Fri. Jul 3rd, 2020

Interview: D’Arcy Carden (‘The Good Place’) on life’s biggest subjects: the afterlife and movies that blow her mind

After four seasons, The Good Place ended its run of acclaim and mass popularity on January 30, 2020, nearly five months ago. Critics largely lauded the finale of the show and it was a fitting conclusion to a series that promoted ethics and a higher road of living while on the air. Creator Michael Schur’s show featured actor D’Arcy Carden playing Janet, an artificial being that develops a few human emotions over the course of the seasons. Carden played several different versions of Janet, including Bad Janet, Neutral Janet, and Disco Janet. An improv veteran of Upright Citizens Brigade, Carden has been a highlight of the show’s run since it started in 2016. I caught up with her to chat less about the ending of the show, and more about her thoughts on the afterlife, her relationships with her coworkers, and her dog, Penny.

MF: How are you doing?

DC: I’m good, how are you? Where are you in the world?

I’m in Brooklyn. Where are you?

I’m in LA. What part of Brooklyn, if I may?

Williamsburg. What part of LA?

Echo Park. So basically the same thing.

Where’d you grow up?

I grew up in the Bay Area in California but then I was in New York for about 10 years.

Where in the Bay Area?

East Bay, so like 20…it depends on how well you know it. I’m from Danville.  

I know it well, actually. I grew up in California and went to school at Cal Poly SLO, so actually I know a few people from Danville.

I bet, yeah. That Cuesta/Cal Poly world was filled with people from my high school and the high school next to me and my sister. Where are you from?

Ventura, near Santa Barbara. 

Yeah, the Bay Area is so lovely. Most of my family still lives up there. 

How long have you been in LA?

Let’s see. Like 6 years.

Long time.

I know, which is crazy. LIving in New York for 10/11 years, and I still feel like I’m new in LA. But it’s rapidly approaching…I don’t know. It just goes so fast. I feel like I just got here and it’s already been 6 years.

I was trying to read some of your interviews over the last few months, and it looks like you’ve done a ton of them with the show ending. How are you feeling about even still doing interviews and talking about the show?

I guess I’m torn because I’m happy to talk about the show. I love the show. The saddest part to me is that it’s done and gone, so anyone wanting to still talk about the show makes me happy. But I do feel not to say removed from it, but it’s been awhile now. What month is this even? June? And we wrapped in August. It’s been awhile now.

Do you have a different feeling towards the end of it, because you feel slightly removed? 

Wait. Hold on one sec. My dog really wants to come in. That’s a great question. Yeah, I don’t know. You’re right. You do a lot of interviews and it sort of becomes the thing you say or whatever. You kind of get the same questions and everything. I was just thinking that I should rewatch the finale. I think we’ve been having some weird times lately. 

Oh, I didn’t know that?

Well, let me tell you! I feel like what the show in general is saying and what that last season is saying is that we’re all just trying to better ourselves and get better. We’re pieces of shit and we’re trying to become better people. And I have a feeling that would hit me in a different way right now. 

I actually hadn’t seen the finale until about a week ago, because I didn’t watch it as it came out. Most people I know already saw it. It was interesting to watch it now, kind of just solo instead of with everyone else.

It’s hard to…I don’t know. I think most actors would say it’s hard to watch anything you’re in. You go back to those days. You remember when they called, “Cut.” You remember so much about those days that you shot. And I have such sweet feelings about that show. I was about to say bittersweet. The bitter part is that it’s over. I have such great, fond memories of that show and it feels like another world, especially right now. There’s a part of me that thinks, and this is so dramatic, that it’d be almost painful to watch right now. It’s like an old friend or an old lover or something like that. These bittersweet feelings. I am being very dramatic right now. And as much as I want to watch it right now, I think it’d make me sad in a different way. Oh my gosh I’m just sad all the time these days. Not to sound cheesy, but that would be the reason to watch it. It’s about hope. It’s about change. It’s about imperfect people trying to be better, and I’ve always loved that idea and that message. I feel like Mike Schur and the writers did it in a way that’s not pandering and not preachy, especially in a network comedy.

You know being a part of this show over the last 4 or 5 years. When you came into it until now, has it made you rethink the afterlife and all these things after you die? 

