D’Arcy Carden Is in a Good Place

NBC’s hit sitcom about a complicated afterlife may be coming to an end, but the actress is just getting started.

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.” 

For Carden, finding that perfect balance “between robot-y, AI person, not-a-person, and human” hasn’t been without its challenges. “We want it to be right, but it’s kind of like, ‘What is right with her?’ because she’s evolving and changing,” she says. “We’ve been very wary of not pushing her too quickly into ‘human zone.’”

That gradual shift led to a surprising moment in the season three finale, where Janet and Eleanor discuss, essentially, what it means to be human. “If there were an answer I could give you to how the universe works, it wouldn’t be special,” Carden says in the scene. “… But since nothing seems to make sense, when you find something or someone that does, it’s euphoria.”

Carden’s dialogue represents the best of Mike Schur comedies—a scene that makes you laugh and just as suddenly makes you think. “I was really frustrated with myself [while filming] because I knew the character Janet would not be crying through this speech, but D’Arcy the human was,” she says. “So I had to sort of smack myself in the face and get it together.”

Along with The Good Place, Carden films (sometimes concurrently) her recurring role on Barry, an Emmy-nominated dark comedy starring Bill Hader as a hit man trying to start a new life as an actor. Carden plays Natalie Greer, one of the members of Hader’s acting class, a role she landed the same month as Janet. What may seem like a lucky few weeks was the payoff of years of hard work. “There were so many times where I told myself, ‘It’s too late. You missed it.’ Even as a young, young, young person, I remember The All New Mickey Mouse Club had Ryan Gosling and Britney Spears and the other kids, and I remember thinking, ‘Well, it’s too late for me.’”

We’ve just had such hilariously low times and now we get to live our dream. It’s surreal.

Carden credits UCB with not only giving her confidence in performing but also a strong sense of her own comedic voice. It’s also meant being a part of a close-knit circle of friends, many of whom have guest-starred on The Good Place. “It’s exciting to have struggled and clawed our way through, and to have done shows at the tiniest theaters for like 10 people, and then, all of a sudden, it’s ‘Oh, I get to be in a scene with Jason Mantzoukas or Brandon Scott Jones or Eugene Cordero,’” she says. “We’ve just had such hilariously low times and now we get to live our dream. It’s hard to explain how surreal that is.”

In June, Schur announced that The Good Place’s fourth season, premiering Sept. 26, would be its last. Considering the show’s success and consistent ratings, the decision was bittersweet. “Or I guess bitter,” Carden clarifies with a laugh. “The day-to-day work environment is so wonderful and pleasant and dreamy that all of us were hoping for a little longer. But if we did a season where fans were like, ‘Eh, you’re just kind of filling time,’ I would feel so bummed out.”

As for what comes next, one season three moment—a bar brawl that gave Carden the chance to work with a fight choreographer and stunt team—provided some inspiration. “I would love to do some action-y thing where I get to blow something up. Like shoot a blowtorch.”

Octane-powered blockbuster aside, Carden hopes to do something “as different from the last thing” as possible, whether that’s another kind of comedic role or a return to theater. Whatever it is, Carden’s already looking forward to it. “I love acting,” she says. “I love being on a set. I love falling in love with your cast and getting to know them. I love everything about it.”

Melissa Flandreau is an editor of this magazine. Email her at melissa.flandreau@paceco.com.

Photography by Jeff Lipsky; hair by Dimitrios Giannoudis/The Wall Group; styling by Micah Schifman/The Only Agency; makeup by Vanessa Scali/The Wall Group

Originally Published September 2019