FUNNY GIRL: Bell and Russell Brand in 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Everett Collection

Bell never refers to herself as a star or a celebrity — she doesn’t think of herself as one. In response to a question about why she has yet to host Saturday Night Live, Bell quizzes her brow and says, “I think you have to be famous to host SNL.”

Of course, she’d kill to do SNL. The Michigan native loves to make people laugh, a talent she first displayed as a child. Her mother, divorced when Bell was 2, found an agent to place her daughter in newspaper and television ads. During playtime, Bell force-fed the VCR a steady diet of Disney videotapes and sang along to musicals. “I must have seen The Little Mermaid 150 times,” she says. “I can still recite absolutely every line from it.” By the time Bell enrolled in a Catholic high school, she was taking private acting lessons.

As Bell puts it, she was a proud theater geek who didn’t want for friends in school. In the senior yearbook, she was voted “Best-Looking Girl.” The memory makes her wrinkle her nose.

“Who cares? I can’t control the way I look. That doesn’t deserve to be ranked. You deserve to be ranked on the things you worked hard on.”

Bell was so eager to work that she bailed out of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University to star in Broadway’s short-lived The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The promise of more plentiful work in Hollywood led her to relocate to the West Coast. In 2004, she landed her big break: a movie role opposite Val Kilmer in Spartan, a thriller written and directed by playwright David Mamet.

“My theater background opened the door to Spartan because David Mamet wanted someone who spoke his language,” Bell says. “They wanted theater-trained actresses, and it got me a lot closer to being seen by him. It knocked a whole bunch of L.A. actresses off the list.”