It wouldn’t typically be one’s first instinct to compare characters from a pair of TV shows shepherded by two storytellers as tonally and intrinsically different as Michael Schur—of Parks and Recreation and The Office fame—and David Lynch—of Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet fame. But when it comes to the supernatural nature of Schur’s latest project, NBC’s breakout serialized sitcom The Good Place, there’s much more room for discussion.
In the ever-evolving world of The Good Place, D’Arcy Carden plays Janet, a cross between a human woman and a Siri-esque robot utterly central to the show’s mythos. Just as the Siri on your iPhone reboots itself from time to time, so too does Janet on the show, giving Carden the chance to play a number of variations on her Janet character from time to time, constantly re-inventing the character throughout the run of the series, resetting her portrayal whenever the writers room calls for it. She also briefly portrays another version of this character, ‘Bad Janet,’ who—naturally—hails from ‘The Bad Place’.
As nonlinear a thought progression as it might be, Carden’s performance (along with, admittedly, a bit of recency bias) strongly evokes that of Kyle MacLachlan in David Lynch’s latest, Twin Peaks: The Revival, which wrapped its 18-hour run on Showtime up just over a month ago. Both performances see an actor dipping into a number of differing portrayals, and both are tremendously committed, layered, and mesmerizing to watch on screen.
In a show that features celebrated and wildly talented comedy veterans like Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, it’s really saying something when the most impressive comedic showing comes from Carden, a relative newcomer. Carden also had a memorable small role in the 2016 film Other People from SNL’s Chris Kelly, as well as a recurring role on Broad City as the constantly chipper trainer Gemma. Next, she’s slated to be a part of Bill Hader’s new HBO series Barry, which is set to debut in early 2018. On an overcast and slightly rainy afternoon, we explored the streets of DUMBO—not far from where Carden used to live in Brooklyn—and talked about what goes into being the most interesting part of one particular good place.
Brooklyn Magazine: The characters that you play on both The Good Place and Broad City are just so, so positive. Is that a little bit of your own personality rubbing off?
D’Arcy Carden: I think so. I think it is. Yeah, that’s so funny—I don’t know if I thought of that before. I do like playing negative, bitchy, characters, but these two in particular I find very… I wouldn’t even say easy to play, but very satisfying to play. It’s nice to play nice. The positivity of Gemma on Broad City is so positive that it’s weird. She’s weird! She’s such a little weirdo. Whenever I’m there on set, Ilana [Glazer, star and co-creator of Broad City] especially is like, “She’s so weird!” And I’m like, “You wrote her!”
But, I do think it might be a little bit of me rubbing, I mean at least … it would be nice to think that. That a little bit of me is rubbing off on these. Or maybe a little bit of them is rubbing off on me? Either way.
It’s nice to be nice, right?
Yeah. And in the one Broad City episode where Abbi [Jacobson, star and co-creator of Broad City] is super competitive, and smacks you in the face with the thing… I was kind of thinking, “Okay, this has got to finally be the straw that broke the camel’s back.” But then, instead, she was like, “Good job!“
It made her weirder, like more into Abbi. Exactly, which I thought was so funny. I mean, god I love working with those girls so much. It’s such a beyond blessing. It’s just the joy of my life to watch those girls do what they’re doing.
You guys all coming from a UCB background and have been friends for a long time. On The Good Place, it seems like such a tight group, too, where it’s a very small cast. Especially you, because you have scenes with everybody. Has that cast also grown really close in the two years of the show?
Yes, we definitely have. We definitely have. You know, it’s funny—I call us the Four Babies, which is weird because it’s not like we’re even younger than Kristen—but Will and Jameela, and Manny (Carden’s non-Danson/Bell co-stars) and I, this is our first big thing, together. I mean our first big thing, because obviously Kristen and Ted are like old pros and have done plenty of shows and movies and everything. But Kristen and Ted are just as happy and excited to be there as we are. You think you’re going to be intimidated to work with Kristen or Ted, but so quickly that just goes away. They are so down to earth, and so happy to be acting, and happy to be acting for Mike Schur, who’s the most loving human alive.
It’s just … am I being too positive? It’s really the best damn job. It’s not just the cast, though. The crew and the writers, everybody’s very, very happy to be there. Mike Schur is a dream human. It doesn’t get any better. I think especially with the second season coming back—I remember one of the first scenes back in the second season was all six of us. And, we were like vibrating we were so excited. You know what I mean? Because we missed each other. It’s a damn blast.
