who knows? I would like to see that. But we'll definitely get into some Janet hijinks this season for sure.
What would your personal "Good Place" look like?
It's a hard one because it would be like my friends and family would all be there. But that means my friends and family are all dead, right? But that's I guess just the way it is. So I'm killing off my friends and family. They're all in the Good Place with me. And I don't mean like every frickin' person I've ever met. I mean my friends and family. My dog, Penny, would be there.
And my Good Place would involve a lot of good food, a lot of good concerts that I would not have to worry about getting tickets to. I would just have tickets and I would sit wherever I wanted. Probably really close to the front.
Who's playing the concerts?
Well you got your Beyoncé, you got your Beatles, right? I would like to see Elvis once. I mean everybody, that's the thing about the Good Place, you have forever. So I could just be like, "Yeah, I like that one song from that one band. I would like to see them play that song five times tonight. I don't want to hear anything new from that particular band."
And I think it would be like beachfront, but also maybe my backyard is a snowy mountain? Cool, right?
And what about a personal "Bad Place"?
We've illustrated some pretty great Bad Place ideas on the show, like all spiders and all that. But I was thinking like a loud restaurant is pretty terrible when you're sitting there with friends and you can't hear them. It's pretty terrible. I mean maybe there are other worse things like war, et cetera, but [for me] either a loud party or a loud restaurant where I'm trying to have a good time with my friends and can't hear a word they're saying. And then maybe somebody walks in and I'm like, "Shoot, I know I know them, but I can't remember their name."
That's very bad.
Maybe like some social anxiety Bad Place.
What is your dream reboot?
I would say Friends, but I don't actually want to see Friends. It would be fun to see the '90s Mickey Mouse Club, which involved like Britney [Spears], and Justin [Timberlake], and Christina Aguilera, and Ryan Gosling and Keri Russell. It'd be fun to see them do a variety show, you know like the Mickey Mouse Club now, a variety show or something where they had to like sing and dance and work together.
What's one book you could read over and over?
This is a weird one because it's kind of teen-ish, but there's this book called The Perks of Being a Wallflower that I have read so many times. And in fact even you just saying this, I'm like "I should probably read it again soon," because I love it. But that just comes to mind because I've read it so many times.
What did your childhood bedroom look like?
I had a wall made of corkboard. Do you know what I mean? Like an entire wall, floor to ceiling. So one wall was completely covered — it was like my art project. So it would be like bands that I loved or pictures from magazines that I loved, and when I was a pre-teen it was like all hot boys, like Keanu Reeves and stuff. Or I guess just hot people. There was a lot of hot girls, too. It was just, you know, horny teen stuff. But I did a lot of art as a kid, too. So I put a lot of art on the wall. It was very chaotic, I think. And I loved a clean room but often failed at that. It vacillated between insanely messy and like spotless. Which is kind of the same way it is now.
What is your favorite clothing item?
High-waisted pants. I love a wide-leg, high-waisted pant.
What is your biggest guilty pleasure?
Who, in the history of America, is your favorite president?
A man named Barack Obama. Ever heard of him?
Who have you been the most starstruck to meet in Hollywood?
I am old friends with Bill Hader, and years ago at one of his kid's birthday parties, Maya [Rudolph] was there. This is pre-Good Place. And I was so starstruck that I just didn't talk to her. Just had to stay far, far, far away. Which is so funny because I mean, like I said earlier, once you meet these people, it's all good and they're just people and they're just friends. But the first time I was in a room with Maya, I was like, "I can't, I can't do this. I'm just going to stay over here, I'm not going to ... no."
So I heard that you added the apostrophe in your name because of Smashing Pumpkins bass player D'arcy Wretzky. What is your favorite Smashing Pumpkins song?
Maybe "Tonight, Tonight"? Yeah. I love that song.
Photographs by Colette Aboussouan. Hair by Matthew Monzon. Makeup by Gianpaolo Ceciliato. Art direction and production by Kelly Chiello.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.