What does it mean to be a good person? It's a question D'Arcy Carden has pondered frequently while starring on The Good Place, the cult comedy series from Michael Schur that's really more of a philosophical thought experiment than run-of-the-mill sitcom.
On The Good Place, Carden plays Janet, an artificially intelligent bot who exists solely to help the four humans navigating the afterlife, trapped between eternal bliss (the "good" place) and eternal damnation (the "bad" place), a fate determined by their behavior during their time on earth. Janet is not unlike Siri or Alexa—a source of all knowledge that is just there to help. But Janet has also grown increasingly sentient over the course of three seasons, engaging with human-like emotions she has never felt before because, well, she's just not a human. Still, in some ways, Janet has become the core of the show—a non-judgmental, unfeeling non-human, who is learning all about the experience of what it means to be a person at the same time as the four main characters stuck in the afterlife.
Carden plays this gray area well, and perhaps her incubation in the improv comedy world at Upright Citizen's Brigade (and on Broad City) gave her the training necessary to play Janet, whom she describes as "a ball of good." The actress is also no stranger to the question of, "What does it mean to be bad?" On Barry, the HBO series about an ex-Marine turned hitman turned aspiring actor (played by SNL veteran Bill Hader), a seemingly "bad" person grapples with the consequences of narcissistic and selfish behavior. Carden plays Natalie, one of Barry's fellow acting classmates.
So yes, Carden is an integral player in the ensemble on a show that grapples with good, and an integral player of a different show that is ostensibly about being bad. It seems that The Good Place and Barry are both existential comedies with an emphasis on the ensemble that have more in common than meets the eye. Both shows were also nominated for some Emmys this season, and competed against one another in the Outstanding Comedy Series category.
But where does Carden, the actor herself, fit in? Playing Janet is no easy feat, but she has a very human key to tap into the mind of a semi-sentient robot. Here, just ahead of the fourth and final season of the cult comedy series that has catapulted her to a new level of recognition, she talks about the journey that got her there.
You came up in the Uprights Citizens Brigade. Do you ever improvise any of your lines as Janet on The Good Place or as Natalie on Barry?
Mike Schur created Parks and Rec, and that show is kind of known for allowing the actors to improvise, and when I first started working with Mike I think we all kind of assumed we would be working on a Mike Schur show with improvising. And we would all love to improvise, but once we got there we realized we kind of couldn't because the writing is so tight, that there's not really much room. With Barry, I’m part of the “acting group” on the show, so we would improvise in some scenes, but once we would watch the final cut, it would end up being what they originally wrote anyway. And of course on Broad City, there was improvising.
Both Barry and The Good Place could be considered “existential comedies” that engage with some big philosophical questions about what it means to be good and the meaning of existence, or trying hard. Has engaging with that material ever sent you into an existential crisis spiral?
Doing that Janet episode where I’m playing a bunch of different characters was pretty mind-bending. It was more overwhelming than I thought it would be, and part of it was that I know these characters so well and I love the show so much and I love this world so much, and if anything, it was like, D’Arcy—me, myself—was having an existential crisis. There’s something about the pressure that I was putting on myself and the desire to rise to the occasion. When Mike and the writers presented this episode to me and told me what it would be like, they were so excited and thrilled at the idea that I could really see write away that this was a big one. This was big for the season, the show, not just the episode. This doesn’t exactly answer your question, but as far as spiraling, I certainly lost my damn mind when I was doing that episode. [Laughs] Usually episodes take five days to shoot and this was longer because we had more rehearsals and it was technical so it was really closer to two weeks of working on this episode. I’m so used to having my cast, working as an ensemble, and working off each other’s energy. I had the writers and the crew and directors, but I felt so...I don’t want to say alone, but it was a different kind of energy to be acting with myself, do you know what I mean? It’s insane, it’s cuckoo, it’s not normal. It ain’t right!
That must be such a contrasting experience to performing in an ensemble, which you do for just about every other episode of the show.
