D'Arcy Carden: In a Very Good Place
The Danville native is stealing scenes on two hit TV series. But it took a lifetime of preparation to get her there.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t find [improv comedy],” D’Arcy Carden says.
Photo by Ryan Pfluger
It’s Saturday night at Los Angeles’s Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theatre on Franklin Avenue, and actress D’Arcy Carden is returning to her first love: improv comedy. Over the course of the next hour, she and longtime friend Brandon Scott Jones perform an uproarious two-hander involving such topics as cowboys, Connie Britton, disciplinarian dads, and a persistently untied shoelace. Yet it’s not the subject matter that captures the sold-out crowd’s attention. It’s witnessing Carden cleverly craft comedy on the spot, her eyes widening in delight as she anticipates her partner’s needs and they volley with funny stingers. She’s completely in the zone. It’s a skill set she’s been perfecting her entire life.
The day prior, in an Echo Park coffee shop, the East Bay native praised the collaborative nature of improv. “You don’t have a script. You have to help each other so much,” she said. “There’s no winning and no star. The point of it is that you’re all rising together. Oh, my God, I love that.”
While this form of theatrical spontaneity keeps her nimble during her downtime, it’s Carden’s day job that gets those creative juices flowing. She currently costars on two Emmy-nominated, critically acclaimed comedies: NBC’s The Good Place and HBO’s Barry. And this month, audiences will see her in her first dramatic film (alongside Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Margot Robbie, no less): the blockbuster Bombshell, about the women of Fox News.
It’s clear that Carden’s star is on the rise, but her path wasn’t one of overnight success—quite the opposite. Her dividends are courtesy of years spent honing her abilities and tapping into her indomitable spirit.
Growing up in Danville as a middle child of four, Darcy Beth Erokan earned the nickname Tigger because of her happy, bouncy demeanor. (The apostrophe was added later, incepted by her mom and aunts changing the spelling of their own names on school papers, and inspired by the Smashing Pumpkins’s bassist D’arcy Wretzky.) She discovered acting as a toddler, while sitting on her mother Lori’s lap watching Fantasy Forum plays in Walnut Creek. “D’Arcy was 2,” Lori recalls of the experience. “I thought she was too young, but she was just enthralled.”
Carden concurs. “When I’d watch people onstage, I really was transfixed in my own world,” she says. “I still am.”
Her burgeoning comedy chops were first tested on her aunts and uncles. “Quietly making my Uncle Steve [Engelfried] laugh was a win for me,” Carden confesses.
Instilled with confidence by her tight-knit family, Carden experimented with different interests. “I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player, an actor, a rock ’n’ roll singer, and maybe the president,” she wistfully recalls. Her father, BAM Magazine founder Dennis Erokan, gave his daughter an empowering mantra: “You are the best. You are the king of the world. There’s nobody better than you.”
More than anything, Carden wanted to be an actor in TV and film. Her desire only grew when Dennis’s work obligations briefly brought the family to the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank, where his kids would hang out poolside with child actors. Soon, 9-year-old Carden had her first serious talk with her father about acting. However, he wasn’t terribly keen on the idea—at least not while his daughter was still a child. She had only heard success stories from the Hook kids living in the complex, but he was well aware of the pitfalls.
“We kept seeing that kids would have their opportunity, and then they wouldn’t get another,” Dennis explains. “They felt like failures. It was so sad to see that. I didn’t want any of our kids to experience that at all.”
Carden concedes, “There was a part of my dad that was giving us all the confidence in the world but also wanting to protect us. I think that’s a normal parent thing to do.”
To satiate her artistic drive, Carden funneled her creative impulses into other activities. She saw debate and student government as offshoots of acting. “It was all based on speeches,” she says, explaining what drew her to those extracurriculars. “It wasn’t a love of politics; it was the love of a crowd.”
Dennis thought she could possibly excel in those fields, if she so chose. “I always thought she was going to become a great CEO,” he recalls. “I kept trying to encourage her to run a company.” Only business was not her primary passion.
It wasn’t until she took Mark Cornfield’s drama class during her freshman year at San Ramon Valley High that she found a mentor. “He saw the spark in my eye and really guided me,” Carden says. “Some of the acting techniques he taught me I absolutely still use today. Putting in the time, at that age, was already rewarding. If you do the work, good things will be rewarded, even if it takes a minute.”
Finding Her Voice
Carden’s quest to find the right community of actors took a few years. After participating in a handful of Bay Area productions with the local troupe Venus Rising and graduating from Southern Oregon University with a B.A. in theater, she moved to New York City hoping to put her degree to good use. Instead, she was met with a seemingly endless, frustrating chain of meager opportunities, like background-extra work on Saturday Night Live. “When you’re coming up, every little moment can seem like, if you missed it, that was it,” she says. “Meeting someone or screwing up an audition, you can really convince yourself that was your path and you missed it.”
Then, by chance, a friend took her to a show at UCB, and as Carden reminiscences, “It was the age-old story that everyone has when they find the thing that changes their life: I watched this performance, and it split my brain in half. It was like the same kind of moment I had when I was a little kid, where I thought, I know what I need to do now.”
