Is Lake Bell out to have it all? That’s the feeling you get from her debut feature as writer-director-producer of In a World…, which also finds her starring as Carol Solomon, a fashion-allergic voice-over specialist determined to make it in the competitive career of movie-trailer narrators.
Bell has spent a decade sweating in the vineyards of Hollywood films and TV. With her dark hair, flashing eyes, and massive smile, she most frequently got cast as quirky sidekicks, as in the short-lived Alicia Silverstone series Miss Match and the longer-running Boston Legal (with her character having been spun off from The Practice), although she did get the lead, as a sexy marine biologist, in NBC’s one-season Surface.
More recently, she played a tough journalist on HBO’s How to Make It in America and got special notice as Ashton Kutcher’s vulnerable TV exec in the otherwise forgettable No Strings Attached.
That’s a lot of versatility on display in a relatively short period for Bell, who is calling the Georgia Straight from New York City, where she was born 34 years ago before moving to Florida and other places.
“I did accents and funny voices for my family when I was growing up,” she explains with her characteristic enthusiasm, “mostly as a dinner-party trick. And it graduated to something more sophisticated when I studied acting in England; we just pored over the vocal mechanism and the nuances of dialect and speech in general. That’s when I started taking my dad’s Dictaphone everywhere, as Carol does in the movie, capturing the musicality of language.”
As the actor gained her footing back in the States, she got some voice work to go with her on-screen gigs, which often played an almost masculine demeanour against her knockout looks.
“After I hit on this [In a World…] idea, I spent years working on it before showing it to anyone—mainly because I didn’t want to be just another actress writing a screenplay in her spare time. I didn’t put it out there until I was sure of what I had.”
A solid script doesn’t fully explain the film’s unique trajectory, which defies more rom-com conventions than it exploits. Bell says her fellow producers took that risk without reservation.
“Being willing to outsource all of your creative decisions, especially to a first-timer like me, is very ballsy. I had no other choice than to make it the way I made it. And I felt very supported in that. When you write and direct your own film, you basically know exactly what you want. Or you hope to. For the studio, it actually can make life a little easier, because if they have a bunch of questions, they only need to call one person.”
In the off-kilter comedy, Carol’s dad, and chief rival, is played by character actor Fred Melamed (who reminds one of cigar-chomping Joe Silver, similarly schvitzing in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). And her meek brother-in-law is an unusually introspective Rob Corddry, episodes of whose Childrens Hospital Bell has directed. That WB series has also featured Michaela Watkins, who starred in “Worst Enemy”, a short that Bell previously directed, and who plays her more strait-laced sister in World.
“That was the easiest part of the casting,” the new director says, “because she already is just like my sister. But, certainly, I wrote a lot of these characters with my friends in mind.”
Veteran comic Demetri Martin also plays against type as Carol’s would-be love interest. And there are some nifty cameos from show-biz names and other people we only know from their voices. Outside the family dynamics, and the inside humour, Bell dwells on a subtext—some might say the main text—that is challenging the ways American women flex their vocal cords.
“I’m passionate about the sexy-baby vocal virus affecting a generation of women. The two things that hit you when you meet someone are, first, how they’re visually put together, and, then, what they tell you with their tone of voice: whether or not they’re to be taken seriously.
“I believe,” she says, breaking into Betty Boop voice, “that this squeaky, breathless, up-talking presentation is severely diminishing the power of women.”
Elsewhere, Bell’s own complicated brand of power (or power of brand) is seen rather spectacularly on the current cover of New York magazine, where she’s sporting nothing but a faux tattoo designed by new husband, artist Scott Campbell.
She’s also been shooting Million-Dollar Arm, a sports comedy with Jon Hamm, Bill Paxton, and Alan Arkin. And as if she wasn’t already offering eclectic enough talents, Bell writes an automotive column for the Hollywood Reporter.
“My dad is a race-car driver and I grew up on racetracks, observing that whole scene. I can’t fix your carburetor, but I do have a great affection for cars and I love to write about them.”
After her first feature’s assured success (at least on the critical level), it’s easy to picture an ambitious, jump-suited Bell in a world, if you will, of hot cars and decidedly non–baby-voiced female drivers.
“Hmm,” she sighs, deeply, buying time for an answer. “Give me three years on that.”