It completely is! In the very first scene of that episode, Ted Danson is in the scene with me. That must have been the first scene we shot. Ted and I are looking into this big, white empty room, this big white void. And there are like four pieces of tape on poles that are the eye line of where the four Janets would be standing. It was so complicated! And we’re trying to really act with these four poles with tape on them. Afterwards, Ted was like, “Oh this is going to suck D’arcy. This is going to be really hard.” He’s so funny, he was like, “I get to leave, but you have to stay. You have to remember that it’s just about technical eye lines and matching the voices. You’re acting, remember you’re in a scene with another character.” It was great advice because when you’re alone on set acting with yourself, there’s this feeling of, “It’s up to you.” Everyone is looking at you to do the job. I have this desire to do a good job and be a good team player and be a good little soldier, but Ted was like, "You really have to let yourself act."
And what about playing Natalie on Barry?
In the “acting class” there are six actors, and we’re all kind of sad and pathetic characters. The funny thing that we learned pretty quickly—and it’s super collaborative—is part of us is in these characters. We sort of learned that these are shades of us in an unflattering way. It’s a funny thing to be like, “Ugh, pathetic Natalie!” but then to also be like, these are not too far off from things that I’ve done or said or felt.
What's the key to playing Janet, an artificially intelligent bot who is not a human but has also developed a bit of sentience over three seasons?
It’s kind of like she's going through puberty. I mean, not puberty, but kind of! She’s like, “What are these emotions?” She's innocent, and evolving. Well, not innocent, but she is! She's just this big ball of good and she’s there to help. But you asked for a key, and I do kind of play her like a teenager. I sometimes try to think of how a teenage Janet would react, or what teenage D'Arcy would do.
What were you like as a teenager?
I had a great family and supportive parents. I was a good little girl in school and then I became a teenager and I was like, 'Ooh I wanna be bad!' [Laughs] So I did my bad things so that I could figure out who I was, but I had the support of my parents—and I mean 'support' in that they were like, "Don't do those bad things."
Does that emotional evolution of Janet give you more room as a performer to “play” than some of the other actors, then? Especially since Janet has been "rebooted" a few times, and she also embodied the other four main humans in an (Emmy-nominated) episode where there were multiple Janets everywhere.
Absolutely it does! But it's not easy! That episode in season three where Janet plays all of the other characters and at some point Ted turned to me and was like, no you're going to really have to work!
Which parts of Natalie on Barry come from you?
I remember this moment in college when I was deep, deep into theater and learning how to act and fully enveloping myself in that world and living for it. One of our professors was giving direction, and being so excited about what she was saying, I guess I was giving her vocal affirmation. Everything she said, I’d be like, “Uh huh, yeah.” And at one point she looked at me and was like, “D’Arcy, shut the hell up.” [Laughs] I didn’t even know that I was talking. That part of me that gets overly enthusiastic to be part of the team and to be helpful, and to be Johnny-on-the-spot with whatever you need, I’ll be the volunteer, I’ll get you coffee—that part of my personality is like, “D’Arcy, chill the hell out.” I remember that professor saying that and that feels very Natalie to me. I’m sure my reaction was to smile through the pain and be like, “Mhm, yeah, totally, I’ll shut up.” It’s easy for me to find Natalie. She’s just below the surface, as shameful as that is to admit.
The main thesis of The Good Place seems to be asking the question of what it means to be a good person. What does it mean to be a good person?
I think especially right now, you have to do what you can to try your best. Watching the group, the main four humans going through what they go through and working together and.seeing them selflessly help each other and sacrifice their own happiness, that's sort of what it means. And I'm saying "the group" in quotes because I mean the larger group, the world, humans.
It's interesting that in your other show, Barry, the narcissistic selfish elements of human nature are put on display. Many might think that acting requires a person to be a selfish narcissist.
