Lake Bell: A Writer, Actress and Director Finding Her Voice(s)

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Lake Bell, the writer, director and star of "In a World" (courtesy of Roadside Attractions)
Lake Bell, the writer, director and star of "In a World" (courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

For actress Lake Bell voices have always been a passion, whether it's performances onscreen or accents, dialects and inflections on the street and in real life. With In a World, Bell's first feature as a triple-threat writer, director and star, she turns a lifetime of collecting different voices (a scene she hysterically portrays more than once in the film) into a tour de force exploration of the Hollywood that is heard and not seen: the voice-over industry, specifically the (mostly) men and (few) women that voice film trailers. We sat down with Bell to talk about women in the voice-over world, father daughter sexism, the difference between Cockney and South East London accents and the "vocal trend and pandemic" that is grown women speaking with the "sexy baby voice."

KQED: The first thing that I really want to know is how did you make a Hollywood comedy that is basically an indictment of patriarchy in the funniest, cleverest way by setting it in this world of voice-over trailers. The whole time I was like "I'm so mad at the patriarchy!"

Bell: I think my key goal was not to be preachy but to send a message seemingly on accident, mainly because I just don't like to be told what to do, I don't like to be preached to. I wanted it to be like fun and oops, there's a message!

KQED: I thought of it like the mashed potatoes you put the vitamins in: I didn't know I was getting a lesson on gender relations and the way Western civilization has made daughters subservient to fathers and issues of heirdom. It was Greek. Let's talk about how this movie is a really a Greek structured play.

Bell: Well, we can discuss that or we can discuss the myriad of... I think it starts with hubris, definitely battered hubris. The classic chip on your shoulder "you're not the guy, you're the guy who's below the guy," that's Sam Soto who is not Don la Fontaine. You've got his waning relevance in the industry since the "everyday man" voice is bounding through the industry, Gustav Werner, as this new wunderkind and then the unexpected hero of the voice over world is a child trying to attain her father's goal in vain.


KQED: And her father's approval.

Bell: Yeah, only to realize that's not what she's seeking and that she really just wanted to help people, help a generation of young women that have been cursed by a pandemic.

KQED: I love that it keeps coming up in the story. You have the A story in the voice-over industry with the father-daughter competition and then you have the B story that keeps popping up of these baby voiced women. I'll say as a gay man it can irritate me when gay men have certain stereotypical inflections and my girlfriends say the same thing about baby-voiced women. Is it a peeve of yours?

Bell: It's a huge peeve. I'm glad actually that you brought up that in the homosexual community you also have vocal trends and they're similar but here's what I'll say: in the homosexual community it makes utter sense because you're saying "hey, you might not know this but this is the community that I'm a part of." I find it much more relevant and it actually has some substance behind it; it's a cue. Verses the sexy baby vocal virus which is you're basically saying "I'm submissive to men and I'm 12. By being more 12-year-old like I'm being hopefully more appealing to the male sex." That is unfortunate, especially for very educated women who also fall prey to this.

KQED: That was one of my favorite things: that you showed that one of these characters was a lawyer.

Bell: It's rampant in a way that... it's like any trend, it's like skinny jeans. It's a vocal trend. I like skinny jeans and hope they don't go away but I hope the vocal trend does dissipate. In the past there have been vocal trends, I always think of Marilyn Monroe who had such a breathy kind of girly thing and then I felt like there was a myriad of young ingenues who were trying to make it in Hollywood who took that on a little bit, they tried to take on that tone., Obviously it's different, we have a media tapestry that spans and webs out into so much. A California accent that might have started out as a Valley Girl has been translated in reality shows and spanning through a nation that then it becomes an infection and becomes rampant and now an official vocal trend. Even older women, smart, older women, mothers, wives whatever it is take it on to kind of be more sexually relevant or something.

KQED: Vocal trends is an interesting term to describe the pandemic. How did you get into vocal trends?

Bell: I've been obsessed with voice and sounds and accents and dialects and ostensibly it is a dialect; it's a combination of speech and pitch. I wonder what your real pitch is. For me I go lower, for you maybe you go up higher than what you naturally are.

KQED: You're sort of a lady Henry Higgins.

Bell: It's something that I'm sort of obsessed with. Even as a little girl I knew I wanted to be an actor but the idea of voice manipulation was like the ultimate acting job: you could be anyone. In the movie I play Segel, who's Gustav Werner's agent that's always on speaker phone. The big, fat, old Jewish man is me. I like to use those tools and these muscles to have fun and create characterizations where you're not judged by what you look like, you're judged by what you sound like so you can be anybody. I collected accents as a kid.

KQED: Like your character in the movie. Is the "Star Wars Russian" accent based on real life?

Bell: No, that was just one I thought was fun. My brother and I do love that quote ("these are not the droids you are looking for") and for the movie I thought it would be funny to do the Russian accent. I love Russian accents and South East London accents and became obsessed with all the women who served meals (in restaurants in London).

KQED: South East London? Like a Cockney accent?

Bell: When I first went to England I thought of it as Cockney but since I lived there for four years it's like saying "southern accent" whilst there's a Alabama accent, there's a Texas accent. Southern is broad and Cockney is very broad.

KQED: So a South East London accent is exactly what it is as opposed to a Manchester Cockney.

Bell: I was always really into it. The version of it in America was the sexy baby thing which I get so bristled at when I hear it and part it is: "They've got it! Oh, don't get too near, I don't want to catch it." It is what it is.

KQED: So it was your love of voices and accents that led you to set the movie in this world?

Bell: Absolutely. There are so many egos at play in the industry. When I first came here I thought I was going to conquer the industry and I thought I was really one of the greats but it's impossible to infiltrate. It's a real clique: people are very good at it but there was definitely a hierarchical system. "That's the guy who does this," and "That's the girl who does that." There's a handful of guys, a few who do the epics, a few who do the "everyday man" sarcastic wink in the eye kind of guys. You know: "Meet Jack: he's got one foot in the door" you know, that kind of guy. And then there's the women who do the award ceremonies. There's only a handful of them. It's very tiny.

KQED: So Lake, I guess the biggest question for me is are women finally starting to make a place for themselves in the voice-over world? Is it still a work in progress?

Bell: The truth is that women work a lot in voice-over, in commercials, in selling product, in things like that. Whether it's like "these tampons are the best" or you know, or the Emmys or whatever it is. Movie trailer voice-over, there's one, there's one movie trailer ever that ever was sounded by a woman, that's Gone in Sixty Seconds. Melissa Disney did it and I know her now because of this movie. What I will say is the next conversation I think that we should have is when you, and again, it doesn't necessarily need to change but it's worth conversing, is that when there's a car commercial and there's a voice-over for it and one car commercial might have a male voice-over and the male voice-over will say "this car is the best and it's rated this and that" and the tone of it and the message is "if you buy this car you will be me--you will get to be me and have my life." And when a woman sells the same car or a car similar she's saying "all these things are part of this car and if you buy it you will get me." You know, so, that message in itself and the competing messages of those two I think are really interesting because it's "you get to have me" verses "you get to be me" and that's a really interesting observation.


In A World opens in theaters Friday, August 16