Real-life friends Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste on true crime. And the art of couponing

By Yvonne Villarreal

The friendship meet-cute between Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Kristen Bell barely registered the first time they crossed paths. Howell-Baptiste was filming a guest spot on Showtime's "House of Lies" — which featured Bell — and knew her lines so well, the scene the two shared didn't take long to complete.

Bell's face twists thinking back on it: "I was about 13 months pregnant."

"We genuinely met for an hour when we shot the scene," Howell-Baptiste adds. "It was very quick. I was in and out."

Their story really starts, as they both tell it, six years later on "The Good Place." Bell played Eleanor Shellstrop, the self-centered and foul-mouthed deceased protagonist of the NBC afterlife comedy. Howell-Baptiste joined the series in its third season as a bubbly neurosurgeon, Dr. Simone Garnett, who makes an impression on the ever-indecisive Chidi (William Jackson Harper). The following year, in 2019, Howell-Baptiste joined Bell in Hulu's revival of "Veronica Mars," the cult teen detective drama that was Bell's breakthrough role.

"We killed someone together between 'The Good Place' and 'Veronica Mars' — we were both at fault. In order to keep the secret, we have to keep this going," Bell teases.

There's a reason Bell is making quips about crime. The pair are currently starring as crooked coupon buddies in the crime comedy "Queenpins," written and directed by husband-and-wife duo Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly; it's now in theaters and drops later this month on Paramount+. Bell and Howell-Baptiste play coupon-loving friends: Bell is Connie, a former speed-walking Olympian who copes with an unfulfilling marriage and infertility by couponing; Howell-Baptiste is Jojo, a friend and neighbor trying to find success as a coupon influencer. The friends break bad ... nicely, turning their enthusiasm for savings into a Robin Hood-esque scheme bilking millions from corporations to deliver deals to fellow coupon clippers.

Loosely ripped from the headlines, the film puts a comedic (and perhaps more altruistic) spin on its true-crime inspiration: In 2012, three women were arrested in Phoenix and accused of running the largest counterfeit-coupon ring in the country; more than $25 million worth of fake coupons were confiscated by local authorities in a raid that also included the seizure of 22 assault weapons and 21 vehicles. It's a story Pullapilly came across on a coupon blog: "We started on the FBI blog and went on a hyperlink spiral," she says.

Between the illegal shenanigans is a story of friendship, Gaudet says — and that made the chemistry between Howell-Bapiste and Bell all the more imperative, particularly while filming under nerve-wracking conditions at the height of the pandemic last year.

"They would be doing the scenes but they're constantly just adding this little, like, back-and-forth between them that you could never write," Gaudet says.

In a late-August interview, Howell-Baptiste and Bell tag-teamed a video call to discuss their experiences with couponing, finding the nuance of what propels ordinary people to make bad decisions, and what quality each possesses that would make her the perfect partner in crime IRL.

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Q: We've seen a lot of true crime in recent years, but this takes a different spin. Are you big fans of the true-crime genre, and what appealed to you about the case the film takes its inspiration from?

Howell-Baptiste: This is a "hold my beer" moment. I'm going to let Kristen answer this one.

[Bell reaches off-camera to grab a magnet.]

Bell: This is my Keith Morrison magnet. I have a lot of other Keith Morrison paraphernalia. I have a lot of "Dateline" paraphernalia. I have a "Dateline" backpack. I'm not trying to brag, but I do. I love true crime. And I've thought a lot about why I do because it doesn't seem like I should — maybe me, on paper, should like glitter and bubbles and unicorns — but my mom was very into true crime. She was a cardiologist, nurse and so heart surgeries were her thing and she was never opposed to blood. And so she would like gore up the house at Halloween. So crime and gore, I've never steered away from them.

I think my brain tries so hard to wrap my head around why people make crazy decisions. That it's really just craning your head to see why the car crash — like, what happened? How can I make sense of this? I struggle to find the "Dateline" that I haven't seen.

Q: Kirby, what fascinated you about this specific case that the film is based on?

Howell-Baptiste: When there are people that are, I think, passively looked over or seen as like, "Oh, of course, you wouldn't suspect these women," I think that's even more fascinating to me. And also the idea of toeing that line of crime, right? The women in real life and our characters were finding this loophole in the system, which is obviously criminal but it is a victimless crime.

I think what's really interesting is that everyone is finding these loopholes, but different people are being caught, different people are being punished. You look at the 2008 crash, there's so many people who lost so much and so many people who are responsible who have never, ever seen any consequences. That was just fascinating ... [in our film] seeing what happens when people really want to change the hand they're dealt; they recognize that no one else is going to do it for them, and how far people are willing to go in the pursuit of that.

Q: When you hear the premise, are you like, "OK, time to get a little Method and learn all about couponing"? There are a few people in the couponing world who are well known for their skills, they've built communities. Did you take any classes, watch any of the tutorials on YouTube?

