Kristen Bell can relate to her character in the new Ken Kwapis film Big Miracle. In this true tale about ‘Operation Breakthrough,’ in which three gray whales were trapped and then freed from the ice in Alaska, Bell plays a young journalist in search of the story that will make her career. Bell, who rose to fame when she starred on the hit TV show “Veronica Mars,” knows competition. Sure, she’s starred in a bunch of movies, and was even able to get on another show with Don Cheadle (“House of Lies”), but she’s aware that there’s always someone out waiting to take her job. We recently spoke to the actress, and she shared all sort of things. Did you know her dad was a newscaster? She told us that’s the reason she speaks in soundbites. See what else Kristen Bell had to say about working on Big Miracle below.
What was it that originally drew you to the script?
Kristen Bell: Initially, the fact that it was about animals. I thought, in simple terms, “Oh, I like animals.” Then upon reading it, the complexity of the story, it seemed almost unbelievable to me. I was like, “Oh really, a hundred and eighty journalists from different countries flew in and two million dollars was spent on this, really, and people got married who met talking about the whales? Give me a break Kwapis.” And he said that the most outrageous portions of the movie are the truth. I just felt like it was as story that needed to be told. The inspiration factor behind it was the most important thing to me. There’s so few times in history when everybody wakes up at the same time or everybody works together. We are so into having enemies as humans. We are so interested in the us and them of it all that it’s phenomenally rare to have everybody check their baggage at the door and work together and it is so powerful, I think.
Did you study different newscasters to really get your character right?
Kristen: A little bit. My dad is a news director so I had kind of grown up with it. I tend to speak in sound bites, because I’m trained by him. The reality of it is I did hang out at his news station a lot and I was excited because I knew the local celebrities who were the anchors and I played around with the teleprompter. When journalists would submit their tapes and he had to hire a new producer or on-camera person, I would watch them with him and I would be able to say “It makes me uncomfortable that the weatherman is in a sweater. Number one, he is too comfortable, I want a professional delivering my news. Number two; it makes me feel like it’s going to be cold and it’s not good news.” I felt like my dad was really open to my feedback in creating a good station.
He’s essentially a casting director?
Kristen: Exactly. And an editor because he picks the stories that make it on the air. I had a fair amount behind-the-curtain information. There’s so much news coverage on this story that I was able to watch a lot and how it traveled and it blows my mind that in the 80s when there were no journalistic entities all over the internet, there was your local news. That was it. And then there was the nightly news that was international. Everyone in the world was covering this one story. It doesn’t even happen now and there’s so much more news out there. That was fascinating and there was a lot for me to research for the piece.
You really owned the ‘80s look.
Kristen: I tried. Thank you very much. That was also exciting because I grew up in the ‘80s but that wasn’t like my prime. My prime was definitely like 95-96, I’m sure you’ve heard. I had older sisters and I definitely looked up to the way my mom dressed. There’s something about the first time I realized, “Oh look at these beautiful, stylish women in my life.” It was around that this story happened so in playing this character, it was really fun working with the costume designer to create all these amazing shoulder pads and cool pastels. Her hair obviously had to be big, so we did hot rollers every day, which was really fun, and then teased the crap out of it and I wore press-on nails because everyone had long pink fingernails in the ‘80s.
Did you talk to your dad at all about this film?
Kristen: I didn’t. I’m so embarrassed. Can you believe I didn’t? What I should have done and what I regret not doing is sitting him down and asking him specifics about what he remembered about this story. I’m very regretful that I didn’t do that. I think I was overwhelmed with the amount of information out there and the amount of tape, so I felt like I had a good handle on it. I can understand the competition. I know what Jill wanted and there were plenty of reporters for me to draw upon that covered the story. But, no, I didn’t sit him down and get his perspective, which could have been very useful for me. Sorry, dad.
Do you think partially because there weren’t as many outlets and varieties of news sources that it was able to draw such a big focus? It would almost be impossible now because there’s always something else to draw the attention away.
Kristen: Yeah, I think that too much stimulus can make you feel crazy. Nowadays, it’s harder to tell what is important because there is so much news on the table. In a way that is really good because we all feel a little bit more connected. The interesting thing about this piece for me was not only did everyone in the world seem to connect with the emotion behind this story and wanting to save the whales, but everyone also came on board and decided to drop all their differences and collectively work for a common goal, which almost never happens. There are very brief times in history where you can pinpoint that happening, where the entire world blinks at the same time. The degree of differences of people involved in this, it’s a polarizing issue between the cultures because you have the Americans going to Inupiat land saying, “We love whales, save them,” and you have the Inupiat’s going, “We’ve lived here for thousands of years, and how do you think we feed our children.” From an anthropological point of view, it’s not really appropriate, as much as you like whales to tell another culture that they shouldn’t do what they have been doing for thousands of years. For them to have abandoned what they do, and join the use was a hard decision which I think was portrayed accurately in the movie, and respectfully. Truth be told, they were the fundamental reason that the whales survived. Our bodies, from the lower 48, are not built to be in that cold for a severe 24-hours at a time. The Inupiat’s could handle it. There were so many things that interested me about this story.
Do you have any memory of the story?
Kristen: I have a brief memory of knowing that it happened but nothing that I could really draw upon so it seemed all completely new to me.
Many of the characters in this film are based on real people but your character is really a representation of the many journalists who covered the story. Is that more freeing in the sense that you’re not playing a real person, you’re just playing a character?
