Lake Bell made a splash as lawyer Sally Heep in four episodes of David E. Kelley's The Practice and fourteen more of the sequel Boston Legal. Formerly a series regular on both HBO's How to Make It in America and ABC's short-lived science-fiction series Surface, Bell has also appeared in a number of feature films, including It's Complicated, A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, No Strings Attached, Pride and Glory, What Happens in Vegas, and Over Her Dead Body. Currently, Bell is enjoying a successful run on Adult Swim's Childrens Hospital and promoting her feature-film writing-directing debut: the voice-over-themed comedy In a World... We spoke about the film at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: First I want to say, I always admire when an actor takes the bull by the horns to—
Lake Bell: Thank you.
Groucho: Develop their own material. And it seems to be working out very nicely for you here.
Lake Bell: Thank you. I appreciate that.
G: You wrote the script, for yourself to act in.
G: But I read that it was your agent who suggested that you direct it. Is that true?
LB: Yeah. I mean, I had always wanted to direct, "eventually," with quotations because I had always considered, yeah, the idea of taking on a feature-length film, and directing it was an absurd conceit if you had not directed something before. But then it's like chicken or the egg. So when I had In a World..., and I had submitted it to UTA [United Talent Agency], and we were shopping for directors, it actually was my agent Billy Lazarus who said, you know, "Clearly, you have to direct this goddamn thing 'cause nobody else is gonna do it in the way that you see it. Y'know?
G: So hence the short film route...
LB: I told him I would never direct something without having directed something else before. And he said, "Well, then make a short film." And I, that night, started excavating all of my notes and found within there this character of Wooly, which I always envisioned as Michaela Watkins. And then I wrote "Worst Enemy." And then that went to Sundance, and that became a calling card and also, obviously, a grand source of validation.
G: Right. With that short film, what did you learn on that surprised you, and what, if anything surprised you about directing a feature?
LB: I mean, the biggest surprise was how at home I felt on the set in that capacity. I felt like I had—something clicked, like I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Which is profound, considering I had always been on a track of being an actor. And I always wrote, but I never had directed anything I wrote. And that was always kind of a private hobby. So, y'know, being on that set and just having that desire and the comfort was an interesting feeling that was unexpected. And then, you know, writing and directing and starring in something, the hardest thing about it is writing and directing and starring in something. That's what I always say. Because it's multifaceted. It requires so much preparation. And usually there's soft prep and hard prep, and then you shoot. But, for me, I started a year before, prepping. And six months before I was in, I don't know, semi-hard prep? (Laughs.) And then soft. And then gentle soft. And all—a myriad of different—whatever kinds of preps there were, I bought them. Because it's just—I didn't want to—for instance, the protagonist, who's myself: I didn't want to not pay attention. I didn't want to squander the opportunity to make that a really a) a well-written part, but also a well-acted part. And if you have your hands in too many items, you could potentially do the whole film a disservice, and the whole story a disservice, if you don't pay attention to your character as an actor. So I took the script to an acting coach, pretended somebody else wrote it, and throughout my hard prep, I worked with an acting coach, so I could then arrive on set and that could be the last thing that I thought about.
G: Yeah, yeah. I guess sort of the major theme of the film comes in that line that gets repeated, "A voice is not just a blessing; it's also a choice. Ultimately it's really a film about self-actualization, I guess, right?
LB: Sure. I mean, I think, you know, it's very literally a woman trying to find her voice, and then, of course, metaphorically as well. I think when you have that much hubris and that many egos at play and sort of dreams in vain, there is this sense of—I hope it's relatable, not just that it's just voice-over. And that's why I say it's somebody finding their voice very literally, or emotionally. Because there's a gentle feminist message at bay as well. But yeah, I think the movie is ultimately about these interpersonal relationships within the voice-over world instead of being considered a movie about voice-over.
G: I think it's also interesting—
LB: And also father-daughter competition.
G: Right. I want to talk about that, too. But I think it's interesting that, in a way, it's sort of a distinction without a difference because being yourself is partly about not being somebody false, right? Like that whole thing about not doing the "sexy baby voice"—
G: Or the Valley girl voice. 'Cause these sort of play into people's perceptions of who you are.
G: And maybe people fall into those things in order to be perceived in a certain way.
LB: Totally, and the same way that Sam Soto, the patriarch of this whole story—he has a chip on his shoulder because he wasn't [real-life voice-over king] Don LaFontaine, so he has his own, y'know. And also the waning relevance of this omniscient voice. It's now kind of "the everyday man" is the new, hip trend, like the Gustav Warner [played by Ken Marino]. So I think it is about relevance, too—what's relevant. And I think vocal cultural trends are all sort of sewn into that, in the sense of—that sexy baby voice is for women to feel sexy and relevant and young, adhering to some sort of, in my opinion, submission to a male species.