After honing her skills at UCB in New York, Carden moved to Los Angeles with her husband, producer Jason Carden, in 2013, hoping to find acting work. She struggled through auditions for a couple of years, but Jason’s support kept her from giving up. “He made me feel like people just don’t get me yet,” Carden says. “He gave me such confidence where it got me through.”
Eventually, she landed spots on the Comedy Central shows Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City—which got her noticed by industry heavyweights including The Good Place creators Mike Schur and Drew Goddard. “I lucked out,” Carden says. “I walked into my test [for The Good Place], and an episode of Broad City had been on the night before. Drew and Mike said, ‘Congratulations on Broad City,’ and that gave me so much confidence.”
As Janet, the upbeat, unflappable virtual assistant who helps confused residents in the afterlife and struggles with her own sentient yearnings on The Good Place, Carden transformed what originated as a tiny supporting role. She won over the creators, writers, and cast—which includes Ted Danson and Kristen Bell—with her charm and talent, and broadened the character into a pivotal part of the series. “I remember thinking early on that I lucked out because Janet basically pops in, says something funny, and pops out,” she notes.
These past four seasons have given Carden special challenges to surmount—specifically the episode in season three where she plays multiple Janets, each inhabited by one of show’s main characters. “If I wanted to make my uncles and aunts laugh, this was that times a million,” she says. “All I want to do is impress those writers.”
The process proved daunting, however. “It’s a hard thing to gently mimic characters that we know very well—not [do] an impression. There are so many weird levels,” she explains. “On top of that, it’s not a funny gag; it’s really important. I’m such a fan of the show that … it wasn’t just acting. It was D’Arcy loving these characters.”
Role With It
The same week as one of her many callback auditions for The Good Place, Carden was offered the part of uptight thespian Natalie on Barry. Though she had worked as a nanny for the series’s star and cocreator, Bill Hader, that inside track wasn’t the reason she got the part. “Bill and I just didn’t talk about this stuff. I had known him for years, we were very close, but I didn’t say, ‘Here’s my résumé,’” Carden emphasizes. “There’s nothing about that that felt right. It’s not who I am.” (In a recent interview on the Armchair Expert podcast, Hader confirmed that he had known Carden for three years before discovering she was a performer.)
“That’s another one of those things where it can feel like you’re missing an opportunity just by living your life the way you would live it,” she notes. “So many people have advice on who you should email and what opportunity to take. I really think the only thing I trusted was my gut. It’s all I have.”
Carden’s gut proved to be right, and she landed the part on Barry after auditioning for the casting director. (Hader, of course, approved the choice; in the podcast interview, he called Carden “a genius.”) In the role, she relishes not only playing a heightened version of theater types but also flexing her improv muscles. “They let us do these fat, long takes, but what makes it to the show is [usually] what’s in the script,” she says. “But they give us the freedom to explore on set.”
If Carden is worried she might never again be an integral part of a radical ensemble comedy like Barry or The Good Place—which ends its celebrated run in 2020—she seems to be taking it in stride. “That’s sort of the fear: I got to do the perfect show and play my perfect role with my perfect cast,” she says.
Then, as if a switch was flipped, she sits up straight, confidently stating: “My new outlook on this career is: I can do it as long as I want. It’s about slow and steady, which, if I’m looking back on my life, makes sense. This, for me, is about doing work that I’m very proud of for a very long time.”
Carden answers our rapid-fire questions.
By Emilie White
Q: What posters did you have on your wall as a kid?
A: I had a lot of music posters—specifically grunge music. I had pictures of Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins … and a lot of Keanu Reeves.
Q: What’s the most random fact you know?
A: The human jaw can apply 90 pounds of pressure when it bites down, and it only takes eight pounds of pressure to rip somebody’s ear off.
Q: If you could have dinner with three people, dead or alive, who would they be?
A: My three siblings, who are all alive, and I could have dinner with them, like, tomorrow, but we all live in different places, and it’s rarely just the four of us. … I don’t want to meet, like, Joan of Arc. We probably wouldn’t even get along. Everybody’s weird. I just want to hang out with my siblings.
Q: When did you know you had made it?
A: Well, that’s not for me, because I haven’t made it yet. But … there was a moment [when] one of the Friends knew my name. One of the cast members from Friends knew my name!
Q: What was your most embarrassing moment?
A: I did barf the first time I tried smoking a cigarette, where obviously I’m trying to … look cool, and I end up looking horrible and embarrassing.
Q: What is the best compliment you’ve received?
A: Something as simple as my parents saying they’re proud of me. Nothing feels better than that.
Q: What is your ideal day in the East Bay?
A: There is a deli in Danville called Domenico’s. It would probably involve going there, getting sandwiches, and bringing them to my grandma’s house in San Ramon. … Also, my aunt and uncle have this cool, big warehouse in Oakland. It’s like an art studio [with] a skateboard ramp in this amazing house. … [I’d] just watch the nieces and nephews skate there.