Lake Bell: A female filmmaker makes her mark in the male world of the Hollywood voiceover

She’s the director, actor and screenwriter whose new film is making people talk about the way people talk.  Alice Gregory meets her in New York

“In a world… where one woman orders vegan chilli…” roars Lake Bell in a theatrical, voice-of-God-like thunder. Her face is contorted, and she’s leaning into the table, getting ready to laugh. We’re at a Brooklyn pub, and the actress/director/writer has indeed just ordered vegan chilli. But before we get down to it, Bell pauses to examine her spoon, which she notes “has a little plant life on it”. She scrapes at the gunk, and then shoves it to the side. Bell is not the squeamish type – you can tell just by looking at her.

She has just moved to the leafy Brooklyn neighbourhood of Fort Greene from Williamsburg, where she lived atop Peter Luger’s, the most famous steakhouse in New York. “I like to live amongst strange food environments,” Bell says, as if realising the pattern for the first time. As a high-school exchange student in France, she lived above a fish market, and later, while studying drama in London, a chip shop in Sidcup, a neighbourhood she affectionately describes as being without “a resin of hipness”.

Bell, aged 34, speaks in both complete sentences and an even alto. At this point, it would be a serious professional liability for her to be any other way. Her first feature film, In a World…, which opens on Friday, tells the story of a hapless freelance voice coach  – played by Bell – whose father, a legendary veteran of the voiceover industry (played by Fred Melamed, see box, p18) impels her to pursue movie trailer voiceover stardom, a position never before achieved by a woman. The film has it all: family dysfunction, misogyny,  romance, even a controversial conclusion.

If this subculture strikes you as offputtingly niche, know that Bell has biographical reasons for immersing herself in it. “I had been obsessed with accents and dialects my whole life,” she says. “It was sort of a dinner-party trick, and then it accelerated into something more sophisticated as I grew up.” Drama school, she says, “fed [her] obsession”.

For the next 20 minutes, between bites of that vegan chilli and swigs of beer, Bell proceeds (at my urging, it should be said, she’s not insane) to explain – and show – how one achieves different accents. The mini-lesson is part linguistics, part theatre camp, and it is really fun. “England is such a Petri dish of accents,” Bell says with admiration. Cockney is “wa’y back ’ere in the mo’uth.” She points to a muscular knot right below her ears, which is visibly flexed in a way it wasn’t a moment ago. The word “right” has two syllables in Cockney, she explains, whereas in RP, it’s a “quicker travel”. Cockney is Bell’s favourite accent. I ask her why, assuming the answer will be something cultural, but it’s not. “It’s just so athletic,” she says. “It has a much bigger architecture.” And then, much to our mutual chagrin, Bell reverts back to our native tongue. “In Emirica, wee talk like this; we talk with ur mowth open.” I can see back to her molars; her neck suddenly looks thicker. It’s hideous.

If I don’t stop her, it’s tacitly understood that Bell will just continue performing and then reverse engineering accents indefinitely. And as much as I’d like her to continue (I’m curious about South African, which always takes me a few minutes to identify), we have to get to business.

Bell describes the plot of In a World… as  “deeply personal” coming “from years of therapy and investigation into thyself, and also my dad and, like, what’s his deeeeeal?” Bell, over the course of that sentence, shifts from a Merchant Ivory drawl (to signal that she’d never actually say “thyself”) to a grungy whine (to signal she’d never actually say “deal”).

Throughout the film, Bell both criticises and pities victims of what she calls ‘Sexy Baby Vocal Virus’, an epidemic (symptoms include high pitch, uptalking, and glottal fry) that targets young women in the Continental United States. It’s not just innocuously annoying, she argues, but also sinister. “To be afraid is to be – this is kind of sick – is to be sexual,” she says. “Little girls are scared, and that’s why this voice is so dark.”  It’s also potentially dangerous: “As a woman who loves other women I’m saying… this vocal  virus is sort of emitting this quality that you are less than… I was so self-conscious about seeming mean or preachy, but I think people get in the way of their dreams with their voice.”

Bell’s own dreams have not altered much over the course of the past three decades. She always knew she wanted to act, and after a peripatetic coming of age – a childhood spent on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, an early adolescence in small-town Florida, stints at a New England boarding school and a French homestay programme – she agreed to go to Skidmore College in upstate New York. She lasted a year. “It was really just satiating my parents, who wanted liberal arts,” she explains. “They didn’t like the idea of me just doing one thing… But I was like, ‘Believe me, it’s going to work out. Don’t worry about it’.”

