Kristen Bell's a Tough Act to Follow

Dreaming up a modern-day Nancy Drew to be the hero of a TV series about a 17-year-old girl detective, the creator of the show had something a little different in mind than the fiery redhead gumshoe of yore. He wanted a brunette '- a smarter-than-you California teen trapped in a town straight out of film noir. Definitely not a blonde bombshell.

"I heard Christina Ricci in my head when I wrote it," says Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, a former high school journalism teacher who is now executive producer of the UPN show, which has garnered great reviews and a cult audience. "I wanted someone who had a caustic delivery for lines that had weight and dryness."

And yet, the young woman who won the role is a blonde with a bright smile instead of a smirk, and a sunny voice trained for Broadway musicals instead of a grouchy deadpan. Kristen Bell, a 24-year-old Detroit native who moved to Los Angeles in 2002 after a brief stint in New York theater, beat out some 70 other young actresses for the part of the resourceful teen.

So far in her short career, despite the America's-sweetheart looks, Bell's been a specialist in tough teens. Last January, she scored one of Lifetime's highest ratings in Gracie's Choice as a high-schooler determined to adopt her younger siblings after her drug-addled mother abandons them. And, it turns out, her hair color is actually quite a fitting choice for Veronica, considering that Nancy Drew herself started off with the curly yellow locks of a movie star on the covers of her early books.

Unlike Nancy, however, Veronica has serious criminal mysteries to solve, starting with finding out who murdered her best friend. She's also got major high school angst. When she stands by her sheriff father after he accuses a beloved bigwig of the murder, she loses everything '- her mom, her in-crowd status and her home. She becomes wise beyond her years.

"I loved her story," says Bell from San Diego, where the show films. "The situations were very real. She was from a single-parent family, had experienced loss at a young age and was very strong. I am attracted to strong female characters."

Bell could feel Veronica's pain. Her own parents divorced when she was a toddler, and she lost her best friend in a car accident just before she headed to New York University to study acting. "The more I got into it, I realized how much she paralleled my own life '- but spoke more eloquently about it," the actress insists.

The similarities stop at the keyboard. "I am not computer savvy," Bell says with a laugh, even though her character is practically a hacker. "It's not me when you see me on the computer. The screens have been programmed."

 

Kirsten Bell at a glance

Birthplace: Detroit, MI Higher education: Left New York University about six credits shy of graduating ("You get to the point where you don't need a degree to be an actor," she says) Credits: Broadway's The Crucible, Off-Broadway's Reefer Madness, Los Angeles Opera's A Little Night Music, HBO's Deadwood, Lifetime's Gracie's Choice, David Mamet's movie Spartan and a TV movie version of Reefer Madness that will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January Love life: Dating Kevin Mann, an independent film producer and swim coach

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