Howell-Baptiste: I definitely use coupons — I get those Bed Bath and Beyond ones, I have the Michaels app. I love a coupon. But the idea of extreme couponing is, if I'm not mistaken, pretty culturally seated in American culture. And so we don't really have that same thing in the U.K. The extreme couponing I learned a lot of from YouTube videos — I would watch "Couponing With Shay" all the time. I watched the show "Extreme Couponers." I learned there's even like a way to cut them! Typically, when you get the inserts and they're all the same, they cut them in a certain way because you don't want to cut each paper. I also increased my coupon usage. I would try and do that with the inserts. I would try and bundle them.

Couponing is — as we explore in this movie — extremely undervalued, underrated and overlooked. Both the art of couponing and couponers. It is incredibly difficult. ... People are calculating what they will buy, what they will save, that you get to the point where some will even find a way — not through anything criminal — to make money from this. The skill of it and how fiscally responsible people are being is something that we really misunderstand. Because, also, we sort of look down on anyone that isn't wealthy, we sort of turn our nose up to it. But it's just so responsible. And I wish I had it in me to do it all the time. It's just time-consuming.

Bell: I think there's a real purpose, even if you don't need the coupon to make ends meet. That coupon high that we talked about in the movie, it's very real. It is very human, like in our DNA, to want to be a part of something special, something limited-edition, something exclusive — coupons are that. To Kirby's point, everyone who is using coupons are the ones that are having the last laugh, because they are being financially responsible. We don't give, particularly women, enough education and financial responsibility when they're young. And then you grow up and find yourself in a marriage you don't want to be in and you can't leave because you don't have your finances together, like my character found herself. We need to do a lot more education in regards to kids at an early age about coupons and savings and just general financial responsibility.

My grandmother was an actual extreme couponer and the basement of her house, there was nothing in it; it was very, very tidy, except the whole perimeter was these perfectly aligned cut-out cardboard boxes with UPCs [Universal Product Code] in them and barcodes. Our whole family, she would like pester us to be responsible for sending her, every month, all of the soup UPCs, the soup barcodes, and the toothpaste and the cereal and the detergent and then she'd collect 100 or so of them, send them to the company and the detergent company would say: Thanks for being a valued customer, here's five bucks. And with all those itty bitty, tiny checks she started college funds for her five grandkids.

Q: Wow. That's quite impressive. Did working on the film spark any new or renewed commitment to couponing? What's the weirdest thing you've purchased with a coupon?

Howell-Baptiste: I will say: Going into the room in Connie's house where everything was stocked up, it sparked for me the desire to own a home and have a spare bedroom where I could have that. Honestly, it's such a dream to walk through. For me, I'm very domestic, so the idea of, "Oh, I'll never run out of anything?" It's also all so perfectly placed. It made me want to do that. The benefit of having something like that is that you kind of have to be a couponer, otherwise you just spent all that money. The real satisfaction comes from knowing you didn't spend a lot of money on all that stuff and you didn't pay full price. I don't know what the best thing I've ever got from a coupon is ... K-Bells, what's the best thing you've ever gotten with a coupon?

Bell: Well, look, there's two sides to couponing: There's the ones that save you and then there's the high that is actually sort of taking advantage of your nervous system because it's an impulse buy. I am wildly susceptible to impulse buys. And I want exactly the thing I got. I don't know that I necessarily needed it. But it was a great deal. I was driving in Burbank, and there was a piano store that was having a parking lot sale — it said 80% off. Obviously, I screeched the car to pull over, bought a small piano, put the seats down on my car, came home. My husband was like, "What did you do?" I was like: "It was 80% off."

Q: Kirby, would you enlist Kristen's services when trying to carry out an illegal scheme? Kristen, what makes Kirby a worthy partner in crime?

Bell: I don't think Kirby would want me.

Howell-Baptiste: No, I would want you. It's almost like an "Ocean's 11"- or "Ocean's 12"-type deal where, if I was building a crew, you would 100% be a part of it. I know why you think I woudn't [want you]: because you wouldn't want to commit a crime. But that's why I would have you doing the organization of it. Kristen is incredibly organized, she is on her s—. She's also very, very honest. And you need that loyalty so that you know that the people you're committing a crime with have got your back. She would never flip on you. That's why I would have Kristen in my crew.

Bell: That's true. And yes, I have two allergies: penicillin and inefficiency. And so, yes, I could hold down the fort. If I had loyalty to my crew, I probably would be able to commit a crime. Kirby has offered some of the best advice in my life to me. I feel like when it falls out of her mouth, she doesn't realize how much it affects me. But before meeting Kirby, I didn't realize how much I needed a friend like her, [someone] who has the self-confidence and the lack of co-dependence to be an example for me — for real. I do feel like I would walk into a fire if Kirby told me to. So if she asked me to join her crew, I'm in.

Howell-Baptiste: She's definitely in my crew. I mean, I'm not going to take Kristen into the bank when I'm robbing it, but she's for sure gonna be the getaway driver.

Bell: I would freak out.

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