D’Arcy Carden received her first Emmy nomination this summer—though it should’ve been her second. It’s difficult to watch “Janet(s),” from the third season of Michael Schur’s phantasmagorical sitcom The Good Place, and argue otherwise: In that episode, she portrays not only afterlife assistant Janet and one of her impartial “Neutral Janet” counterparts, but also uncannily inhabits the roles usually played by by her castmates Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto. The Television Academy overlooked Carden last summer, but it’s an omission that they wouldn’t repeat. Now—at the end of the line for an artificial intelligence who wasn’t a robot and wasn’t a girl (but, in the Upright Citizens Brigade alumna’s hands, became deeply human)—Carden stands alongside the likes of Kate McKinnon, Yvonne Orji, and reigning winner Alex Borstein as a nominee for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series at the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards. Well, “stand” might not be entirely accurate, given that the ongoing COVID-19 crisis necessitates a virtual Emmys ceremony. In an interview with The A.V. Club, Carden discussed all the ways her inaugural outing as an Emmy nominee will be memorable, shared why switching from Good Janet to Bad Janet was easier than doing the opposite, and revealed what she could about the pandemic-delayed third season of Barry and the upcoming A League Of Their Own series headed up by her UCB and Broad City buddy Abbi Jacobson.
AVC: Take us back to the morning the nominations were announced: What was it like learning you were up for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series?
DC: When you watch [the announcement telecast], they don’t announce anything about supporting. So I was watching to see if the show got nominated, and Ted got nominated, like he always does—which is awesome. But I knew they weren’t going to announce supporting, so it was out of my mind. I was like, “Oh, the list will come out later and then we’ll see what’s up.” A few minutes into watching [the announcement] I got a text from my publicist and she said, “I hate to spoil this if you don’t know already, but the list is up and you’re on it!” [Laughs.] Which was so exciting and shocking.
It was very surreal. I think there was a part of me that thought, “We’ve been off the off-air for a while, I haven’t gotten it before…” There was all these reasons I was not expecting it. So my husband and I were just sitting on the couch staring at each other. We just kept going, “Holy shit.” [Laughs.] We weren’t screaming and dancing and jumping around. Very soon after that, I learned that William Jackson Harper was also nominated. And then we started screaming and jumping and FaceTiming him and his girlfriend Ali.
AVC: You are both first-time nominees.
DC: And neither of us were expecting it. It was just such a nice surprise. It’s just a nice thing. We got to do this show that we love, and we got to do this final season that we’re so proud of. But there’s almost a part of you that’s like, “Does anybody even remember?” And then you get a little kiss from the Emmys angels and they say [Affects high-pitched voice.] “Oh! This is for you!” [Laughs.] “You forgot this!”
AVC: In a way, it extends the experience and keeps the show alive for a little while longer.
DC: That was one thing that I thought all these months ago when we were wrapping up the show. We were filming the finale, and the last day of shooting was in Northern California, in the Redwoods. And I remember on the flight home I was talking with Mike [Schur] and we were sad, but talking about the future. “As long as we have something to look forward to. We’re shooting a couple more scenes in Europe in a few months, so we have Europe to look forward to.” So even though the show was basically wrapped, we knew that Will and Kristen [Bell] and Mike and I were going to Greece, and we were going to Paris, and that was something really, really good to look forward to. And then on the flight home from Greece, we were like, “Oh, god, now what do we have to look forward to?” And we just thought, “We can cross our fingers that maybe we get nominated for an Emmy, and then we can be together again.” We’d all be together again, getting all dressed up and going to these parties and everything. Now we’ll be Zooming each other [Laughs.] but we won’t exactly be together.
AVC: What do you anticipate the night of the ceremony to be like? Is there any indication of what the production is going to be like?
DC: I don’t know. We don’t really know much information at all yet. I basically know what the public knows, which is just that it’s not going to be at the usual place, and it’s going to be at peoples’ homes. Will and I were talking about if there’s a way to socially-distance-watch it together, like in the backyard? My husband Jason and I keep talking about how funny it is: Am I going to be wearing a dress and he’s going to be wearing sweats? [Laughs.] What’s the whole feel? What’s it going to look like? It would be really fun to watch it with a few friends, but you just have to be safe and careful and wearing masks and all the stuff that everybody’s doing. I’m just not sure how to do it.
