Lake Bell made her acting debut in Speakeasy, best known as the arty film that wasn’t chosen in the first season of Project Greenlight, but got produced anyway. Afterward, she initially found her way onto television, with regular roles in shows like Miss Match and Surface, and a crossover part on The Practice and Boston Legal. But in the last five years, Bell made a habit of appearing in the middle of cast lists on middling-to-bad romantic comedies like Over Her Dead Body, It’s Complicated, and No Strings Attached, and always being the best thing about them. Her daffy wit (and height) quickly earned her entry into comedy circles onscreen and on television, including her current spot as Dr. Cat Black on the dark Adult Swim live-action comedy Childrens Hospital.
Shortly after earning a confidence-boosting Sundance slot for her 2010 short “Worst Enemy,” Bell set off to make her feature directorial debut In A World…, which won an award for its screenplay at the festival in early 2013. Bell stars as Carol, a struggling voice coach who still lives at home with her father (Fred Melamed), an aging voiceover artist who’s a legend in the industry for his trailer work. After she gets kicked out of the house, Carol moves in temporarily with her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry), walking right into the middle of a domestic crisis. Opportunity knocks when there’s talk of a comeback for the phrase “In a world,” popularized by the late Don LaFontaine, and a competition to determine whose voice will bring it back. For Carol, that means breaking into an exclusively male field and turning her father into a bitter rival. While touring with the film in Chicago, Bell talked about the “omniscient” male voice, writing for a big ensemble, and the perspective she’s gained from being on both sides of the camera.
The Dissolve: This film is about a woman literally trying to get her voice into a male-dominated field. Did it arise from your own frustrations about breaking into the business?
Lake Bell: Yeah, I wanted to playfully investigate feminism in a comedic form, and I personally did have aspirations to be one of the great voiceover artists. And it wasn’t necessarily my woman-ness that held me from that, but more the clique that was deeply instilled when I first tried to get in there. And I thought that was always really interesting, that there was this hierarchy that was clearly paved out. I think the feminist conversation is surrounding the idea of the “omniscient” voice being always male, and so that does come into play in the voiceover industry often. And of course movie trailers are the most fun version of it, so that’s where the story sets the scene.
The Dissolve: Assuming you asked the question, “Why are trailers completely dominated by men?” to some people, what kind of answers did you get back? Is there an awareness that this is a problem?
Bell: Again, I don’t think it’s a massive problem. I think it’s an interesting discussion that needs to be illuminated. Because at the end of the day, I think the more interesting issue would be that omniscient voices and the voice of God are always considered male. And the kind of response I get, traditionally, is sort of scientific, that the actual male sound in a whispered, hushed tone can cut through large action sequences easier. Other people have said that when male sports commentators are reeling off a set of quick information, they often throw their voice up an octave higher to cut through. That said, it’s a completely different medium. And you could say, “Well, then, why aren’t women doing sports commentating?” Some do. The other, controversial conceit would be that in the Bible, it is writ that God is “He,” and therefore the omniscient voice is inherently male.
The Dissolve: You made a short film before this called “Worst Enemy.” Is that where you learned how to direct?
Bell: I had always wanted to direct. I directed in high school and then put it on the back burner because I was obsessed with acting. I wanted to be an actress since I was 4 years old, and I was very determined to make that happen. “Worst Enemy” came about because I had this script In A World… that was a feature film I had shown my agents, and they were excited to help me make it. And I said I wanted to star in it, and they said, “Let’s shop for a director.” And then finally, when the search was kind of waning, my agent said, “Why don’t you fucking direct it?” basically. [Laughs.] “You clearly want to.” And I told him I didn’t have the audacity to do that—I wouldn’t direct a full-length feature without having been in that position ever before. And so he said, “Well, why don’t you make a short film?” And I did. Within the week, I had written “Worst Enemy,” and then had it made within the month. I self-financed it and wrote it for Michaela Watkins to star in, who is in my movie as well. And not only did it offer a calling card with the grand validation that it is to be accepted in competition at Sundance, it also was just a confidence-builder. It was a validation, emotionally, that standing on a set in the directorial position felt really at home to me, and I felt comfortable and happy there. And that was the biggest lesson, I think, of all. And then I felt comfortable to take on In A World…
The Dissolve: What made you decide to write In A World… as an ensemble piece rather than one strictly focused on your character?
