Kristen Bell, the star of The CW's plucky underdog ''Veronica Mars,'' tells Jeff Jensen about the changes in season 3, surviving low ratings, and her stance on Duncan vs. Logan

By Jeff Jensen
Updated October 17, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Veronica Mars: Michael Desmond/The CW

Veronica Mars

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On behalf of Entertainment Weekly, I would like to apologize for our role in facilitating the need for the Band-Aid that Veronica Mars will be sporting in tonight’s episode.

In case you didn’t hear, back in August, Kristen Bell shut a car door on her thumb just as she arrived for the photo shoot for EW’s Fall TV Preview feature on the show. The injury made the gossip pages, and a worried nation held vigil for the fate of Bell’s future attempts at hitchhiking.

When I caught up with her a few days later, Bell was clearly showing signs of severe post-traumatic stress disorder. I found her deep in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, dressed in a skimpy field hockey outfit; clearly, our hip-and-quippy pomo Hardy Girl was under the control of a split personality that burst into being as a result of her accident.

Okay, okay: Bell was only shooting a scene for tonight’s episode (Oct. 17), in which the not-a-girl/not-yet-a-woman Hearst College freshman goes undercover as a jock to help find a stolen playbook. Her sleuthing takes her into the office of the football coach, and when said coach suddenly shows up, said sleuth dives under his desk. And when the coach takes a seat and scoots forward, naturally, the inevitable comedy ensues. ”It’s that old joke, ‘caught under the desk’ — straight out of Fletch,” said Bell, bounding over after rehearsing the scene and radiating glad you’re here! good cheer. She gives firm handshake. On that injured thumb of hers? A Spider-Man Band-Aid. Bell said the boo-boo is no big deal — but it could have been a lot worse. ”When I shut the door, the door hit my leg first, then slammed on my thumb,” she explained. ”If not for the leg, it might have chopped my thumb right off.” She rolls down a knee-high sock to reveal dirty yellow bruises. Ouch.

And why Spider-Man? ”Because Veronica would have chosen Spider-Man,” she says.

Now you know why the geeks love her. And if a few more can please start crushing, hard and faithfully, that would be peachy, because the Veronica Mars bandwagon can use all the Johnny-come-latelies it can get. The critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged cult darling entered its third season with only a 13-episode order and the threat of an early exit if it couldn’t retain enough of the audience that watches its lead-in, Gilmore Girls. After two outings, the results are inconclusive. Veronica‘s second episode garnered only 2.99 million, compared with Gilmore‘s 4.6 million. If Veronica can hold, it stands a decent chance of surviving, especially since it’s not certain The CW really has anything on its schedule that could do any better. (The good news: Among the female demographic targeted by The CW, Veronica‘s ratings are up by 33 percent, according to MediaWeek Magazine.)

Still, Ms. Mars could stand to be ogled by a few more eyeballs. Newcomers will discover one of the best-plotted, zippiest shows on television, anchored by Bell’s star-making performance, which only keeps getting better and has helped carry the show as it finds its footing in this decidedly different third season. Executive producer/creator Rob Thomas has made some changes to the series in hopes of making it more accessible, most notably abandoning the show’s densely plotted, season-long murder-mystery arcs in favor of three separate, interconnected mysteries. Not everyone is wild about the season-starting serial-rapist storyline, which does give the show a very different kind of vibe. Veronica‘s murder mysteries were all about exposing the hidden truth about a past event, an endeavor made complicated by suspects who conceal their secrets with a quip and a smile. That kind of energy is a good fit for a show that’s also known for its great humor and lighter secondary subplots. But I agree with my colleague Jennifer Armstrong, who recently argued in the pages of EW that an ongoing story about an at-large brutal rapist feels a little too heavy for the show. (Or maybe the problem is that it has not been handled realistically: These rapes have been going on for half a year at Hearst, so you would think that if the school were going to stay open the students would be living under some kind of martial law. But no: Life goes on, and in a rather carefree manner. If the student body of Hearst isn’t taking this terrifying, terrorizing crime spree seriously, why should we?)

And yet, I’m putting my money on Thomas and crew to do right by the story and by us viewers. And the good news is that if this storyline can’t be saved, the entire season doesn’t go down with it; we still have two other mysteries to go… as long as the show can stay on the air.

But as Bell and I settled into a spot in the locker room of the Hearst College Rough Riders (”The writers love their double entendres,” she says) for our interview, she presented a face of enthusiasm about Veronica‘s present and hopeful resignation about its future. ”There doesn’t seem to be a lot of pressure on set,” says Bell. ”Last year, it was ‘Let’s do this, let’s do that, let’s run Kristen ragged on the weekend promoting the show…’ This year, our attitude is ‘We’re producing a fantastic hour of television; it’s up to the audience now.’ There’s not a lot of pressure. It’s been more fun than I’ve had any other year.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s the big headline on season 3?
KRISTEN BELL: Well, splitting up the season into three storylines. It’s going to be a really good thing for the audience. You hate those shows that you hear about, ones that are so good but if you don’t get them from the beginning, you can’t be part of them. We don’t want to be one of those shows. And also, in order to make the show more understandable, even to our viewers, splitting it up is better, because the last season got a little bit jumbled and it might have been too much. It’s also an attempt for our writers to keep it fresh; they’re always trying new things. I think it’s going to be great. The three stories will relate to each other, meaning one will lead us to the next.