Bell transferred to England and to the Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance (hence Sidcup). It was encouraging to her that, in London, to be an actor is a respected occupation. “In America,” Bell half-jokes, “you say you’re an actor, and it’s like, ‘Good for you, you mean you’re a waiter?’.”

Visa problems sent her back to the States, post-graduation. Bell moved straight to Los Angeles, and pretty quickly landed roles on television sitcoms such as ER, The Practice, and Boston Legal. “It was like, HO-LEE shit. I’m getting paid what?! I remember sitting there, thinking, what I’m doing is not worth this. I can tell you that.” But Bell owes her current state of creative freedom to those swollen paychecks. “I’m really thankful I did television shows when I was young and didn’t spend a lot,” she says. “It’s really supporting my endeavours now.” 

Bell, by this point in the evening, has assumed the sort of unstudied slouch that’s been the hallmark of every innately cool person for at least a century. She’s nursing her beer, and fiddling with a delicate gold chain that hangs from her throat. It’s a rare – and refreshing – pleasure to be in the company of a woman who is feminine but not at all girlish. Bell’s face is undeniably beautiful, but as she herself admits, there’s also “a handsomeness there”. She raises her eyebrows knowingly. “It can go either way, and I’m aware of that.” It can’t, really, but the phenotypic fact of her strong jaw and non-tiny nose, surely informs her mannerisms, and has at the very least made her analytical when it comes to her looks. 

“When I go into a meeting for anything, especially trying to get something made, I don’t overly think about the fact that I’m female,” she says. “I think that’s probably a good thing, but I’m also aware that I dress and present myself in a way that is neutral and not overly feminine and not overly manly.”

Bell remembers asking her older brother for advice, when, at around 13, she began getting wolf whistled on the street. “It’s super easy,” he told her. “You don’t cower, and you don’t do the thing where you pretend it’s not happening. You have to look at them in the eye and say, ‘Hey, thanks so much! Good afternoon. Have a great day,’ and keep walking.” It’s counsel she’s taken from the street to the set. “I know how to immediately desexualise an environment,” she boasts. 

This is the perfect segue, so I squeamishly ask Bell the question that is posed to every woman who ever makes a movie: Why are there so few of you? Her answer is the most perceptive and – in retrospect – obvious one I’ve ever heard. “There’s a lot of female directors, they’re just all making independent movies,” she says. “When people say, ‘There aren’t many female directors!’ Well, yeah, if you look at the box office. All the big movies and movies being developed by a studio right this second for the past, say, five, 10 years, or  even more, I mean, the percentages are crazy! There’s a handful of female directors who get to do that. And in my opinion, want to do that. I think it’s not just get to, I really  think it’s want.” 

This kind of subtlety tends to be lost in the perennial women-in-film hand-wringing. Sure, maybe there aren’t women directing superhero sequels, but could it be that we’re living in an age of the female auteur? Think Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Lena Dunham, Lynne Ramsay or Nicole Holofcener.

Doing everything herself – the writing, the acting, the directing – seems to be Bell’s priority, if for no other reason than it means she gets to select her crew and stars, without a lot of financial obligations and input from marketing teams. “Making a movie is like going to Outward Bound,” she says. “If you have a diva on Outward Bound, it’s gonna suck.” She waits a beat. “And you might die.” 

Bell is currently at work on her next feature, which means she’s just coming out of a “writer’s retreat,” her self-consciously serious term for the three-to-four-day periods in which she transforms her home into a temporary work environment. “I have to allocate blocks,” Bell explains. “There’s no phone or Twitter, just none of this.” Bell pushes her phone away from her in mock-disgust. “It’s super hardcore.” She cleans her entire apartment, and throws out old takeaway containers. “The refrigerator needs to be full of good snacks and fun drinks,” she says, earnestly. She wears trainers – “no bare feet and pyjamas here” – and does not go out at night. DVDs of her favourite movies – Hannah and Her Sisters, The King of Comedy, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice – are stacked within eyesight in case she needs to watch a scene. “This needs to be a clinical lab with very selected and clinical items for me to look at,” she says in a nasal nerd voice. “During writer’s retreat… it’s as if you’re elsewhere.”

