News Column

The Philadelphia Inquirer On Movies column

August 18, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 18--Lac cloche. S klokke. Jezioro dzwon. Lago campana.

When Lake Bell was a kid -- and already obsessed with language, dialects, the words coming out of people's mouths -- her ears would perk up when she'd be in an elevator, or on the street, and catch someone conversing in French, Danish, Polish, Spanish, some foreign tongue.

"My name is two nouns, so I would get into the habit of childishly asking any stranger who was speaking a different language if they could translate those two nouns," she says. "And so I always felt that I was pretty international -- because I translated into any language."

Now, a few decades and a busy acting career later (It's Complicated, No Strings Attached, TV's Boston Legal), Bell has turned her obsession into a film. In In a World . . ., which she wrote, directed, and stars in, she's a slacker vocal coach in L.A., the daughter of one of the star voice-over talents in the biz.

She lives in his shadow. And she lives in his house -- until he kicks her out.

The comedy -- which won the screenwriting prize at Sundance in January and which opened Friday at the Ritz Five and Cinemark at the Ritz Center/NJ -- zooms in on the insular, highly competitive voice-acting world. Bell's character, Carol, lands a TV commercial gig, and then becomes a contender to do the intoning for the trailer for a big studio action fantasy. Those trailers are traditionally the domain of male voices. Romantic entanglements, professional rivalries, and a faceoff with her dad ensue.

At some point in Bell's adolescence, already a hit at parties for her ability to slip into accents ("You have a good ear," a family friend told her), she came to understand the liberating power of the larynx.

"And then later I realized what the liberating nature of being a voice-over actor would be like, because a voice actor doesn't get judged by how he or she looks. It is ostensibly the blind voice, the disembodied voice, and therefore can be attached to anything, whether it's an ominiscient presence, an authority, whatever."

Bell discloses a "fun fact" to make her point: In In a World . . ., the character of Gustav Warner (Ken Marino), one of the hottest new voice actors on the scene, is constantly on the speakerphone with his gruff, phlegmy agent.

"A big fat dude is how I pictured him in my head," Bell says, taking a dramatic pause. "And I play him in the movie. That's my voice.

"That's the thing. . . . You really can play anyone, you can be any gender, and you can be any nationality."

Bell, 34, grew up in New York. Her father is a real estate developer and racetrack tycoon, her mother an interior designer. She studied theater at the Rose Bruford College in London and started acting professionally in the early 2000s. She has been writing since she was a kid, too, and is the automotive columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, for which she test-drives Cadillacs, Jaguars, Mercedes -- the ho-hum fleet of the Hollywood crowd. (Her favorite wheels: "sexy, sharp, Italian muscle cars" from the '70s, seen in all those Fellini movies.)

She has also long been writing screenplays. And In a World . . . was one she has been keen to bring to the screen -- to get inside this crazy, cliquish subculture where how you look, for once, doesn't matter.

"Acting is crazy competitive, but there's something about it that, if you're really beautiful, just cuckoo-bonkers beautiful, or you're super-handsome, you might get a job," she says on a recent swing through Philadelphia.

"If you're so fun to look at, you are already halfway there. . . . Versus voice acting, which is one talent -- just the one. There's no hiding behind anything. So, it's a smaller, more rarefied talent and pool of people."

And speaking of how you look, Bell appears totally naked -- her body covered in a temporary rose tattoo designed by her artist husband, Scott Campbell, her hand placed strategically -- on the cover of New York magazine's fall fashion issue.

One of the great recurring riffs in In a World . . . is Bell's character's encounters with a perky twentysomething (Corsica Wilson), whose vocal register is higher than the Rockies, and who finishes every sentence in an upspeaking question mark.

The "sexy baby vocal virus" is a bane of our times, says Bell, and she's on a crusade to do something about it.

"Historically, we fall victim to vocal trends," she says. "Think about the movies of the '30s or the '40s -- people talked a certain way, and everybody talked that way in every movie. And then in the '50s, there's a very specific cadence, and even [in] the '60s and '70s. It's just sad that our generation's trend is -- it's only one subgrouping of young women. And some older women take it on to sound more relevant, or sexy.

"But I hope what I tried to do in the movie -- I hope the message is a positive one rather than a punch in the face.

"I love women, I am a woman, and I have sisters and I have a mom and I respect women deeply as a gender, so I hope that the message is to be a little bit more self-aware about how you sound.

"Because, really, when it comes to making an impression and putting yourself out there in the world, and wanting to accomplish your dreams and goals and finding your soul mate and all those important things, the first thing you have is what you look like, and you can't really get rid of that. That's just the lay of the land, and albeit superficial, it is real.

"But then you have your voice, which is the next inevitable form of expression that represents you. And you can be perfect on paper, but say you're on a Match.com date and the perfect man sits down with a woman who is expressing herself via a voice that sounds like she thinks she's a little girl, a 12-year-old who is submissive. Somehow, I think you will not be considered for the job, or the relationship.

". . . I want girls to sound like their true self. I'm not saying put on a deeper voice. I'm saying put on your real voice. . . . Sound like a woman, not a child."

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.

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