Girl On Film
Lake Bell is one of Hollywood’s most versatile women. The in-demand actress chats with show director and co-writer David Wain about moviemaking, childrearing and British accents.
Actors who write and direct are rare in Hollywood. Rarer still are women who do all three. Thankfully, their ranks were bolstered in 2013, when then-34-year-old Lake Bell released In a World… On paper, the premise sounds more befitting a “Saturday Night Live” sketch than a feature film: a fictional exposé of the cutthroat, chauvinistic and sexually charged world of movie trailer voiceover artists. Yet, thanks to Bell’s triple-threat talent, the film proved not only an instant comedy classic but a deft commentary on workplace inequality and modern romance, earning itself, among many accolades, Best Screenplay at the Sundance Film Festival, a place on the National Board of Review’s year-end list of top 10 independent films and an unequivocal rave from Roger Ebert.
While In a World… was Bell’s first full-length writing and directing effort, the New York City native had her eyes on an acting career as far back as her grade-school days at Manhattan’s prestigious Chapin School, alma mater of drama legends Sigourney Weaver and Stockard Channing. Like her predecessors, Bell matches her beauty with sardonic wit and impeccable comic timing, which she’s utilized over the last decade to charming and hilarious effect in such films as What Happens in Vegas, No Strings Attached and Million Dollar Arm, as well as on the small screen in “Boston Legal,” HBO’s “How to Make It in America” and the Comedy Central series “Childrens Hospital.” This summer, Bell shows the full extent of her range. She strives to keep her husband and children alive amid a bloodthirsty coup in the harrowing action thriller No Escape, co-starring Owen Wilson; employs a dead-on British accent opposite Simon Pegg in the endearing romantic comedy Man Up; and channels a teenage summer camper in the Netflix series “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” based on the 2001 cult comedy directed and co-written by David Wain, who performs the same duties for the reboot.
As Wain has worked with Bell previously, on “Childrens Hospital” and his popular web series “Wainy Days,” Rhapsody invited him to interview her for this month’s cover story. The two friends and collaborators spoke at a restaurant near the Brooklyn home Bell shares with her husband and their infant daughter.
I met you about eight years ago, when we started doing “Childrens Hospital,” which is now starting to shoot its seventh season. Before that, were you familiar with the film Wet Hot American Summer?
Yes, I saw it way before I knew you.
I’m going to ask you as if I don’t know, but what’s your character in the new series?
I’m not allowed to say. Was that a test? Did I pass? [Laughs.] My character is Donna. She’s a super-cool Jewish 16-year-old who just came back from Israel.
Rewind. Did you say 16? I know that you’re really not all that close to 16, so what’s that all about?
Are you saying that I can’t play 16? Because I don’t think you’re my agent. You can’t tell me what to do. In the world of “Wet Hot American Summer,” we take a few allowances and we have a little fun with seeing 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds playing teenagers.
So, is this a sequel?
It’s a prequel, which is similar to a sequel,
Did you have fun doing that?
I had so much fun. That was my first acting gig after the birth of my child. I knew that it would be difficult acclimatizing to being a working mommy, but it was filled with friends and friendly faces.
Your daughter is how old now?
Has becoming a parent given you any new lens on your professional agenda?
One thousand percent. It forces you to prioritize in a really beautiful and efficient way. When I have five hours to work, I will work. Before it was like, “I can take a three-day writing bender.”
I felt that, too. It made me immediately more focused, more productive.
It’s really terrifying, because what we do for a living is incredibly egocentric, and so it forces you to omit that a little bit, or at least manage it.
You have this huge chunk of your life that is not about you.
Yeah, you are not as important. For most of us in this industry, “you” has been the most important, just in order to move forward. Thank god for knowing what it’s like to be a parent. It’s humbling and sobering to be shook off the me tree.
Have you seen No Escape since you had a kid?
I didn’t want to see it, because I was nervous and so emotional right after I gave birth. I was getting really emotional just watching clips of it. I watched it a week ago, and yeah, it’s different when you have a kid.
You’re on the edge of your seat. So suspenseful. Explosions and all that. What was shooting like?
We shot in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for two months. When I was a little kid, and I thought, “Oh, it would be so fun to be an actor,” part of that was traveling to wonderful, mysterious places that I wouldn’t normally go to. I had never been to that part of the world. And as a filmmaker myself, it was really cool to look at the machine of a movie like this from the inside out. We had two first assistant directors, multiple locations, green screen, harnesses. I’ve never been in the trenches in something like this at all.
Yet the two leads are super funny people.