Bell’s been writing on the sly for almost as long as she’s been acting. It began as a high-pressure epistolary correspondence with her mother that was sustained throughout years at summer camp and boarding school. “She’s an amazing writer. I always wanted to rise to the occasion, so I had to bring it,” Bell gushes. “Letters became a huge sport for me. It was accelerated into prose writing, which was then sort of parlayed into  dialogue-based writing.”

And though for the most part work keeps Bell home with only the sound of her own typing, she still has responsibilities to the usual machinations of Hollywood: red carpet events, GQ photoshoots. But even when appearing bikini-clad in Maxim, Bell does not emit that air of consensual exploitation, common to so many pretty young things.

In the echo chamber that is the New York-centric blogosphere, Bell recently caused a cacophony when she appeared on the cover of New York Magazine, clothed in nothing other than a full-body floral tattoo transfer designed by Scott Campbell, who is known as one of the most famous tattoo artists in the world, and, as of this past June, her husband.

Bell, whose torso was intricately filigreed and rendered in a nuanced grey-scale, looked awesome, in the literal sense. Though some accused Bell of exploiting her body to promote her new film, she insists it wasn’t about that. “Intellect doesn’t cancel out sexuality or femininity, and it shouldn’t,” she says without a trace of affect. “It’s a position of great power, in my opinion, to be, as a woman, wearing both. That message is powerful, and  I’m proud of it.”

MICRO CV

Born: 1979, New York City to parents  Robin Bell, an interior designer, and real estate developer Harvey Siegel

Educated: Skidmore College, New York

Rose Bruford College of Theatre &  Performance, Sidcup, Kent

Acting

TV:

Boston Legal (2004-06)
Childrens Hospital (2008)
How to Make it in America (2010-11)

Film:

It’s Complicated (2009)
No Strings Attached (2011)
In a World… (2013)

The kings of voiceover

Lake Bell’s film In a World… takes place in the macho milieu of film trailer voiceovers. Here are the ‘stars’ of that world – you’ll know their voices, if not their names or faces.

Don LaFontaine

In a world of voiceover artists, one man was king. That man… was called… Don… LaFontaine. Before his death in 2008, he had earnt the nicknames ‘Thunder Throat’ and ‘Voice of God’ for his booming, bassy baritone, which studios would pay handsomely to borrow. He might have said the same guff over and over again – he became synonymous with that Hollywood trailer opener, “In a world…” – but LaFontaine did well out of it. Lending his voice to over 5,000 trailers made him millions. So in demand were his services, he set up a studio inside his Hollywood Hills mansion – to save on travelling time.

Hal Douglas

Now retired, Douglas was another bankable bombast-adder – and widely considered the inheritor of LaFontaine’s crown. He also recorded in his own studio (sometimes in his pyjamas), and could command around $2,000 a trailer. And he proved he had a sense of humour about the trade: for Jerry Seinfeld’s documentary Comedian, the trailer is a spoof of Douglas recording the trailer, unable to do a voiceover without reverting to the usual clichés, as if he just can’t help but growl “in a land”, “in a time”, “in a land before time…”.

Fred Melamed

A respected actor on the American stage, on TV and in film (most notably perhaps as Sy Ableman in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man), Melamed also had a 20-year career as a voiceover artist, which he says made him a lot of money – he’s called it his “waitress job”. Now, neatly, he plays Sam, a LaFontaine-esque voiceover star in In a World… Curiously, Lake Bell didn’t even realise Melamed had had this side to his career when she cast him.

Melissa Disney

As Bell’s film explores, the Hollywood trailer is widely considered a male domain, but – as a blockbuster ad might put it – in a world dominated by men, one woman took a stand… The aptly named Disney is the leading female voiceover artist, and has lent her dulcet tones to the trailers for Gone in 60 Seconds and Resident Evil, as well as voicing characters in animations and video games. 

John Leader

Another of the small circle of well-known, in-demand, full-time voiceover artists. Leader was the sound of a lot of 1980s cinema – he trailed the likes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the Back to the Future films, as well as classic romcoms such as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. He featured in another spoofy voiceover video skit, ‘Five Men in a Limo’, with fellow luminaries LaFontaine, Nick Tate, Mark Elliot and Al Chalk.

John Garry

The world of the voiceover artist isn’t entirely dominated by octogenarian white blokes who’ve been doing it for years, however – John Garry, a young black man,  is a prolific new addition to the old boys’ club. He still has the same old thundering, rounded, portentous tones, however, as  you may have heard recently on the trailers for everything from Kung-Fu Panda to  The Expendables, Twilight Eclipse to No Country for Old Men.

Holly Williams

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