You know it definitely has made me think about it more and in a different way. And maybe without revealing what I think about the afterlife in general, because I don’t want to alienate anybody, I definitely like this story. The afterlife that Mike Schur created and the sort of after after life, like the finale and the second half of the final season. I love that idea. This is like…if we all we have with the afterlife as humans is a hope and a story and an idea of what it can be, and we have no proof, and it’s up to us to figure out what to believe, I choose to believe and I love this ending. Does that make Mike Schur my G-O-D? I don’t know. This is part of the thing, though, with knowing that this was going to be our final season. We were all so sad and bummed about it and then hearing what it was going to be like and hearing what the season was going to be and what the finale was going to be. We, as the actors, all loved it so much and thought it was so beautiful and correct and so hopeful and sad and beautiful. We were really proud to be a part of it. I’m thinking of Ted Danson, who is the oldest of the actors, which you may know. He’s had a wonderful life so far and in love with his wife for many years and hearing him talk about how he felt about the ending. He and his wife, Mary, talked about how beautiful this ending was. Even more than, “Oh, I hope that’s what it’s like.” It’s just, “Oh, that’s what it is.” Am I being so trippy right now? It’s up to you to believe what you want to believe. So, I’m like, “I like that.” 

No, I get what you’re saying. I was also hoping to lead up to a question about if you don’t believe in this, which is all fine and dandy. But is that then really difficult or more difficult to act in the show? Playing with different big life questions even on a broader comedy. 

Basically, you’re saying, if one had steadfast beliefs in what the world and the afterworld and the afterlife looked like, would it be hard to do this?

Yeah.

And I think as actors you have to sort of not to say believe anything, but at least find a way into anything. I think I sort of lucked out in that I really feel connected to this ending. I think if I had strong beliefs in a different way, I could still hold onto something. There are small, little, beautiful messages like “bettering yourself” and “being a team player” and “putting others first” and “rising to other people’s level.” There are all these small, little, beautiful things to hold onto. And maybe I’m just lucky I have no beliefs whatsoever so I can just cling on whatever comes my way. I’m like, “Oh that’s shiny. I like that.”

Yeah, that’s interesting. Are there any other shows or movies that you’ve seen throughout your life that make you think about bigger life questions like this?

For sure. 

Would you like to share any of them?

Sure, yeah. Of course. Specifically, afterlife stuff or just the world? 

Sure, just the world.

I mean, there are a few that just popped into my head. I’m trying to categorize them or see what makes sense. The trippiest answer is there’s this movie from the 90s called 12 Monkeys. And honestly I haven’t seen it in so long, but it was one of those movies that was at a good, little, formative brain age, and I was like, “Oh my god!” You know, like The Matrix or 12 Monkeys or one of those movies where it just sort of introduces you to ideas and themes you’ve never thought of before. So, that’s the first one that pops into my mind. But as far as…I don’t know. I know a lot of things deal with the afterlife. A lot of films and books. It’s such an interesting, open-ended idea that we of course have no real proof of.

I know we’re talking a lot about the afterlife. I realize that.

I know, I know. Me too. There was a movie early 2000s, maybe late 90s, that I don’t think was well received at all. I don’t think it’s considered to be a great movie. But it was called What Dreams May Come. And it was with Robin Williams and um I can’t remember who else. I must have been at that perfect age where it just hit me right. Again, like 12 Monkeys, I’d have to rewatch it. I sound so trippy. Whatever. It’s just interesting when you’re at that age and you watch a movie or a show or read a book that just introduces you, whether it’s sci-fi or based in history, and that just sort of cracks your brain open. It makes you think of things in a way that you’ve literally never thought before. I just remember maybe growing up in a semi-religious household having certain thoughts and feelings about what we believe and what we’re supposed to believe and the story that we’ve always been told. And seeing this movie about the afterlife…honestly I should watch it again. I just remember being like, “There’s so much more! The possibilities are endless.”

I guess we can shift gears.

*Carden makes gear shifting noise and motion and puts the camera to her dog* I’m trying to show you my dog.

What’s your dog’s name?

Her name is Penny.

And how old is Penny?

She is 6, I think. We got her when she was two. We got her at the end of the first season shooting The Good Place.

Are you a dog person or a cat person?

I’m a dog person, but I didn’t know that I was until I got her. And now, I think as of very recently, every single cast member from The Good Place has a dog.

Really?

Yes! Even Jameela [Jamil] and Manny [Jacinto], who didn’t have them before. During quarantine, everyone has a dog now. A bunch of dog people. 

Are there any specific stories from filming or a party or anywhere else that reflect your relationship with the cast members as a whole?

Hmm. Yeah. No that’s great. You know, when Ted turned, I want to say 70. But now I can’t remember. I think it was 70. His wife, Mary, threw him an intimate, small surprise party months and months after his birthday. Truly a surprise, like he knew we were coming over, but didn’t know it would be a whole thing. And it was the cast and Mike Schur and Morgan Sackett, producer and creator and everybody’s partners. It was a very lovely, intimate, wonderful, not fancy Hollywood night in someone’s backyard. Sort of organically everyone went around the table and told a story about him or a little anecdote or feeling or whatever. Everyone just said something about how they loved that man. There were a bunch of comedy people and a surprising amount of tears. Like a lot of crying from some dudes that I haven’t seen cry before. And it was just really touching and sweet and everyone was drinking wine and it was just a lovely night. And then we just stayed up all night and had a sleepover and it was really fun. For real. It was really cute. It was just a good, special night. It was one of those nights where you’re like, “I really like my life.”