AVC: However it turns out, your first time as an Emmy nominee is going to be memorable on multiple levels.
DC: For sure, which is the positive way to look at it. When I’m an old, old grandma, and I say like [Affects grandmotherly voice.] “I was nominated for an Emmy once,” and then they’ll be like [Affects child’s voice.] “When?” And I’m like, “That one year, that was so bad.” And they’re like, “2020, Grandma!” They’ll know. They’ll remember. [Laughs.]
AVC: What made you pick “You’ve Changed, Man” as the episode you submitted for the voters’ consideration?
DC: It seemed like it’d be a fun idea to submit an episode where many Janets were shown. This one has, I think, all of them. [Laughs.] No! Not all of them! But a lot of them.
It’s such a hard thing to pick, by the way. You have to listen to the people around you. It’s one of those decisions that is hard for the individual to make.
That was a special episode. That season was packed to the gills—I feel like that episode had a lot going on. If somebody had never watched the show before, it was like “Here’s a little taste of what we do, and what we’ve done the last four years.”
AVC: Every new scene is like, “Oh yeah! This episode! There’s so much Marc Evan Jackson in this one, and this is the Timothy Olyphant episode!”
DC: I can’t believe it’s all the same episode. And we had plenty of episodes like that throughout the series. “Dance Dance Resolution,” from season two, where we rebooted a hundred times or whatever it was—I remember reading it and being like, “I can’t believe this is one episode.” But then even watching it, I’d watch the first scene and be like, “Well certainly, this doesn’t end up—how is this not three or four episodes?” I’ve always been impressed by Mike and the writers that they would do that. A different show would stretch those out into three, four, five, six episodes. Why make more work for yourself? Why squeeze all of that story into 22 minutes when we could spread it out over many episodes. But it just proves to me how stellar these writers are—that it’s all about the story and not about making their lives easier. Because I know those writers had a big job.
AVC: What’s something that the average viewer might not know about playing multiple parts in a single episode like this?
DC: One thing about it is that going from Good Janet to Bad Janet or Bad Janet to Good Janet takes a long time. So much longer than I thought. I’ve been doing this a long time—I know how wigs work, and stuff like that. But I remember thinking that we’d just pop the wig on and pop it off. It would almost be easier if I fully showered in between—you basically have to go back to zero for each of them. And we found that going from Good Janet to Bad Janet was easier than the other way. Trying to scrub off that black eye makeup for Bad Janet—it takes a while.
Here’s something that you might not know: Our makeup department head Autumn Butler decided that each of the Janets should have different fingernails. [Laughs.] I don’t know you ever see them. I think you see Bad Janet’s fingernails for sure: They’re like black and they have little metal studs on them. But I’m talking, like, when it’s all the Janets lined up, rows and rows of Janets—and there’s a Janet in a plaid uniform and a Janet in a tan uniform—all of those Janets have different fingernails that we would have to take on and off. We used press-on nails. [Laughs.] And the funniest thing is Janet usually has her hands clasped in front of her, so you don’t see the nails! But it’s that attention to detail that really goes from the top to the bottom on that show. Everybody’s so proud of working on the show and what it’s about and the quality of it, and is willing to put the time in—instead of being like, “Oh, nobody will notice.” It was such a cool environment because everybody was playing at the top of their game.
AVC: Are there ways that you feel like your improv and sketch experience primed you to alternate between different personas within the span of a single episode?
DC: Yes, I totally do. I’ve thought that before. Especially in season three, when I did “Janets,” where I played [my castmates’ characters]. I feel like people ask me if it was hard to go from one to the other, and it wasn’t. That wasn’t the hard part—the hard part was getting changed and not wasting time and all that. I think because of years doing sketch and improv at Upright Citizens Brigade, where you would play anywhere from five to a hundred different characters per show, that became part of what I am able to do—or what I love to do, I should say.
AVC: Is there an official tally of how many different Janets you played by the end of the series?
DC: I know there is. I don’t know that we tallied it, but I’ve seen it. The Good Place fans are pretty thorough. [Laughs.] I’ve seen it on Twitter and stuff—little lists. And it’s always people arguing with each other: There’ll be a list and then somebody will be like, “You forgot this Janet, or that Janet” or “This Janet playing that Janet.” We’ve got artists that draw all the different costumes, we’ve got people making lists and video compilations—it’s really a cool fandom. They really care about the show and love the show, and we see it all on social media.