It’s kind of genius casting. I’m not saying, “Oh, it was genius to put me in it,” but conceptually. What you’re presenting to the viewer is a false sense of comfort. It can’t get that bad. “Oh, it’s Owen Wilson! He’s great! I love him!” And the gentlemen who made the movie are the kindest and sweetest. My mom came to visit the set and she was like, “I don’t know how these nice boys would ever think of something so terrible, so difficult.” There were some shoot days that were really hard for me emotionally. There’s a reason why I enjoy doing comedy.
I think about that, too. I can’t imagine working for two years on Schindler’s List—working on those scenes every day. What was it like shooting Man Up? I’m so fascinated by the British sub-genre of romantic comedies. Is their process different than ours?
Yeah, vastly different, in that we had so many rehearsals. The writer would then rewrite for whatever we found in rehearsal. And both Simon Pegg and I are writers. That’s partially what I think they wanted to get out of the process. Essentially, it was a writer’s room approach to rewrites—a suggestion box of collaboration.
It’s easily the most convincing British character played by an American I’ve ever seen.
[Laughs.] Thanks. I attribute the ease and comfort within that character to the work I did to get the accent down. While I was shooting No Escape, at night I would do hours of Skype sessions with my dialect coach. And my dialect coach was on the set of Man Up. Every day, two hours before my call, we worked together. When I first read the script, I called my agent and was like, “I think they should just hire a British person.” But the team of people behind the film were fans of In a World… and that whole theme within the movie that I’m good at accents was kind of their feeling. Like, “Maybe Lake can do it?”
Have you always been good at accents?
It had always been something I would use as my little funny tool to deflect or survive throughout a situation. I had friends of my parents who would be like, “You know, kid, you’ve got a good ear.”
How did you pick this accent? Is it just your default when you think of British English?
No, with British accents there are hundreds of them, and they’re regional. Your accent, especially in the U.K., says everything. It says, “Oh, I was born in Southeast London, but now I live in North London and my parents are from Bournemouth.” You’ve got all these different layers. Accents are history, which is partially why I like them so much.
Did you keep the accent going in between takes?
I am not a method actor, but I kept the accent going throughout. I just felt like if I was going to feel comfortable and really not think while we’re shooting the scene, I’m going to shamelessly exist in this accent every time I go to the subway.
Yes, the Tube. Behind the scenes, the crew didn’t know me as an American until we wrapped the picture. I had this whole speech that I put together, thinking, “Oh, I’ll come out as an American at the end and really thank them in my real voice and be earnest in that way.” So I got up there in the voice of my character and said [in a British accent], “I just want to let you know that this has been an amazing experience, and it’s probably the right time to come clean and say [in an American accent] that I’m American.”
You think there were members of the crew that didn’t know?
There were members of the crew that didn’t know. It wasn’t as romantic as I’d imagined. Everyone was like [in a British accent], “All right, well, that was weird.”
Now you’re about to direct your next movie, The Emperor’s Children.
We’re in pre-production.
That’s an adaptation of an acclaimed literary novel. And in In a World…, you namecheck Philip Roth and The Great Gatsby. Have you always been a big reader?
I have always been an incredibly slow reader. I was in the slow reading class when I was a kid. I was dyslexic, which is why I watched so many movies and was really drawn to that form of creativity. But my mom was and is an avid reader, and I was always so envious of how quickly she could read and digest things. So as I got older, I worked hard to be a better reader. I’m still pretty slow, because I’m sort of acting everything out. I can’t do the thing where you skip down the page. I have to really chew on everything. But I’ve always been a closet writer. I didn’t tell anyone about it until I had something to present, so it took me a long time to be proud enough to show it to someone. I thought I would direct one day, but I didn’t know when. I remember when I was a little girl, I thought, “Oh yeah, by 27 I’ll have babies, and I’ll be a movie star.”
How do you manage your agenda? You’re acting in a million things. You’re dealing with a new child. You’re a wife to your amazing husband; I was at your incredible wedding. How do you avoid waking up and hitting the paralysis of like, “What am I supposed to do now?”
I sometimes do. Any busy person, no matter how efficient you are—and even if you don’t have kids—you’re still going to have those moments where you wake up and you can’t sleep. For me, it’s because I’m sifting through all my dreams and goals: things I want to do for work, things I want to do for my daughter, things I want to do for my husband. There are so many things. I’m a listmaker. I don’t even write it as a list. I like to write it as little thought bubbles, so that I can see them floating in front of me. There’s always a modicum of the unpredictable and the unexpected, so if you can have some kind of skeleton of what you would ideally like to get done and then allow those other unpredictable moments and opportunities to present themselves, then you feel like you have a little more control. I have to take one step at a time, because if I think about the whole thing, it becomes impossible.
It makes me want to sit and watch TV.