On The Good Place, a comedy about what happens to a group of medium-good people in the afterlife, D’Arcy Carden plays an immortal assistant named Janet, who’s not quite a robot, not quite human. The show, currently in its third season, unpacks the nature of morality, ethics, and good versus evil in dramatic fashion, even if it means—spoiler alert—plopping its main characters back on Earth again in Season 3. As time has passed, Janet has developed a nascent emotional IQ to go with her robotic intelligence (she harbors the knowledge of everything in the universe), which means she has new feelings to contend with—a depressingly familiar human condition. Carden is frequently the most interesting character on screen, which is a feat in itself, given the presence of co-stars Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, and Maya Rudolph as a high judge who’s been around since the beginning of time.
“I’m basically new at this,” Carden tells Jezebel over the phone. But that’s not exactly true. Carden, who performed (and still does) with the Upright Citizens Brigade, also stars in Bill Hader’s HBO series Barry, which won him an Emmy and just got renewed for its second season. She also appeared on Broad City as Gemma, the peppy Soulstice instructor. But there was a time she thought she’d never make it in Hollywood. Here, we talk about her road to The Good Place, Janet’s emotional evolution, and which member of One Direction would survive on her show. (It’s not Harry Styles.)
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Janet has evolved a lot since the beginning of The Good Place. What was your first impression of her character when the show’s creator Mike Schur explained it all to you? Were you freaked out that you were going to be playing someone that wasn’t human?
D’ARCY CARDEN: You know, even though she wasn’t quite human, there was something about Janet that I really related to and felt very comfortable with. She’s very nice, caring, pleasant. That part of her felt the most human to me, so it was the easiest thing to click into. But the thing that was sort of the scariest—I mean, that’s kind of an intense word for this [laughs]. It wasn’t, like, terrifying. But as an actor, you want to react to everything your fellow actors are giving you, and you want to show your emotion and discover things. And in the beginning of Janet, that was off the table. I found myself reacting too much and showing too much emotion. So Mike Schur and I kind of figured it out together. We didn’t know what Janet was going to look like or be like. Originally Mike said that he didn’t even think Janet would be an actual character; it would be like an ATM machine, basically. But he’s the most collaborative um... I don’t know, I want to say, artist? Is that the right word?
Yeah! He’s so decisive and has such a great idea of what this world will look like. But then is also like, What do you think? Let’s discover it together. It’s so refreshing and it’s such a delightful way to work. It makes you feel like you’re actually contributing.
I think part of the reason Janet is such a great character is that she knows everyone’s secrets and knows the secrets of the universe, but she can’t really let that on.
Is that a hard balance to strike?
It’s funny because she has evolved so much. In Season 3, she’s come so far. It’s scary for me to have established this character for the last two seasons and then, you know, at the end of Season 2, she was getting... she was changing! You saw her struggling with these feelings or whatever you want to call them inside of her, and now in Season 3, it’s a whole new ballgame. And that’s scary for me as an actor. When a character evolves, the scary thing is that the audience won’t connect with the person or think that they’ve changed too much. That’s my own weird fear. I don’t know how realistic that is.
She’s kind of more like Ted Danson’s sidekick now.
Yes, totally, and she’s looking out for him, too. He’s getting so excited about the possibilities and she’s kind of like, oooookay. She’s parenting him almost.
It’s funny you say parenting because the way that she’s grappling with feelings of having a crush for the first time and feeling jealousy, she also kind of reminds me of a teenager.
What were you like as a teenager? Did you always know that you wanted to go into acting?
I did. When I was a little kid and my parents would take me and my siblings to see a play or a concert or a ballet or something, I would always sort of lose myself in what I was watching. The biggest desire in my little childhood brain was to be onstage. My overwhelming goal was: I gotta get up there. Then I started doing community theater and school plays and stuff like that. And I feel like I’m a smart person who doesn’t have her head in the clouds, but it’s pretty dumb to just want to be an actor your whole life. [Laughs].
Why do you say that?
You’re told so quickly that it’s almost impossible. As a kid, everybody wants to encourage you, but by the time I was majoring in theater in college, our professors were like, “Get out of this profession. If there’s anything else you want to do, do that instead.” Because you’re not gonna make it. It’s a million times more likely that you won’t make it.
So I knew all that stuff, and again, I really feel like I have like, common sense about a lot of things. But I truly never considered another option, even when I was struggling for 10 years and dirt poor in New York with my husband and trying to get jobs in L.A. It’s a hard one. But I was like, well, there’s no other choice for me.
Is there a part of you that’s, like ugh, finally! You’re getting your due.
Acting is so weird. And finding success in acting is so weird. So many people do it at such a young age—I mean literally, children do it—but then starlets and ingenues and everything, you have to be like, 18, 19, 20 for that. People find success in this business at such different times. I have character actor friends from the Upright Citizens Brigade that I’ve worked with for years and I’m like, “Oh you’re not gonna make waves until you’re in your 40s, and then you’re going to like, explode.”
But it’s obviously hard as an actor when you’re not literally making a living at it. It’s hard to be an actor when you have to have other jobs. I’m not answering your question here. There is... I think this is true: there’s a part of every actor that is waiting for their turn and at the same time, knows it might never happen. You know what I mean? We have to have this sort of blind hope and also realize that it probably will never happen. It’s a confusing one. You have to believe in yourself, and you have to know that you have something to offer, and you have to fucking love acting, because otherwise, why in the world would you be doing it? I do agree with my professors back in college: If there’s something that brings you equal amount of joy, do that instead, because there’s just so much pain [in this line of work]. Man, I’m making it sound like we’re soldiers or something. I get that [acting is] a silly froo-foo job! But it can really mess with your self-worth.
What was coming up through UCB like? Did you feel like it kept you grounded?
Yeah, totally. UCB was my saving grace. Being able to perform there got me through some of my biggest career struggles. Even when I wasn’t making a living at acting, I was still getting to perform with people that I thought were the funniest people on the face of the Earth, like Amy Poehler. It made me feel like I was doing the right thing and on the right path.
But there’s this weird duality of being so happy for your friends who are making it, for example the Broad City girls, or any number of people that I was in classes with. With the Broad City girls, granted, they’re like two of my best friends, so it’s a closer feeling. But the pride I felt for them when their show got picked up, it was like I had given birth. [Laughs] I was like, in tears, I was so happy for them, and continue to be. There’s so many people like that at UCB. But after a while, after being so excited for all these friends, you do start to wonder, Did I miss the boat? Did I miss my chance? Is it too late for me? But I think that can do two things: It can make you quit, or it can make you just put your head down and work harder. And for me, it made me want it more. It made it more attainable.
And then you were cast in their show.
And that was a life-changer. They’re filming [the series finale] right now. And my character Gemma makes a tiny appearance in one of the episodes, and after I filmed and they did a series wrap on me, I forcefully pushed [Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer] against a wall. I’m much bigger than them [laughs]. And I was like, “Look at me in the eyes. You guys changed my life. I love you. For the rest of our lives, know that you changed my life and I can never repay.” And we got all tear-eyed and smoochy and stuff. But you know, they were just trying to help their friend out, and to put people in their show that they believed in and trusted. They put me in their pilot and the scene got cut, and then they put me in another one. They really were looking out for me. And again, I can never repay them. Mike Schur and Drew Goddard brought up Broad City in like, my third audition—that helped me get the job.
One thing I love about Gemma on Broad City and Janet is your delivery and your timing. Do you think that comes from your improv training? Is that something that comes easy to you, or is it something you had to develop over time?
Oh man, that’s such a nice thing to say, first of all. I think that immersing myself in the comedy world really helped me find my particular comedy voice. After performing onstage in front of a live crowd for over a decade, you sort of know what’s funny and what isn’t—maybe not funny to everybody, but what you find funny. It’s almost like, you go through a puberty when you’re figuring it out and you try things that are not quite you; you see someone do something a certain way and then you try that on and then you realize, no, that’s not yours. I’m still totally learning and trust me, when you get to work with like, fucking Ted Danson and Henry Winkler, and Bill Hader! And god, Kristen Bell, who is so funny. You learn from them and these are some real veterans. I’m basically new to this. It’s really... It’s been amazing to watch these true legends perform comedy like right in front of my eyes.
And can I just say for a second, Maya Rudolph is the funniest person that has ever lived on Earth. And the way she does take after take of different version of these lines that don’t even read as funny on the page—they’re just regular lines. She’s a killer. She is a murderer. She’s the funniest person I have ever known. And I’ve learned so much from her, just in the few episodes we’ve had together. She makes me cry and laugh and I’m obsessed with her.
Are you at the point where people stop and recognize you on the street?
I am, a little bit. It’s more in L.A. or New York. I want to say it’s not changed my life, but of course it has; before, people didn’t do that. But our fans seem to be lovely, sweet, funny, smart people. I’ve thought before that it would be harder to play like a villain or a super sexy character. Like, nobody’s creeping out on me. Everybody’s being nice and normal. So far it’s been lovely. It makes me happy when people are into our show.
Do you ever fear that robots will outsmart humans in real life, kind of like Janet has on the show?
I don’t fear it. I’m just like, it is a fact. It will happen. Maybe we’ll be long gone by then and our kids will have to deal with it, in which case, who cares?
Good luck to them.
Yeah, exactly! But it’s getting there, with every step, with every Siri, with every Alexa, we’re getting closer. It starts at my Alexa [laughs].
Has playing Janet changed the way you talk to your Alexa?
It has. Well, I’ll just say this: I can’t not be polite to them? When somebody doesn’t say like “Please” or “Thank you,” or they order their Alexa around, it shows a lot about who they are as a person. And I’ll tell you what: it’s negative. It’s not good. You gotta be nice to your robot people.
Also, do you think it’s weird that Siri, Alexa is always a her?
I do. I think my dad has [a virtual assistant with] an old sort of British butler type of voice in his car. But even that’s a little… Yeah, there’s some issues with that!
Yeah, we have a ways to go.
We should be asking some 40-year-old white man to do our bidding. That’s what we should be doing. Yeah. We should be like, “BRAD. Brad. Brad. Brad, turn on my music, Brad.”
I think that’s great! I would definitely buy an Alexa if it was actually a Brad.
So I know you’re a fan of One Direction. Which member of One Direction do you think would survive in the Good Place?
Like, who would be let into the Good Place?
Or like, who would survive the hijinks. But yeah, either way.
I think Harry Styles would get into the Good Place because he is deeply, deeply good. But I don’t know if he would survive the hijinks because he’s like, very trusting and would maybe get duped easily. But I think Louie Tomlinson is scrappy and a fighter and he would probably survive the hijinks. He’s a real Eleanor Shellstrop.
What is your version of the Good Place?
It would involve front-row concert tickets. Every night there would be a different concert of some great band, living or dead, because we’re in the afterlife. And I would get to sit in the front row, and occasionally, yes, they would bring me on stage and just sing a song to me. That would be a part of it. There would be really great sushi, and my dog would be there. And I guess that means my dog is dead, but that’s okay because we’re together in the afterlife. Actually, my whole family and friends and my husband would be there. So unfortunately, that does mean all my family and friends and my husband, we did die, all together. In some sort of freak accident. But at least, again, we’re together in the afterlife and we’d have great Beyoncé concerts.