Kristen: It’s better and it’s worse at the same time. You don’t have anyone specific to draw on so you’re not sure that you are doing it right. But at the same time, I can certainly identify with the idea of competition. My existence is in a business where there is always someone better than you right around the corner. The idea of that competition and that hunger and that aggressive dedication I could identify with because I have wanted jobs so badly. I feel that Jill Gerard was just a mish-mash of all these journalists that thought that this was the story that would make or break them and that they had to do a great job. Her storyline is interesting because she loses herself a little bit, or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe you see what her two priorities are. She’s a little bit more selfish. She’s not really in it for the whales.
She has a moment there where she contemplates giving it up and going into teaching. Have you ever had a moment where the competition was too high and you thought about doing something else?
Kristen: Yeah like legitimately every five minutes. It’s something I’ve learned to deal with over the last couple of years. I find my sanity because I evaluate my self-esteem based on the integrity of my actions versus the jobs I get. There was a huge portion of my life where whatever job I was getting was who I was. Whatever job I had was my entire existence. It was my validity. It was whether I was legitimate or not, and whether I actually even existed. I think that since I’ve grown up I’ve realized that I’m a human being that likes acting a lot, but I love being a human being. So it’s a really delicate balance to stay sane and not think that that one job that you might attain could make or break your life.
What was it like filming in Alaska? And it’s a very male dominated cast with the exception of you and Drew, what was that like?
Kristen: Truth be told, the boys are pretty much sissies on this film and Drew and I are way stronger so that is how it breaks down. No, this cast got along really well because everyone is kind of a goofball. Ken Kwapis is like the most genuine sort of goofy guy ever, but he’s so sincere and his heart was so into this picture. It was mandatory for him that we have animatronic, really life-like whales so that we weren’t acting with a tennis ball, and so that the whole group was looking at the same thing. And so that between action and cut, we were able to feel something for this animal. No one in the cast or crew had friends or family in Alaska that I knew of, and no one could really travel because there were icy winds all the time, so we visited a lot of pizza joints. We saw a lot of movies; we played a lot of poker in each other’s rooms.
Who was the best poker player?
Kristen: Ted’s a pretty good poker player. Krasinski is a pretty good poker player. I can’t remember who won the most though. I don’t even think we were playing for real money. We were just playing for respect.
Would you say the strategy of the animatronic whales worked?
Kristen: For me, yeah. I’m kind of an idiot but when I was looking at those whales. I’ve been whale watching a few times and been in Capetown where the Southern White Whales come from. It’s extraordinary. You look into their eyes and you just feel something magical. I hate to say it but I kind of felt the same thing when I was looking at these animals. It was sad, visually how small the hole was for them to come up and when you see the three of them surface together, just the story that the picture told, kind of devastated you. I did connect to these animatronic toys, and they’d yell,”Cut!” and you’d see the New Zealander who built it with dip in his mouth, doing the joystick. It wasn’t real. I feel like it worked. And it was really important to Ken, which I think was lucky for all of us because it made our job a lot easier.
Do you consider yourself a nature lover, an outdoors person to begin with?
Kristen: A wood nymph? Yes! Yes, I do like being outdoors a lot. I hike a lot, and I’m a huge animal lover. So Alaska was a really wonderful location for me because we really got a chance on the weekends to explore its majesty and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s kind of hard to articulate, because it is so untouched. Like, we hiked to the top of Mt Alyeska, I mean there was a tram involved. It wasn’t like we hiked for two days. You are actually above the clouds and you are able to take pictures when you are on this peak and you are looking 200 feet down and there are the clouds. It’s extraordinary.
You have a few scenes with John. I was wondering how it was like to work with him?
Kristen: One of the best we’ve got is an easy way to describe it. I was friends with John before we started this movie, so it was great going in knowing that I would be comfortable and not have to get to know someone new. John’s a really giving actor. He’s very present, and he’s eager to work on the scenes. John loves what he does and he’s not over it by any stretch of the imagination. He’s also a really good writer and he thinks on his feet well so it’s a very fun aspect to have in a partner when you are struggling with something. His ego is not involved at all. He really is a story teller by nature. It was awesome. I loved working with John.
What was it like for you watching the movie as an audience member?
Kristen: I think it was everything I hoped it would be. I don’t know enough to read a script and go, I know how Ken is going to shoot this. I’m not that cocky, I don’t have the education as a filmmaker. It was more magical than I thought. We shot in Alaska but the area where we shot was right under water and at times, in the early fall when there wasn’t the snow that we needed, we would manufacture it and some of the elements were manufactured by man. We weren’t out in the complete arctic, but then when you saw it, I didn’t smell at all. It looked completely legitimate. Some of the most touching scenes that I wasn’t present for were the scenes between Malik and the whales. It’s was beautiful. It was like a snippet from a frontline that they are doing on the Inupiat culture or something. It helped that everyone involved was interested in telling the most accurate story possible.
Q: Is it safe to say that you would go back to Alaska again?
Kristen: I would yeah, I really would. I didn’t get to see the Northern Lights or go up to Fairbanks when I was there and a lot of the cast did. I drove down to Seward and saw the aquarium where they rescue or rehabilitate otters, seals, or damaged wildlife. I would definitely go back to Alaska. There is a harmony up there that is non-existent in LA.
That’s out interview with Kristen Bell. Big Miracle hits theaters Friday.
What did you think?