LB: And sounding like a twelve-year-old girl. Maybe that helps them achieve their dreams or goals, or perhaps it's just something that's gotten away from them in the way that, you know, if you spend time in England, all of a sudden, you say "boot of the car" or "brilliant." Because, really, in a way, it's a dialect. It's a trend that I think is very unsavory for the female gender. But also inherently funny, and I think—y'know, I never wanted to kind of preach people on a soapbox, but the message is inherently there.
G: Yeah. There's enough to get people thinking.
LB: Yeah. And hopefully just have a good time. But, oops! There's a message. You know?
G: The whole voice-over thing: for actors, it's a sort of a holy grail. Maybe particularly for striving actors—
G: Because it does pay so well.
LB: Well, in theory, yeah.
G: In theory. What was the trigger for you? It seems like an idea that was just waiting to happen, for somebody to grab onto. Was there something in particular that, like going out for a voice-over gig and realizing, "Oh, I've stepped into a nest of vipers"?
LB: No, no, no. I, I—I mean, it's somewhat that. I think—I have to admit, though, I've been obsessed with accents and voice and voice-over and sound and dialects my whole life. So I've been collecting accents since I was a little girl. That's a real thing. And then I went to drama school and had the Dictaphone sort of sewn into my tapestry of living. Really, I just would bring it everywhere, and if I heard a great accent, I would record it. And then if I was researching something, I would go up to strangers and talk to them about it. About their accent. "Can I record you, ask you a couple questions?" I have shoeboxes, since I was a kid, just shoeboxes of different dialects, of cassettes. And I just always was—I think it's almost like—it's the ultimate acting, because the blind voice, you're not judged by what you look like; you're judged by what you sound like. So you can be anyone. You can be any nationality; you can be—I could be a dude. You know? And in fact, in the movie, I play the agent that's on the other end of all of Gustav's phone conversations. That's Siegel, the agent: the big, fat Jewish guy, you know? Old guy.
G: When you were doing your training, and living in England, did you ever get into one of those radio plays?
LB: Well, I never got into them, but I—I mean, sorry, I never got accepted into one. Yeah, but we had a whole semester that concentrated on radio plays and radio acting and voice acting. So when I came to America, I had this demo CD that I thought was stellar and that I was going to conquer this world. And when I got here, I was privy to the inner workings of it. Just even in an audition, you can see the cliques and the deep-set kind of hierarchy that exists. So that, in itself, became interesting because, yeah, it's sort of illuminating that there is this whole subculture. And they are ripe with hierarchy and ego.
G: Right. I think that's relatable to people, too, because—you talked about, in another interview, taking the inconsequential very seriously—
G: Being where a lot of the comedy comes from. That sort of an insular world is something, I think, you see in a lot of different fields.
LB: Yeah. Absolutely, yeah. I felt like that hierarchical system, and also the inconsequential taken very seriously, does apply to so many of us who have—like, brothers, like I have family members who are all not in the industry, and they talk about these same thematics. Like where someone finds themselves very important. And their industry such.
G: I'm about out of time here, but I said I was going to ask about the father...in the film, too, that relationship. He's kind of the elephant in the room of the movie, this unsupportive father. That he needs to be kind of taught, at this late stage in his life, how to be a father.
G: Was that something that, to some degree, resonated with you? You've talked about you have a good relationship with your father now, but—
LB: Yeah, I mean, y'know, I never like to throw anyone under the bus, but what I'll say is I am interested in how—not necessarily just men—but seeing parents grow up in the later half of their life. And a coming-of-age story that—because obviously Carol is sort of finding herself and coming of age, but really Sam is as well. And I've seen my parents go through incredible change and evolution in only recent years. And, in a way, it's very hopeful. So I hope it's not—yes, he's sort of—there are parts of Sam Soto that are despicable, but there is redemption, and in general the comedy that I hope to make, and that this I hope represents, is something that does have a hopeful message. Y'know, I feel it's not that easy, either. Nothing's all tied beautifully in a box. And the same way with Geena Davis giving Carol that speech saying, "You know, you got the job, but you weren't the best." And I think those thematics aren't meant to ever be mean but just more exposing—
G: I think you're right that it's hopeful, too, 'cause we're all going to be at that stage [at] some point and maybe turn around and realize, "Oh, I've kind of—"
LB: It's okay to change, yeah.
G: "Walked into a corner."
LB: Exactly. And I admire—maybe I admire my parents for both, on separate, completely—they're on totally different paths and remarried and happy in their own life. But to have seen them both evolve tremendously. I mean, my dad's in his seventies and still continues to evolve.
G: Well, it's been great. I wish we had more time.
LB: Yeah, thank you...Thank you so much, though. No, thank you for this...I appreciate it.