It started with mice.
Or, more accurately, with people dressed as mice. D’Arcy Carden, watching a Christmas play with her family as a young girl, was entranced by the story in front of her, and a love of acting was born. “Afterward, the cast was waiting outside the door to greet the children. It was that moment of ‘Hold on a second! The people I just saw on that stage are here in front of my eyes and they’re talking to me,’” she says. “It was the biggest mind-blowing thing my little 4-year-old brain had ever seen.”
Now, with roles on NBC’s The Good Place and HBO’s Barry, she still occasionally feels that same sense of wonderment, even as she prompts similar reactions in viewers. Carden, 39, grew up in Danville, California, and cut her teeth in community theater before attending Southern Oregon University, where she graduated with a BFA in theater and did what she refers to as “serious stuff”—plenty of Shakespeare and other straight plays. A long tenure at Upright Citizens Brigade followed, both in New York and Los Angeles, where she honed her improv and sketch comedy skills alongside a cast of future stars, including Jason Mantzoukas and Broad City’s Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Carden guest-starred on the Comedy Central show throughout its five-season run). “It’s a lucky thing to know what you want to do as a kid, but it’s also a weird thing,” she says. “It was almost like I never had another option. It’s not a smart way to live your life, but it was the only thing I could do. I’m still sort of pinching myself that I’m able to act for a living.”
After close to a decade on the UCB stage, Carden had her breakthrough moment in 2016, when she landed a role on The Good Place. The sitcom, created by Parks and Recreation mastermind Mike Schur, centers on Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell, who, after a fatal accident, is unnerved to find herself in a perky afterlife known as “the Good Place.” Carden stars as Janet, a not-quite robot and personal assistant with infinite knowledge of the universe, who’s tasked with helping humans navigate a new plane of existence.
Over the show’s three seasons, the characters have grappled with the idea of right and wrong, spurred by what they learn in the Good Place, the Bad Place, and even the Medium Place. And Janet, despite her artificially intelligent tendencies, goes through changes of her own—learning to lie, for one, leads to a few glitches.
Season three presented Carden with a new challenge: In the episode “Janet(s),” she had to play her fellow castmates, who each had been changed into a version of Janet. Schur and the writers told Carden the plan before season three filming began. “I was so thrilled and honored, but there was a little part of me that was hoping they would decide not to do it. ‘Well, it was a nice thought, but we went a different way.’”
Shooting the episode required Carden to film while talking to a piece of tape on the wall or on a pole, a process she described as “so technical and strange and counterintuitive and not the way any of us have ever acted.” Help came in the form of co-star Ted Danson, who filmed the episode’s first scene with Carden. The Cheers veteran sat Carden down afterward to offer support, reminding her to focus on each character’s motivations while filming. “He was like, ‘You need to remember what you’re doing. You have to have the words make sense in your brain; otherwise, it’ll feel like gibberish,’” she says. “I mean, anytime you have Ted Danson giving you any sort of advice, you listen to it and take it in completely.”