LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When she waded in to a water fountain in Rome to film a scene for her upcoming movie, Kristen Bell had little more on her mind than having fun.
Now, with “When in Rome” hitting theaters on Friday, it has dawned on the 29 year-old actress that she’s carrying the success of an entire film on her shoulders for the first time, and with that comes the pressure to maintain a rising career.
“It’s only now that I’m realizing that, wow, this is what people call your ‘vehicle,’” the actress told Reuters.
But this ‘vehicle’ didn’t pick up Bell without a lot of hard work ahead of it. Bell began acting in school, went to the New York stage, then moved to Hollywood where she landed the title role on television show “Veronica Mars” before starring in the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
Along the way, the petite, blonde-haired Bell, who grew up idolizing funny actresses such as Catherine O’Hara and Jennifer Coolidge, has been showcasing stage, music and comedy skills.
In “When in Rome,’ she plays Beth, a single art curator who travels to Rome for her sister’s wedding, and once there, she falls for the groom’s best man (Josh Duhamel).
But when she plucks several coins from a fountain, she finds herself pursued by a band of unwanted suitors — played by Will Arnett, Danny De Vito, Jon Heder and Dax Shepard — all of whom had previously wished for love on those coins.
In real-life, Bell has dated Shepard for two years, but she keeps her private life out of the public spotlight.
Shooting “When in Rome,” capped off a trio of movies in exotic locations. Bell traveled to Bora Bora for ensemble comedy “Couples Retreat” and Hawaii for Judd Apatow-produced “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
“I keep saying I’ve fired my agent and just hired a travel agent. I have no idea why I’ve had such dumb luck,” said Bell. “I was not well-traveled before. I grew up in Detroit where they don’t teach you to dream of traveling the world.”
Growing up, Bell said she was “too small to play sports” so she joined community theater. After high school she moved to New York to study theater and landed the role of Becky Thatcher in the Broadway production of “Tom Sawyer.” Other roles followed on- and off-Broadway including a “Reefer Madness” musical and “The Crucible” with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.
“There I was, five-feet tall, weighing less than a 100 lbs, eating my bagged lunch next to (playwright) Arthur Miller in a little cafeteria outside our rehearsal studio,” recalls Bell. “I thought, ‘How did I get here?’”
Eventually she moved to Los Angeles and landed the title role in “Veronica Mars,” a television show about a high school student who moonlights as a private investigator. It debuted in 2004 and became a critical, if not commercial, hit.
“‘Veronica Mars’ is what set up my whole career,” said Bell. “That got me in the door for ‘Sarah Marshall,’ and being accepted into Judd Apatow’s camp is sort of a right of passage for actors. It was very, very lucky for me.”
Yet the experience on it was bittersweet. On a break from “Veronica Mars” to film the comedy “Sarah Marshall,” in which she portrayed an actress who dumps her boyfriend, she learned “Veronica Mars” was being canceled.
“I was shooting ‘Sarah Marshall,’ playing a girl whose show just got canceled,” says Bell. “When we shot that scene where Sarah says, ‘My show’s canceled, where am I going from here?’ those feeling were very real.”
But unlike the fictional Sarah Marshall, Bell’s career was far from stalling. She spent a season playing a young woman with extraordinary powers on hit series “Heroes,” and continues to narrate the title character for TV’s “Gossip Girl.”
Meanwhile, her film career continues to grow. Bell is currently shooting “Burlesque” with Christina Aguilera and Cher and next stars in the comedy “You Again,” opposite Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis.
Yet her stage roots are not long forgotten. Bell is working on a musical stage version of the film “Heathers,” a coming-of-age comedy about girls in a high school, with “Reefer Madness” director Andy Fickman and writer Kevin Murphy.
The group has already staged several readings in Los Angeles with the goal of mounting a production there before taking it to New York. Bell plays the role of Veronica, which in the film helped make Winona Ryder a star.
In the meantime, the multi-talented Bell gets to showcase her musical chops during the end credits of “When in Rome” when the cast breaks in to a musical dance number.
“I still love musical theater,” confessed Bell. “I’m never as happy as when I’m doing that.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte