D’Arcy Carden is finally in a good place -- and not because she’s one of the stars on the cleverly inventive NBC comedy The Good Place, though that certainly helps. For two seasons, the actress has delighted audiences as Janet, the likable, very helpful anthropomorphic guide with a sunny disposition who began as a fictional all-knowing personal assistant akin to an Alexa or a Siri but has evolved into someone -- rather, something -- slowly inhabiting the elements that make human beings human.
The role has made Carden a breakout star on the Michael Schur series, which examines the afterlife and the complexities of moral ambiguity and is led by TV veterans Ted Danson and Kristen Bell. Strange as it may seem, the 38-year-old actress says Janet is very much her spirit animal -- though the reason why remains somewhat of a mystery even to herself. After all, she isn’t an android armed with an infinite knowledge of the universe, or the 25th version of herself, or an objective truth-teller.
“There’s something about Janet that is so inside of me,” Carden muses, acknowledging how silly that may sound. “I know she’s not quite a human, but I connect with her so much that I wonder, if I’d have gotten this at 25 or 30, if it’d have been a different story.”
It’s a bright Friday morning in March, and we’re seated in a shaded area at one of her favorite neighborhood bistros in Los Angeles’ hipster enclave, Silver Lake. Carden, casual in a basic white tee and jeans with minimal makeup, is the visual antithesis of the brightly colored, ‘70s-flight-attendant-esque outfits that have come to define Janet’s signature look (and serve as the inspiration for many Halloween costumes -- “it’s unreal,” she marvels). The San Francisco Bay Area native, who spent much of her 20s and 30s doing improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade, came late to the fame game, though she knew early on -- around age 6 -- that she was destined to be an actress.
“It’s such a dumb career choice, because it’s so unlikely,” Carden candidly says as she sips her coffee, referring to the unattainable success many seek in Hollywood. She recalls a college professor offering a stern warning on one of her first days as an acting student: “‘Get out. If you want to do anything else, anything, do it,’ he said. I took that in. I heard it. There’s just something about [acting] that I was like, ‘I just can’t stop.’”
Before The Good Place, Carden had cameos in a handful of movies and exercised her comedy chops in niche sitcoms like Broad City, Comedy Bang! Bang! and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It seemed for a long time that these bit parts and improv showcases would be as good it would get for her -- but it wasn’t sustainable. “I was definitely struggling,” she says. “I’ve had many years of being so excited for my friends, but also being left in the dust. The Good Place came along at a time that meant the most it possibly could mean. The timing is kind of incredible. There’s something about getting this exactly where I am at this point in my life where I couldn’t appreciate it any more.”
When the audition for Janet landed in her lap, she went into it with a reserved enthusiasm after years of heartbreaking rejections. “There’s a little bit of protecting yourself,” Carden says. “For some reason, I didn’t put my eggs in the basket as far as, like, ‘I’m gonna get this.’ But I was going to impress them.” Realistic about her chances of landing the part (“The only reason they won’t cast me is I’m not famous,” Carden thought at the time), she saw the audition process -- performing a fake script about a helpful, nonjudgmental woman giving advice on how to fix broken dolls and a two-page monologue on how to find the bathroom -- as a way to get her foot in the door for the next project. She didn’t know it at the time, but her big break had arrived.
Playing Janet, The Good Place’s uber-positive, invaluable aid to Eleanor (Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Jason (Manny Jacinto) and Tahani (Jameela Jamil), was a unique experience for Carden, who found it difficult at first to add depth to a character incapable of reacting to human feelings like you or I would. “It was such a weird struggle. It seems so silly for an actor to not show emotions -- all we are taught is to react. Halfway through a day of filming I’d find Mike Schur on set and be like, ‘I need help. How do I do this?’” she thinks back. “I just needed to wrap my head around it, but then it started to really settle in. I felt her. I understood her. And she’s changed so much that I kind of have to keep up with that.”
Surely enough, in just 26 episodes, Carden went from talented troupe member to undeniable scene-stealer through her whip-smart, nuanced performance as an A.I. with memorable zingers and random bits of useless facts filed in her programmed brain. (Carden is an Emmy contender for the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series category.) As the series progressed, different incarnations of Janet have popped up, giving her a rare opportunity to show off different facets of her comedy voice: There’s the Janet we’ve all come to love and, of course, the rebellious, leather jacket-rockin’ Bad Janet.
“I got to a point where it was like the writers and I shared a brain,” Carden says. “Every time I got a script, I would be like, ‘I know exactly what they want me to do,’ and I really started feeling like we were living in each other’s bodies -- meaning me and Janet.”
One perfect example is Janet’s adorable, bumbling infatuation with Jason, which Carden compared to a junior high fling. “You’re kind of like, ‘What are these feelings?’ Her brain is not mature and she can’t download a program, like, ‘This Is How to Handle Love,’” she points out, chuckling at the improbable courtship. “It’s fun to sort of play this child-like innocence and her trying to figure out what this feeling is. Does she even have feelings?”
Carden’s unspoken bond to her character is so tight that there are times -- especially when the show is in production, which kicked up in April -- that she has a hard time differentiating where D’Arcy ends and Janet begins. “We both have positivity; usually, I’m a glass-half-full type of gal. I’m more judgmental than Janet, [but] I try to be more like [her],” she says. “I just feel like I know who she is and what she would do in every situation” -- no matter how ridiculous: Janet creating a fake boyfriend named Derek -- “and veering from that feels so false. It feels like cheating or lying, and I can’t do it. Maybe with some other character I could, but I can’t do it with her.”
Equally engaging are the curveballs The Good Place has thrown audiences -- and its cast -- thus far in its two-season run. The freshman season closed with a major twist when Janet’s friends learned they were actually in The Bad Place, and the game-changing sophomore closer saw the foursome dropped back on Earth for a chance to prove they are truly capable of becoming better people.
“I had lunch a couple of weeks ago in the writers’ room and all the white boards were full. It’s almost over the top -- headshots and all these storylines and weird little inside jokes. I almost -- it’s like I’m staring at the sun,” Carden says of the upcoming third season, shaking her head in amazement over how detail-oriented the writers are. “And they’re doing this so fast. That’s one of the things that blows me away. In the finale for season two, everybody goes back to Earth [and] Eleanor has that whole year of trying to do good. That could be the entire season three.”
It’s a compliment to the audience, she says, that The Good Place doesn’t drag out these revelations: “We trust you to be able to handle this.” Just don’t ask her for spoilers or speculate what’s to come, as Carden and her co-stars made the conscious decision to stop dissecting every piece of dialogue or plot twist. “Our show is a really fun one to have theories on because everything means something. Even if it’s not what you think it’s going to be, nothing is just there.”
At the end of the day, there’s a sense of pride that the show has a grand goal it’s marching toward, and so far, they “haven’t gone wrong yet,” Carden says. “Every new weird thing they’ve thrown at me, I’ve enjoyed so much, and it has been such a gift as an actor to try something new.”
Though, Carden does offer one hint about season three: “It seems like they’re blowing the world up. Do all of them go to Earth? Will that be the entire season? It could be anything. I couldn’t even tell my husband. We feel like we’re in the government, like I have secrets I can’t reveal. I’m ready for whatever and I cannot wait.”