Bell: The movies I like and that I grew up with involve a myriad of different storylines that are rich, and the peripheral characters have life and complexities and are fallible. And I think I was attracted to that. Whether it’s Hannah And Her Sisters or Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice, I do like the template of knowing the protagonist and then all the surrounding people that are supporting or rupturing their journey. So I think I was just attracted to that template, and it felt more natural and like life, in that you [points at startled Dissolve interviewer] are living your movie right now and I’m just a peripheral character. But I have my whole world that I’m existing in, and an itinerary of events. I just love and respect that you have this whole sea of other things, and people calling you, and your own problems and complexities and happinesses, and I just find that more interesting.
The Dissolve: Does that create a certain challenge, though, in terms of construction? What is the unifying thing?
Bell: It ties together, I hope, through thematics. Everybody’s trying to find their voice, or somehow losing it. And I think this is ultimately a family story. And it centers on this father-daughter competition, but I needed to have Dani and Moe [the feuding couple played by Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry, respectively] there so Carol could see what her true path is in life—that helping people satiates her desires in life more than grabbing for her father’s dream in vain. Instead of like, “Hey, I’m gonna make it, and be something,” she can actually help a community of young women through their sexy baby vocal virus. She does it by way of finding that she’s helping her sister and that life is chaotic, and that they offer that sort of healthy chaos that helps them have realizations.
The Dissolve: Were you conscious of the way you presented yourself onscreen? Did you see that character as an extension of yourself, or is there a distance there?
Bell: I’m lucky that I’m very objective about myself as an actor when I’m editing or watching playback. I know when it’s there and when it’s not. I’m super hard on myself, but also I can see when it’s earnest or not, and I can obviously feel it. When you’re moving so quickly on a set, and you have 20 days to shoot a feature film, to be economical in that way is not just a benefit, it’s also a necessity.
The Dissolve: Do you see yourself as a writer-director-star going forward? That seems like a tremendous amount of roles to try to take on, especially, as you say, in 20 days.
Bell: Twenty days to shoot, yes. But a year for prep.
The Dissolve: Right, so that was the key.
“And then finally, when the search was kind of waning, my agent said, 'Why don't you fucking direct it?' basically.”
Bell: And then another two years for writing. So it’s all different chapters. I will continue to do that because… You know, I might not always be the protagonist, but I will always probably be in the movie. Well, not necessarily. I totally have ideas for movies where I’m not in it, because I’m just not right for any of the roles. But those are probably down the path, I think. I don’t want to put myself in a movie that I’m not right for. [Laughs.] As a director, that’s doing myself a disservice, but also as an actor. I just wrapped a movie for Disney [Million Dollar Arm] where I’m just actor-for-hire, and I always want to be an actor as well, and help somebody else realize their world and tone. I love acting. I will always do it. Though writing and directing is the most exciting, creative, 4-D thing you can get your hands on.
The Dissolve: What did you take away as an actor from this experience of being a director? Did that change your perspective about the way you do that job?
Bell: I’ve always been really respectful of how small [actors] are in the massive machine that is filmmaking. But the way I learned to direct was really to live in the trenches as an actor for 11 years in film and TV. And I think, instead of going to your trailer, you just stick around and ask questions and become a sponge, and you basically go to film school. [Laughs.] It’s like, “Trailer or film school?”
One thing has been confirmed for me is that, as an actor, you are an extremely important part of the machine, but so is everybody else. Literally, it’s all dependent on everybody for it to all work. So there is a tremendous equality, whether you’re above the line or below the line—everybody matters. And I’ve always been respectful of that, but even more so now. On this Disney movie, the director knows I’m a director as well, so we would pal out and talk about all kinds of things, whether it’s the camera package or what lens he’s using. But I’ll stand in for myself if there’s no stand-in. I can get a water, it’s fine, I’m going to be okay. [Laughs.] The truth is, it’s the director’s job to make sure the actors feel good and comfortable, and that they get what they need, because they do have to perform, and that is unlike everybody else’s job. It is nuanced work. So I treat my actors real good. Real nice.
The Dissolve: You are a student or fan of movie trailers. Is there a “glory days” of movie trailers for you? Any trailers that stand out as particular favorites?
Bell: Yes, I am a trailer junkie. But I think when Don LaFontaine was in his heyday… I mean, those kind of trailers are pretty great. I think the Star Wars trailer is kind of epic. So I guess my childhood trailers—’80s and ’90s trailers—only because I remember them so well.
The Dissolve: Is it the strong vocal that carries it for you?
Bell: Yeah, but it’s kitsch now. It’s considered dated. When you hear one that’s kind of [trailer voiceover voice] “Meet Jack. He’s one guy who doesn’t know what he’s going to do…” You know, that kind of sarcastic winky-winky, which is sort of a trend now, is less sexy than the old-school, kind of epic dudes crooning into your ears how to feel and what to think.