“I didn’t expect that many women!” D’Arcy Carden exclaims. It’s a blisteringly hot August afternoon, and the actor’s escaping the heat by taking a casual tour through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of baseball cards. She points at one featuring two women in polka-dotted uniforms. “They’re kind of…fashion plates?”
She would know. This month, Carden’s starring alongside Abbi Jacobson in A League of Their Own, a spirited TV remake of the classic film. Taking its cues from the (very real) All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, founded in 1943, the new Prime Video series follows a group of young women as they pursue their passion for the sport amid critiques of their femininity.
The Met has more than 30,000 baseball cards in its collection, and after perusing a few rare items in the museum’s Study Room for Drawings and Prints, we decide to take a stroll through the galleries in search of more. Carden is tall and lithe with wavy, dark hair that falls past her shoulders. She wears white Birkenstocks and a black dress peppered with tiny cutouts at the sleeves and hem. As we walk, Carden thinks back on the years she spent living in New York. “It was fun,” she says. “But I was truly making zero dollars.”
Carden eventually found her footing at Upright Citizens Brigade, the now infamous incubator that spawned comedians like Donald Glover, Kate McKinnon, Nick Kroll, Ilana Glazer, and Jacobson—the cocreator of League. The two met around 15 years ago, in a side class about commercial acting. “I thought that [Abbi] was so funny,” Carden says, then imitates Jacobson’s raspy, syncopated intonation: “She had this weird little voice.”
At one point, they had to write scripts for commercials, and Jacobson’s fell flat. “The teacher just didn’t get it,” Carden says. “I remember going home to my studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and saying to my boyfriend, ‘There’s this girl, Abbi, and she’s so funny, and she’s so weird. It’s just so different, and no one will ever know, because no one sees her in that class.’” She laughs and shakes her head. “And of course, that’s hilarious now, because she’s been seen and loved by the world.”
As we enter the airy room housing the Temple of Dendur, our conversation trails off. “This is my favorite room,” Carden sighs. “In the winter, in the summer, at any time of day.” A few feet away, a frazzled-looking father catches his kid before the child dunked an arm in the reflecting pool.
Carden moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2013, after her husband got a job on the West Coast. “Before that, I sort of had blinders on,” she says. “I wasn’t really taking my career seriously.” Some of Carden’s friends had already decamped to L.A. and found greater success in Hollywood, but it took time for Carden to get into a groove. “I remember in that first year, I felt like a little kid at dinner. Because the adults—meaning, my friends—would be talking about things like agents, and I’d be like—” she tilts her head to the side and opens her eyes wide like a baffled child. Laughing, she relaxes, musing, “Maybe it was growing pains or something. I always find myself a little bit behind my peers.”
In order to ground herself in L.A., she joined a basketball team. I ask if she was any good. “I’m going to answer you honestly,” she says, pausing for dramatic effect. “Yes.” Carden loved playing sports when she was growing up, an affection that came in handy when it came time to film League.
“We had a ton of training for the show,” she says as we approach a wall dotted with framed cards. “As a kid, I played in high school, but I realized that the stance I learned was kind of a show-offy stance.” She bends her knees and sticks out her butt, raising her arms to shoulder height. “I liked to really crank it back.” Her publicist laughs and snaps a photo.
Carden straightens up and scrutinizes the card nearest to her on the wall. “I could keep some of that for my show-offy character, but real baseball players are more subtle.” She waves a hand at one of the players holding a bat. “He’s just kind of hanging out.”
In League, Carden plays Greta, a confident, frank woman with a coquettish strut. She’s a romantic interest for another lead character, something far outside the actor’s comfort zone—which she affably describes as “goofy, weird, funny, side characters.” Greta, though, exudes self-assured sensuality with a convincing foundation of melancholy. There’s a fine line between sexy and campy, and Carden toes it neatly, meting out doses of genuine vulnerability alongside every sultry smirk. She also balances both sides of the character, credibly presenting one version of Greta in public and another in private.
We leave the gallery and walk onto a mezzanine dotted with delicate glass cases. Carden strolls over to a wooden bench and sits, crossing her legs as she pulls out a pack of gum. One of the joys, she says, of filming this adaptation of League was expanding the worlds that were only hinted at in the original film, like the queer culture around the AAGPBL.
To prepare for the role, she spoke with Maybelle Blair, now 95, a former member of the AAGPBL. “Maybelle was one of many queer women that slowly and quietly discovered each other, and they’d go to these gay bars and have fun,” Carden says. “When we asked her questions about what it was like back then, we expected her to be like, ‘It was a struggle every day, and I feared for this or that.’ But Maybelle said, ‘It was a party. I walked into that bar and I saw those other women, and I was like—oh. This is what I’ve been missing all my life.’”
As we sit, visitors occasionally squint over their shoulders at Carden as they walk by. Fans typically recognize her from her four seasons on The Good Place, where Carden played Janet, an inhuman, all-knowing fount of information offering assistance to people in the afterlife. Janet gave Carden the opportunity to showcase her impeccable comedic timing and elastic range—in one episode, Carden imitates several other major characters, including Kristen Bell’s blunt Eleanor, Jameela Jamil’s elegant Tahani, and Manny Jacinto’s hapless Jason. Carden went to school for acting, but she didn’t study comedy, though she was often cast as “the old lady” or “the funny prostitute” in high school and college. (She also plays a supporting role on Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s acclaimed dramedy, Barry, as an aspiring actor turned assistant.)
When The Good Place was wrapping up, her costar Ted Danson offered Carden a piece of advice. “We went out for coffee, and Ted said, ‘What are you going to do next?’” Carden shrugged. “I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and he said, ‘I would do something as different from Janet as humanly possible, because it will be really easy to get pigeonholed into that kind of role.’” Danson’s advice was prescient: Right when The Good Place was coming to an end, Jacobson called Carden to offer her the role of Greta.
“I read the pilot that night and loved it,” Carden remembers. “I was really drawn to Greta. She’s cool and mysterious. I don’t want to say she’s everything I’m not, but she’s got this confident swag that—whether I have it or not—I don’t play. It’s not really my go-to.” Either way, Greta is the perfect next step for Carden. While Janet allowed the actor to demonstrate her utterly convincing physical comedy and buoyant humor, Greta showcases Carden’s ability to embody a subtler character.
Our perch is open to the bustling atrium below, and we get quiet for a second, listening to the reverberating shouts and chatter of the other museumgoers. I ask Carden whether she was apprehensive about playing Greta, given how different she is from Carden’s past roles. “I don’t think I ever thought, I shouldn’t do this because it’s so different,” she says. “I thought, I really like this, and I’m really scared.” She pauses and leans back on her palms. “And therefore I think I should do it.”
Source: Vanity Fair