Lake Bell has figured out that the best way to build a successful career these days is to be diverse.
Best known for her acting work in movies like “It’s Complicated,” “Million Dollar Arm,” the short-lived HBO series “How to Make It in America,” and her recurring role on the comedy show “Childrens Hospital,” Bell is also a writer-director, and is now the voice of the Apple iPhone 6s.
Her latest movie, “Man Up,” shows off her comedic chops playing a single thirtysomething who unexpectedly takes the place of a stranger’s blind date and ends up finding the man of her dreams (played by Simon Pegg). But the role also displays one of her big passions: doing voices.
In her acclaimed 2013 directorial debut “In a World…” Bell plays a voice coach who breaks through the boys’ club of voiceover work for movie trailers. In “Man Up” (currently in theatres), she shows off her vocal talents again, this time delivering a spot-on English accent while playing a Brit.
Business Insider recently talked to Bell about what goes into pulling off a perfect accent, and whether the current outcry for more female directing opportunities in Hollywood has helped her in fundraising for her next directing effort.
BI: Bravo on the British accent.
Bell: Oh, thank you.
BI: More and more you are starting to show your interest in using different voices. Was the opportunity to do this role with an accent always a possibility?
Bell: The producers had seen “In a World…” and that’s where they found me out and consequently sought me out for this role. And they pitched it to Simon [Pegg] and he had seen the movie too and thought it was a great idea. So their thinking was my whole MO is accents so why doesn’t the Nancy character stay British. Or, we’ll just make her American. So when I screen-tested for it with Simon, I did both versions. I did an American and the best British accent I could do on the spot. Because when I do an accent I commit fully and take it very seriously, so I told them it’s hard for me to half-arse it on the spot. I mean, I wrote an entire movie about how important I think voices are, so it was funny. But the comedic interaction between Simon and I was there so that started the conversation of, “What the hell, let’s make her British!” It has been on my career bucket list my while life to play a fully realised British character without apology, so it was a dream.
BI: When you say “commit fully,” did that mean working on the accent ahead of filming? Having a voice coach on set?
Bell: Oh, yeah. You can’t live in a dialect without tremendous work. Like any muscle, accents and voices and languages are all formed out of the muscles that we have in our mouths and faces and tongues. So that entailed two months beforehand. I worked with an amazing dialect coach named Jill McCullough. We did Skype sessions while I was shooting “No Escape” in Thailand, actually. So three times a week I would have long, two-hour sessions with her just working on the nuance of the accent, which I had had a huge background in because I went to drama school in England for four years. But this character had a dialect that was of a current London girl. Plus, once I set foot in London, I vowed to never use my American accent, and I didn’t. Even going to get the paper in the morning to buying milk down at the shop, getting a cab, wherever. Nobody heard my normal accent until wrap.
BI: Was that to just stay familiar with the voice or were your scared that you would lose it if you stopped after filming wrapped for the day?
Bell: It’s a little bit of both. Because Simon and I aspired to improvise, I didn’t want to be caught out. As living is improvising, if I’m talking with the accent and just living, at some point I’m going to say a phrase or terminology or vowel that I don’t know how to attack [with the accent]. So in doing that it helps expose the holes that I have. I could catch myself and go back to Jill and we could figure out how to fix it.
BI: How did you and Simon go about improvising the scenes?
Bell: The way Ben Palmer, the director, wanted to do it — and it’s probably the way most directors would do it if they had the luxury of time — was we had extensive rehearsal time. In the rehearsals we would improvise the scenes over and over again to see where we could find new funny pieces. So we did it within rehearsal with the writer present so that we could amend the script to reflect what we had found. And, of course, some things came up during shooting, too, but most was done during rehearsals.
BI: You were in two very different movies this year [“No Escape” and “Man Up”]. You voice a character in next year’s “The Secret Life of Pets.” Are you specifically trying to keep the roles you choose as diverse as possible?
Bell: The reason I got into this business was for the privilege to exist in different genres and different worlds and play out different realities. So for me I think it’s very much a product of what I put out there, which is, I hope, my career is never predictable. And my interests are diverse in that way. I feel very lucky that when I’m burnt out of acting I take to the pen and I write something I want to direct. And then when I’m tired of taking on too much responsibility as a director I then look for an acting gig. And I’ve made it very clear that I’m interested in voiceover work. I mean, I’m always looking for voiceover gigs. I love that.
BI: Even as far as, say, doing voice work for a car commercial or something like that?
Bell: Well, I’m the voice of the Apple 6s commercials.
BI: Really? I didn’t know.
Bell: Yeah. It’s like the most profound accomplishment that I’ve had in my career, that I can finally be that voice. And to be the first female voice of their products is really great.
BI: For “Secret Life of Pets,” will you be doing a different voice or your own?
Bell: It’s a version of my voice. I play Chloe, who is a big fat cat, so it’s a version of me if I was a big fat cat. So it’s something I can relate to. [Laughs]
BI: Yeah, right. What’s the latest with directing? Is the dramedy “What’s the Point” the next one for you?
Bell: I’m fundraising right now. So do you know any billionaires?
BI: I wish.
Bell: It’s ready to go and I want to shoot it in the beginning of the year. So I’m in full transparency here of “Yeah, I’m trying to find my financing.”
BI: You were on the cover of the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago for its piece on women filmmakers in Hollywood. It’s just the latest in stories highlighting the inequality of women working in the industry. Are you going about things differently in regards to negotiating contracts or finding work since all of this has come out in the public?
Bell: I’ll tell you after I find a financier. [Laughs] I mean, I gotta find my financing first. But honestly, it will be interesting to see in the next few months, while I’m out there trying to make “What’s the Point,” if things have changed. Because I’m in it now, and you can be like, “Clap your hands, you’re on the cover of the New York Times Magazine,” but let’s see if anything comes of this lip service. Of all this talk and all this attention — and thank God for that — let’s see the action that’s going to be taken.
BI: With that said, is the phone ringing more often the last few weeks than it was previously?
Bell: I’ll be totally honest in that I feel tremendously lucky that I am offered incredible jobs all the time to direct, but the problem that I have just personally is that there are only so many years in my life to dedicate to certain projects. So when you’re directing something that’s generally two years of your life, you have to understand that. If I’m going to pour that kind of love and energy and sweat and heartache, all that juju into something, I’m going to lean into my own projects before someone else’s. So what I’m doing right now is not a lack of offers but looking for support of my own endeavours. I think of myself as a content creator and hopefully one day a content enabler and supporter of others, so that’s what my immediate and hopefully future journey is. To remain on this path that needs to be fluid, that needs to be able to give and take and alter to meet the needs that are whatever ahead of me creatively. But you have to be steadfast, and right now I’m on a stream train forward to make “What’s the Point.” Hopefully some lucky bastard is going to give me the money to do it and they are going to be very happy they did — I should be so lucky.
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