There is a lot of Janets. [Laughs.] We can count them, but it’s definitely more than 20? I don’t know, because there’s also like different levels of rebooted Janet. And what counts as a new Janet?
AVC: Do you mind if we “speed round” our way through Janets, with you identifying your favorite part about playing each Janet?
DC: Yes, love a speed round.
AVC: Let’s start with the main Janet.
DC: She’s just good. She just wants to help. Her intention is so clear. “I am here to help you.” And that felt very positive to me. I love that about her.
AVC: Bad Janet?
DC: Getting to improvise more. We didn’t have a very heavily improvised show—we almost didn’t improvise at all. But there was always something about Bad Janet where the directors or the writers would say, “Okay, let’s do another one, but be meaner this time.” They let me do a little bit more with Bad Janet than we did with any of the other characters, which was a blast. But also, then you’d end up sort of being mean to Ted Danson, which kind of feels shitty.
AVC: Neutral Janet?
DC: I’ve said this before, but I love to make my face meat hang. You just let all the muscles in your face go dead, and let it hang off the damn bone. And that is Neutral Janet to me.
AVC: Disco Janet?
DC: Well, the rollerskates. Actually, everything about [her look]: The costume, the rollerskates, the hair, the makeup. Disco Janet wasn’t onscreen for very long, but the hair and makeup and the wardrobe were all out. I’ve got disco nails on, disco clips in my hair, my eye makeup is, like, 60 different colors. It’s like a gift to [the hair, makeup, and costuming departments]. So it was really fun to put all of that stuff on, and re-learn to rollerskate just a little bit.
I bet if you added up all the minutes she’s onscreen, it’s under 10, but there’s something about the way Ted set it up in episode one of season four: He says “She was fun, but a lot.” It’s just like, “Oh, I’ve got to see this chick.”
AVC: Looking back at the whole series, and Janet’s arc within it, how would you sum up her journey from what we see in the pilot to where we leave her, among the redwoods at the edge of the universe?
DC: The thing I remember feeling in season one—sometimes I would get the question, “Where would you like Janet to end up? What do you want for Janet?” And I always felt like I wanted her to be happy. She’d spent her whole existence making other people happy. It’s weird, right, because at the end, you can argue that it’s sad for Janet. She’s alone now. But there’s that beautiful line that Mike wrote about how she can remember everything as if it’s happening right now. So the fact that the love of her “life” and her best friends are gone—it isn’t really the case with her. She doesn’t experience time the same way we do. I think she is really, truly happy.
And the whole point of that final “door” that the characters walk through, it means that they’re at peace. They’ve done it all, they’ve seen it all, they are at peace with themselves—they are truly happy. So her purpose is realized. Everybody around her that she loves is happy, which makes her happy.
So did I really answer your question? Not exactly. But I do think she evolved so much, from just being Siri-brain Janet to more Pinocchio: A little bit of a real boy, by the end of it.
AVC: A real not-a-girl.
DC: Yeah, exactly. Pretend I said that. [Laughs.]
AVC: The Good Place is over, but you’ve got the Amazon adaptation of A League Of Their Own and season three of Barry on the horizon. Barry was just about to resume production when stay-at-home measures were put in place, correct?
DC: We were so close! That March 13th week, when it started, day by day, getting weirder and weirder, I remember we had a table read that Wednesday—people had hand sanitizer and we weren’t hugging each other and stuff. But Sarah Goldberg and Henry Winkler and Jessy Hodges and I went out to lunch at a regular ol’ restaurant. So we weren’t that scared. And then even just a couple days later, we were going to have another table read—that one was canceled.
I think about half the scripts were ready to go, and now—I don’t know. I’ve heard little rumors of when we might start again, but everybody just wants to be as safe and healthy as possible. I think it’ll be a while. As desperate as I am to be on the set with my friends again, and do that show that I love—it’s very much the right move to wait until the world is really ready.
AVC: In terms of A League Of Their Own, what are you excited to show the world about the character who you’re playing?
DC: I play this character named Greta—very different from anything I’ve ever played before. I’m so excited for people to see this show. I can’t wait for people to see this cast. Everybody’s so unique and special. It was such an interesting experience to meet each other as baseball players, because we trained in baseball way before we started acting together. We were playing baseball for months before we shot anything, which was a really unique experience: To be a team before we were on set. I miss those girls.