I talked to Mike Schur last year, and I know that he talked to Damon Lindelof a little bit when he was making the show. I feel like The Good Place is kind of a rare show where it’s hysterically funny, but it’s also kind of got that JJ Abrams mystery box, “What’s going to happen next?” kind of thing, which is rare for a comedy.
That’s the dream, truly. That’s what I would, that’s like the dream show that I would want to watch. Something funny that has a Lost vibe, or The Leftovers, or one of those shows that makes you think, and keeps you on your toes, but then also can be funny. And, also Ted Danson stars? It’s the best.
I love that with this show in particular Mike Schur just wrote what he thought was funny and what he would want to watch—what he thinks is interesting, and kind of doesn’t care. He’s not writing to please anybody. He’s writing it to please himself.
He was really excited about that twist at the end [of season one], and I know was thrilled that it worked as well as it did. I think he was shocked—we all were—that it actually went over as well as it did. It was like crossing your fingers. He was so particular about don’t spill the beans to anybody, and it paid off because it really did seem like a shock to a lot of people, if not everybody.
Your character has a lot of scene time with Ted, and he’s obviously been a sitcom legend for thirty, forty years at this point. What was that like working with him so closely in your first big role?
He is, maybe, my favorite scene partner of all time. He’s so present and giving and funny and can do it differently every single take. He’s very alive, you know what I mean? He’s a great actor and he’s a great comedic actor. His timing is impeccable and you just can’t help but learn when you’re working with him.
He’s also just the best dude. He’s a very great friend at this point, and, I think there’s something about him, he really loves being an actor. He’s very giddy and excited and thrilled to be on set everyday and talks about that a lot, which is awesome. He always says, “This is our job?” He’s like, “Can you believe it?” He’s like, “Look around. This is our job. We’re so lucky.” Which is cool. He’s zero percent jaded, which means we certainly can’t be, so it just makes for a very good vibe on set.
Since we were talking a little bit before about rubbing off on the character, it kind of sounds like he’s super positive, which is kind of how Michael is in the show, where he’s just so positive. He’s like, “Look at my suspenders! They’re great!” Which I think also really helped build what the twist ended up to be because you really never saw it coming.
You trusted him, right?
Exactly. So, I mean …
Are you saying that Ted Danson’s actually evil in real life?
But, that twist ending, it was one of the better twist endings I can remember in terms of how it just changes everything. For your character, what’s different, what was different in the approach for the second season?
I think the writers know that we, the audience, know the world so well that they can go nuts. It’s like, last year was so much about setting up this world that we’ve never seen before—but now we know all that. So now it’s a peek behind the curtains on all accounts.
We already get the characters, we know the world. So, we’ve just got to dive into that. We definitely dive into Janet. Big time. We see different sides of her and it was incredibly fun to play. It was a dream season, because I just got to go nuts. If I told you anything it would bum you out. I don’t want to spoil a thing.
A couple of weeks ago I watched the entire new Twin Peaks season, and Kyle MacLachlan plays a bunch of different versions of his character, and I feel like you do somewhat the same thing—Janet keeps rebooting, plus there’s also “Bad Janet”. . Is that something that you approach as, “This Janet is different from this Janet is different from this Janet.”
There’s always a through line with Janet. But, getting to do all these different sides of her … It’s such an interesting character, because you can kind of make up your own rules. As long as you have rules that you go by, as long as I can justify everything. So, if I’m talking to a director and they say, “What if you did this?” Quickly, I’m like, “Okay that would work because Janet would do this and that makes sense.” I have to kind of do my little computer brain and … Like you said, I guess it’s like an actor’s gift to be able play one character that’s also many characters.
Before we wrap up, I just want to ask you about this new HBO project that you’re attached to, Barry. Working with Bill Hader, this seems like a big project of his. I know he’s directing a lot of it. There have been very few details. What’s it been like working with him on what seems to be his baby to an extent?
It was, it felt like summer camp. We, the actors, got super close really fast. Summer camp is the way I’ll explain it. It felt like we couldn’t get enough of each other. We didn’t eat lunch in our trailers, we ate lunch together. We hung out in each other’s trailers. We never left each other alone. And, Bill was very much a part of that. You could tell he was just the happiest. He was so happy to be on his set, of something he wrote, he starring in, he’s directing. It’s like his baby, like you said. You could just tell he’s very proud of it. He’s just happy. It felt like a family vibe. It is so good.
Catch D’Arcy Carden in The Good Place every Thursday on NBC, and check out our Facebook Live interview with her right here.
Photos by Paige Winston