Last year raised the ante by actually telling two long, complicated season-long mysteries. Was it confusing for you, too?
Absolutely. It was very difficult to track. To keep up with a very, very intelligent, mysterious plotline… it’s hard. I definitely had to go back and re-read some of the scripts. And sometimes I’d be so tired from working, I’d go, ”I just can’t re-read it again. I can’t get it — I just need someone to explain it to me.” The producers were always good at that. The writers are so smart; they layer in things wayyy before you need to see them. ”Make sure you get this one shot in! This one word.” That stuff is fun, but it was an intense season last year because there were so many red herrings.

Last year, the ratings declined as the season progressed. Were you guys nervous about getting picked up?
Honestly, I don’t hold it in my perspective. It’s too enormous of an idea to think about. I leave that to the people who need to worry about it. I try to keep my focus very specific, which is doing good work here, because I would go crazy. That’s why I don’t try to judge my personal merit on any sort of ratings and contests. I mean, they’re very flattering, don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I don’t secretly dream of enormous ratings and winning awards. But I try to stay as grounded as possible, and know that if I’m doing as good a job as possible and having fun, that’s all that matters.

That said, what do you make of the flattery that has come your way, like the critical support and endorsements from the likes of Joss Whedon and Stephen King?
I mean, it’s all flattery and butterflies. I would so much rather be part of a show that had a cult following and people loved to the point of tears than be on an immensely popular show that people just tune in to as background. Our fans are so dedicated and write so many wonderful letters to us — they were responsible for getting us picked up the second year. And the third year, quite frankly. The whole Stephen King and Joss Whedon thing is… [She bugs her eyes in wonder and effects speechlessness.] This is a special baby for all of us. It’s really nice to get those compliments.

Last season settled a major plotline for Veronica that meant a great deal to a certain section of the fan base: She made a choice between the two boys in her life, Duncan (Teddy Dunn) and Logan (Jason Dohring). She chose Logan. What did you make of that?
Personally, they’re both great, and I love working with both those actors. And even though Teddy isn’t on the show I still talk to him a lot, and he’s a wonderful guy and we all miss him very much. And I love working with Jason because he’s such a great actor. But personally I would never be with Logan. The boy slept with my friend’s mom! Personally? Me, Kristen Bell? That’s where I go ahead and draw the line. This is the line — and there’s Logan for me. [She points to the other side of this imaginary line.] Sometimes I think the only thing I would change about Veronica is her choice in men. I would go up and slap her across the face and go, ”What were you thinking?! You could be in love with Charles Manson, but it’s probably not a good idea.” But that’s me thinking about my character too realistically. For the entertainment value of the show, the bad-boy draw is wonderful, and so many people have fallen in love with that relationship because they really are star-crossed lovers. They really, really, really are NOT meant to be together, yet in another world, meant to be together.

Personally, I don’t think Veronica has met the man that deserves her.
That’s what I think, too. That’s [the place] I hope she’ll come to this year. But we have a new character, Piz [Chris Lowell], who is everything that Logan isn’t. He’s goofy, and he is silly, and he talks too fast, and he’s a little too energetic for his own good, and he’s charismatic in a completely different way than Jason plays Logan. He’s not brooding at all, they’re polar opposites, and I think that’s going to be really neat this year to see Veronica really choose between those two things. Piz is developing an attraction toward Veronica that she just realizes over the course of the first few episodes, and it sort of poses this question: ”Wow, somebody likes me who actually isn’t plagued with as much baggage as Logan is — maybe I’ll go there!”

Is Veronica attracted to him?
It’s not in her scope for the first couple episodes, but once he lays it out there, she kinda says, ”Oh my gosh.” We haven’t quite gotten to the point — I haven’t seen the scripts yet where we see how she reacts. I hope she’ll explore it and see if he’ll treat her a little better than Logan does.

Are you playing Veronica any different now that she’s in college?
She’s definitely a little less cocky. She’s a little out of her element, but she’s good at adapting to situations where she’s an outsider. There’s also more doors opening up for her, as far as friends go… she’s meeting more people. Now that Tina [Majorino, who plays Veronica’s friend Mac] is on the show a lot more this year, you’re going to see her not have as much inner struggle as she did the first season, which was all torment [over best friend Lilly’s murder], how do I deal with it, where’s my revenge.

As for these mystery storylines, does being the star of the show mean you get to know whodunit in advance?
It depends. Rob loves to be a tease. But I’ve picked up a lot. I ask guest stars, ”So… how long are you contracted for?” That usually tells me something. As for the serial-rapist storyline, I have a pretty good idea, but I’m not going to get too cocky about it yet.

How was the news about UPN becoming The CW received by the cast?
It was delivered as a very positive message, and it was truly taken as a positive message. There was no angst or not even nervousness. The executives called the powers-that-be here. It was always looked at as a positive venture because there was going to be an enormous publicity push at the beginning of the season. And we knew that Dawn [Ostroff, former head of UPN, now president of The CW] was the head of the network; we are her favorite, but as I always say, Don’t tell the other kids, but we knew that we were going to have the support. When they paired us with Gilmore Girls, before we were picked up, that’s when the nerves hit. But after they paired us with Gilmore Girls — I mean, not even on any other network could you pick a better lead-in for us. Period. Now, it’s do or die. We can’t produce a better one hour of television; we’re already doing the best we can do. We’re going to stay consistent with that, but with that lead-in and the enormous amount of push The CW is giving to announce its presence, we leave it in the fate of the universe.

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Veronica Mars

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