'The Good Place' Star D'Arcy Carden on the "Crazy Amount of Pressure" for Her Most Challenging Episode
The actress reveals how her character channeled four others on the show and how her castmates have helped Janet’s "gradual evolution": "If something feels too robotic or too human, we try it again."
D'Arcy Carden's The Good Place character, Janet, is — as she frequently explains — not a girl, and also not a robot: The closest approximation is a sentient Siri who can kick ass and fall in love. But despite Janet's indefinable nature, or perhaps because of it, Carden has been a breakout among a strong ensemble, and the NBC comedy's third season gave the Bay Area native even more opportunity to show her range. In "Janet(s)," she channeled all four human characters — Kristen Bell's jaded Eleanor, William Jackson Harper's nervous Chidi, Jameela Jamil's snooty Tahani and Manny Jacinto's dim-witted Jason — in an episode that could have felt like an overlong Saturday Night Live sketch but instead was an emotional standout for the series. Carden, 39, reveals how she pulled off the risky quadruple play and other secrets of the universe's smartest, most powerful nonhuman, non-robot being.
What references do you use to develop a character that is neither human nor robot?
To try to pretend I have a computer brain is not very helpful, so I tried to find other ways to tap into her. All Janet wants to do is help, and I have a people-pleaser side of me and I like to problem-solve, so I tapped into those aspects of my personality and in people I know and characters I've seen who have that unflappable, problem-solving, positive light. Jack McBrayer's character on 30 Rock [Kenneth Parcell] or Sam Richardson's character on Veep [Richard Splett] are Janet-y — good-hearted, well-meaning — and I've told those boys in real life that I'm constantly stealing from them.
All three characters have a certain innocence, but Janet is the only one who's taken on a horde of demons in a bar brawl.
How fun was that? They hired this incredible fight choreographer, Jeff Imada, who does all the Bourne movies. When I heard that, I was like, "Wait, but we're just TV!" I forced them to let me do hours and hours of training, because I wanted it to be perfect. This is not your typical 30-minute network show. We get to push all our boundaries. We'd never seen Janet fight before, but it totally makes sense that she'd be this monster amazing fighter. She's super strong and has all the skills. She's smarter than the best fighter in the world, so she can anticipate every move.
When and how did you find out you were going to be playing all the humans for an episode?
A few months before we started filming [the season], my husband and I went to dinner with [creator] Mike Schur and his wife, and by our second glass of wine, Mike got excited and wanted to tell me about that episode. Then a couple of weeks before we started filming, he took us through the whole season and there was a giddiness when he got to this part. It made me excited and also feel this crazy amount of pressure to deliver for these writers that I love so much. I thought it was going to be one scene. I read the episode with one hand over my face, peeking between my fingers. It was this weird mix of "I cannot wait to do this" and "I kind of hope we decide not to do it."
How did the other actors help you with their characters?
Will Harper retyped all of the Chidi lines the way he likes to memorize them and sent it to me. Manny sent me this video of this weird character who inspires him to play Jason, that I don't think he'd ever told or shown anyone. Kristen was a real leader when it came to scheduling. She was like, "Text and FaceTime us if you need us. You are in charge." Jameela brought me doughnuts, and then I got a lot of good advice from Ted [Danson]. Because the episode was so technical and so much was about matching [sightlines and placements], he was like, "Remember what the point of this is — this is a big moment in these characters' lives, especially Chidi and Eleanor — and make that the number-one priority." It was so helpful because as the only one on set, I was very concerned about not wanting to waste anyone's time, so having Ted remind me that I have to tap into these characters and it's not just about matching voice or body was really helpful.
How do you find the balance in portraying Janet's gradual evolution over the series?
That for me is the hardest part. She's ever-evolving, whether it's from being rebooted or falling in love. There's always these little changes, and my fear is always that I'm going to push it too far in one direction. I rely so much on Mike Schur. He's very generous with my early-morning freaked-out texts. It's such a group effort. If something feels too robotic or too human, we try it again.
I've never spent three or four years playing one character, so a lot of it now is just trusting my gut in knowing her.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.