I don't want to be a part of anything that's about clawing my way to the top and stepping on other people, and I know that's how this business can be, and I've definitely seen people be self serving. But I look around and I haven't been working with people who are selfish, and I'm grateful that I've worked with good and nice people who are committed to an ensemble and being collaborative. And coming up in UCB where it is so much about the ensemble, it was always, "I'm going to get up there and make you look like a genius, and you're going to make me look like a genius." And I think a really good example of that support comes when you look at Ted Danson and Henry Winkler. The first thing anyone says when they meet them is, "He's so nice!" They are two international superstars who are just deeply good. Anything that Ted and Henry tell me, neither of them are like, “Come here let me give you some advice,” but anything that sounds like advice, I just lock it. And I’m like, “Do that thing that Henry does. Do that thing that Ted does.” They’re both super human amazing men that I am incredibly lucky to get to work with.
I know you are a huge fan of One Direction and I’m wondering if you think Harry Styles would make it into the good place?
Harry definitely makes it into the good place. He is deeply good. And he’s given a lot of people joy in this world. If those boys—I guess they’re men now, right?—if they want to be in the good place, I want to give them whatever they want. If they want to be in there, they are in there. They have given us so much joy and happiness, that I want whatever they want.
What One Direction members make it into your idea of the good place?
Personally, they would be in my good place. If I’m making my perfect good place, I would be seeing One Direction concerts every once in a while. A big part of my good place would be getting really good seats at concerts. Or actually, having intimate venues. It wouldn’t be a big stadium tour, it would be a small little living room or dive bar that One Direction would be playing at, that Beyoncé would be playing at, The Beatles would be playing. The boys of One Direction would be in the good place if that’s where they wanna be, and I think that’s where they wanna be. Even Zayn. Even Louis, who’s like, “Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette.”
What else would you have in your ideal good place?
A big part of my good place would be the people in my life that I love. My family. When you think of your favorite friends, or best friends, or people who make you happy when you see them—those people would all be in there. And my dog would be there. My friend Nicole’s dog, Sheldon, who passed away, he would be there. The sad thing about this is that they would all be dead then, I guess? They would have to be! So, the most selfish thing I could think of is I want my friends and family and dog in my good place, because that means they would all be dead, too. But that’s what I want! And I would eat as many grilled cheese sandwiches as I could possibly get my hands on. A big part of it would be these concerts. When I think of my perfect night, it’s always like, a really good concert with friends in my real life, so why would I not want that in my good place? I wouldn’t have to deal with Stubhub, I wouldn’t have to deal with parking. It would just be a very quaint little venue with perfect acoustics, like a winery or something. Come to my good place!
What do you hope people take away from the final season of The Good Place?
There’s something about the way this show ends that made me look at my life in a different way. Oh my god, by the way, if I start talking about this too much, I will start crying. So we maybe better not. But it’s so lovely and a beautiful sentiment. The thing about ending is, the cast didn’t want to. We were not ready to end, we wanted five or six seasons. We were all so happy to be there, nobody was trying to get out. We were hoping or praying for five or six seasons, so when Mike told us it was ending at four, to be perfectly honest we were bummed. Then when Mike explained what this last season was and what the finale looks like, nobody argued. Nobody disagreed that this was the time to end and this was the perfect ending. I don’t want to build it up too much, but it really did make me look at my life and the world around me in a different way, and I hope that it does that for the people that love and watch this show. I’m super proud of it. The genius of Mike Schur is unlimited. He’s so special, and not just that he’s a genius that is a good writer and is funny, he’s also one of the best people I’ve ever known. He is inspiring and wonderful and I really love him, and I’ve been so lucky to work with him, not just career-wise but on a friend level and on a he makes me a better person level. It’s true.
A lot of people think your career has just exploded very quickly with the success of The Good Place and Barry, but you’ve worked hard for many, many years to get to this point, being nice and good to others along the way in an industry that doesn’t always reward that behavior. What advice would you give your younger self if you could?
Don’t worry about time or schedule. You’re not on anyone else’s clock. Honestly, since I was a kid, I’ve been concerned that other people my age are doing something that I want to be doing so if I’m not doing it that means I missed my window, so I think I could go back and tell myself, you’re on your own schedule so just put your head down. Do your work—there are no shortcuts—be nice to everybody, and be true to yourself. Those three things don’t equal immediate gratification, so those three things are important to me. That probably means things will take a little longer for me, and I’m really okay with that.