Some may recognize her from various “that girl” character-actor roles, often as the quirky-sexy “best friend” in rom-coms like What Happens in Vegas, It’s Complicated, and No Strings Attached, or from TV shows like Boston Practice and Boston Legal.
Meanwhile, fans of alternative comedy know her best from the brilliantly subversive ER satire Children’s Hospital.
But lately Bell has steadily slipped beyond those categories, appearing this spring in Katie Aselton’s brutal survival thriller Black Rock, and now writing and directing her own first feature film, In a World…
The new film is a sweetly tart, Woody Allen-esque comedy about the sub-industry of Hollywood voice-over actors, namely the fierce (mostly male) competition to be the voice of big movie trailers. (A field pioneered and dominated by the late Don LaFontaine, aka “The Voice of God,” whose trademark opening “In a world…” became a catchphrase cliche.)
Bell wrote, directed, and stars in the delightful In a World… as a female voice-over actor battling not only the inherent Boys Club sexism of the Industry, but also patriarchal opposition from her own father (Fred Melamed), himself a voice-over titan. It co-stars Bell’s Children’s Hospital colleagues Rob Corddry, Ken Marino, Michaela Watkins, and Nick Offerman, as well as Demetri Martin and Alexandra Holden.
I and another writer sat down with Bell a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about this labor of neurotic, industry insider love that she describes as “my baby” (“I couldn’t have my hands more sticky on this project”).
How did you land on this idea for your feature writing-directing debut?
Bell: My first foray into writing was a screenplay I had co-written with a woman years ago. I’d always been a writer my whole life—my mother and I would exchange letters because I was always traveling from a young age, so I was constantly writing. That parlayed itself into creative writing and then into dialog-based writing.
That first screenplay I wrote was based on my life, and it was a comedy and really fun, and I was really proud of it. But we went down the path of making it as an independent film, and it burst and fizzled, and it was really heartbreaking. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and so I didn’t really want to write for a while, and definitely not with someone else.
But writing that first one was like a college-level course in story structure—I was all ideas and plot, but I didn’t understand the nuances of story structure, and she really did. So when I set out to do In a World… I was really prepared and jonesing to write.
Why voiceover work as a subject?
Lake Bell: I wanted to write about voiceover because like anything, you want to write about what feels really inspiring. When you don’t have a deadline, you just write what you feel like writing, and that’s what I felt like. It felt like a perfect opportunity to have a charmingly, playfully neurotic central character trying to find her voice, being in her early 30s, an arrested development victim, and literally finding her voice physically as well as emotionally.
I really liked it when I was young because it was something goofy to play around with. I have a good ear, so I could do dialects and accents, and it was a great party trick for my family at dinner parties.
I liked the idea of the blind voice, that you could not be judged by what you look like, and it’s the ultimate acting in a way. You can use your vocal mechanism to create characterization. You can be a different social status, nationality, or even gender.
In the movie, Ken Marino’s character Gustav is constantly talking to his agent Siegel on the line, the old Jewish-sounding guy. I played that character of Siegel because I can–within the voiceover template you can be more imaginative and playful about who you can play.
It also feels like a microcosm of the male-dominated entertainment industry as a whole, with females having to work hard to break in. Was that on your mind as you wrote the film?
Bell: In the movie there is an underpinning and discussion of things like the “sexy baby vocal virus” for women, which is comedic but a somewhat feminist conversation about a female youth taking on a vocal trend that ultimately makes them sound like a 12-year-old little girl, when they’re actually grown and educated women.
That came later in the writing process as something to suture together the meaning and give the comedy a little social context and relevance, because it was something I personally had a problem with, and a friend of mine said, “You keep ranting about this issue, you should totally sew that in.”
Which of the main actors surprised you with their depth and interpretation of their character versus what you wrote on the page?
Bell: I have to give credit to all the actors because I’m so proud of their performances, but Michaela Watkins is one of my closest friends, as is Rob Corddry, so I wrote those roles for them knowing they were capable of depth that nobody had seen them do before. I was really excited to share that, and thrilled that they took the chance with me.
But the most surprising was Fred Melamed, because I knew him from A Serious Man and other smaller parts in Woody Allen films, and I was such a big fan of his. I cast him because I thought he could create such rich and complicated comedic characters, but I was looking for him to inject his own interpretation to Sam Sotto.
Fred is such a nice person in life, I thought it would be even more interesting for him to hold on to some of that as he plays out some of Sam’s more despicable, un-fatherly reactions. So I was most impressed and honored that he took the chance to play someone who was kind of icky at times as he struggled for a sort of redemption.
It’s always fascinating when a “character actor” turns their character into more than just a “character-actor character.”
Bell: I’m only interested in making and seeing movies where the protagonists are the characters who are traditionally thought of as peripheral characters. I love the classic idea of the unexpected peripheral character displaying the most profundity.
You had a lot of your Children’s Hospital cast mates in the film.
Bell: I definitely wanted to surround myself with people I knew and who would be supportive of me because it’s an intense endeavor to direct. But first and foremost, I wanted people who were right for the roles. Those people are in my community, the Children’s Hospital troupe, but I’m also a fan of theirs and inspired by them.
You’ve played glamorous – like in It’s Complicated – and here you’re playing more schlumpy. Which requires more subtlety?
Bell: This movie is clearly not a vanity piece. There’s a freedom in playing yourself truthfully, and I don’t walk around being glamorous all the time. There have been parts that I’ve had in which they’re trying to make me look fancier or visually stimulating than I am in real life. But if I’m writing a role for myself, I want to write it as real as possible–though I’m not that neurotic.