Really? That’s a good story.

Yeah. I don’t know. It was a great night. There are certain nights, ever since I’ve been on this show, I’ve gotten to go to these really fun and fancy, like the Golden Globes and Emmys and those [nights] are special and cool in their own way. This was none of that stuff. No glamor. No red carpet. Nothing Hollywood-y. It was just a bunch of people that love each other sitting around someone’s backyard telling them how much they love him.

How are those other types of parties? If you’re on a show that’s doing well and a central part of the show, how is going to those events and just the other things you have to do?

Right. It’s a funny part of this job that you definitely don’t know is part of the job until you’re doing it. I guess it depends on why you get into acting. I mean when I wanted to be an actor when I was a little kid, I wanted to be on stage and play other characters. It’s so funny that part of the job becomes putting on makeup and getting your hair done and wearing a dress and walking down a red carpet and not being nervous when people ask you questions. It’s this whole other side of it. It can be a struggle for many people. I know plenty of actors that interviews and red carpets and social media and all of that is just, “I didn’t sign up for this.” Luckily, for some reason, I don’t mind it. Actually, I like it. It can be exhausting, but I think it’s fun and exciting. I had such a long time in this career of struggling and trying to get to the next level. And become a professional working actor that makes a living off this. So there’s a part of me that’s just grateful as hell and happy to be here. I know an Emmys party can be a pain in the ass for actors that have been on TV for 15 years, but I’m a little over the too-cool-for-school Emmys party. I’m like, “You don’t wanna be here? Let’s be real.” I mean, I get it. I get it. We’re all homebodies and we wanna hang with our friends, but a Golden Globes party can be extremely fun. The best part of it is when we get to go to these things as a cast. All of the cast members have these wonderful spouses, wives, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends. So no matter where we are it’s going to be fun. I totally get for actors that have been doing this for decades that it can get old. But I don’t know. I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I don’t know how long any of us will be here. I got lucky to be on this show that was well received and that doesn’t always happen, so I’m happy to be here. For real.

Yeah, no I believe you. In terms of the character of Janet, you get to play different versions of yourself. And as time goes on and are able to play more characters, what kind of people do you want to play?

Yeah, the truest, simplest, honest answer is everything and everybody. The whole time I was in New York I was performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade, which is improv. I think having that be my foundation for a good 10 years. I was doing improv shows multiple times a week. When you are doing hundreds of improv shows, you’re playing characters all over the spectrum in every which way. I think there’s a part of me that longs for that and is used to that and loves doing that. That’s the short answer. I really like playing messy. Wow there is just the loudest…do you hear that?

Yeah, what is that?

It’s just the loudest bird. I think it’s a crow. 

The crows have been out and about I feel like.

Yeah, yeah. They are out! They’re loving quarantine. They’re taking over. We’ve been really experiencing the crows. So, I like playing characters who are hmm.

Well, now I’m curious what were kind of your go-to characters in improv? Did you have any?

You kind of do have go-to things. And then if you have a great coach, they’ll call you out on it. They’ll tell you that you’re doing it too much. I had a tendency to go either really low status or really high status. That’s kind of everything, right? I would play the pathetic weirdos or like a bitchy boss. I played a lot of moms for a while. A go-to would just be to pick up sort of typically and problematically mother, like a mixing bowl or a vacuum. And I realized, “Oh wow, I’ve gotta stay away from that.”

How do you continue doing improv like that for so long? How did you do that?

Yeah, I know. You don’t run out of ideas because you’re not doing it by yourself. You’re always doing it with a partner or a bunch of people. Even if you think you’re out of ideas, you literally can’t because someone else will be giving you one. And there’s no way that your two ideas can be an idea you’ve had before, even if it’s one detail different. The more you do it, it’s a little like a muscle you build up. The more you do it, the more outside of the box you’re thinking and creatively pushing yourself. The sort of typical scenes you did when you started are long gone and you’re onto the next thing. 

Well, I know we’re almost over time…
Yeah, I know, did I answer everything? I know we talked about 12 Monkeys which is why we are doing this call. Here’s what this interview has reminded me to do. I will be watching 12 Monkeys and I will be watching What Dreams May Come. I haven’t seen those movies since I was a teenager and I’m going to see if they still blow my mind. And I suggest you do the same.


Michael Frank is a film critic and journalist based in Brooklyn. He thinks the Before trilogy should be in the Louvre and once bumped into John Oliver at brunch. He has bylines in RogerEbert, Film Inquiry, The Playlist, and AwardsWatch. You can find him on Twitter @peachfuzzcritic.


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