By Molly Lopez
April 22, 2005 06:00 AM

She plays a high-school outcast on Veronica Mars, but for the all-grown-up Kristen Bell, life hardly imitates art. The 24-year-old’s hit UPN drama – about a girl detective struggling to solve her best friend’s murder – is beloved by critics and fans alike. And Bell takes a stab at playing another mixed-up teen in the Showtime movie musical Reefer Madness, as prude-turned-pothead Mary Lane. The actress, who lives in L.A. with her boyfriend of more than two years, recently talked to PEOPLE about playing it younger, living through her own high school days and getting “pantsed.”

You’re 24 but play a 17-year-old on TV. Looking so young, do you have any trouble getting into bars?
All the time. I was in the airport with my boyfriend (Kevin Mann) for a redeye. I was wearing pajamas and he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, and I was sort of laying on his shoulder. And a guy walks over and goes, “Your daughter looks so sweet when she’s sleeping.” I was like, “That is gross!” He’s only four years older than I am, so it was weird.

Your boyfriend is a high-school swim coach. Do the kids on his team know he’s dating you?
Oh yeah – I go down there all the time. They’re really sweet. On Wednesday mornings after practice Kevin has Veronica Mars trivia for extra credit. They love him, which is nice for me to see. It’s a very attractive quality in a man to have him be so responsible.

Are you anything like Veronica?
I think we’re both a bit scrappy. I’m very determined, and I like to fight for my way. I’ve learned a lot from Veronica because I had a very good high school experience, so I didn’t really see the perspective of the kids that were outcasts. Now I’m very quick to defend the underdog.

What was your wackiest high school experience?
I went to Catholic school, and my girlfriends and I had this big thing about “pantsing” each other. My worst one was when I was standing outside a classroom and looking in, waving at someone. My girlfriend came from right behind me and pantsed me. So the whole class was able to watch me trying to pull my skirt up in the hallway.

Were you in any clubs?
Pretty much all the geeky clubs – the drama club and the music club. Everyone got involved in the plays in our high school. Even the big football players were on their knees being munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

You recently bought a house in L.A. Are you doing any work on it yourself?
I’ve tried to, but I haven’t really succeeded. Kevin fancies himself a handyman, and I don’t necessarily agree. When it was raining, he went up into the attic to try to stop the leaks, and he fell through the ceiling in the living room. It was really funny. Thank God he was okay.