Interview: Lake Bell on acting and directing

Simon Pegg and Lake Bell star in Man Up. Picture: Contributed
Simon Pegg and Lake Bell star in Man Up. Picture: Contributed
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Actor and director Lake Bell is committed to setting a good example at both ends of the movie camera, writes Alistair Harkness

LAKE Bell has theory about why women directors tend not to make big studio films. “I think because we’ve been successful for a smaller amount of time, just historically, we’re less inclined to jump into the studio system and make a really big movie with a lot of cooks in the kitchen, because if it fails it’s harder to get back on track again.”

Lake Bell. Picture: Contributed

Lake Bell. Picture: Contributed

She modifies this slightly. “I think also that because we’ve been successful for a smaller amount of time, women want to have creative control. And you can’t do that in the studio system. That’s why female filmmakers are burgeoning in the independent world and men mostly direct studio movies.”

Though Bell is here, sitting before me in a London hotel room, to discuss her first mainstream lead in the new British rom-com Man Up, we’ve drifted into a discussion about gender imbalance in the movie industry largely because her 2013 Sundance-winning film In A World… offered such a witty and incisive critique of the subject.

“I did want to fold in my feelings on the industry and fold in a feminist bent without being heavy-handed,” she says of the film, which she also wrote and starred in, as a vocal coach trying to break into the male-dominated world of movie trailer voice-overs. “But I do think we’re in a better place right now. There are so many women I admire who are hilarious performers and writers and directors. And there’s a market and an interest in a different way than there was, say, five years ago.”

That’s certainly true. Although the indie scene has traditionally been as much of a boys’ club as Hollywood, in the past few years women auteurs like Bell, Lena Dunham, Desiree Akhavan, Greta Gerwig and Gillian Robespierre have started pushing against that dominance. Along with Saturday Night Live alumni such as Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, they’re changing the entertainment landscape for the better, particularly in comedy.

In Bell’s case that’s involved pushing characters front and centre that are traditionally relegated to the sidelines. After making a decent living in television for most of her 20s, she segued into movies and was relegated to scene-stealing supporting roles in US romantic comedies such as What Happens In Vegas and It’s Complicated. Being something of a closet writer, she decided to start penning projects for herself in which those types of characters could be the lead. “I wanted to see a movie about the “character characters”. That was kind of the concept for In A World… where the character I played might have been the brunette best friend of someone in another movie.”

That’s part of what appealed to her about Man Up. She plays Nancy, a thirty-something London journalist who decides on a whim to play along when Simon Pegg’s Jack mistakes her for his blind date. “She could easily have been the train-wreck best friend in another movie,” she says.

Bell was actually suggested for the part by Pegg. He’d seen In A World… and realised she’d have no problem playing a Brit thanks to her facility with accents. Indeed, her London accent – which she localised to Wandsworth – proved so flawless that not everyone on set realised she was American. Of course her dialect coach turned out to be a big fan of In A World… (“She’s my demographic,” she quips) and Bell illustrates the work she did by slipping into her “f***ing estuary accent” and talking about “popping down to Sainsbury’s to do the shopping.”

Considering she spent three-and-a-half years at drama school in London, though, it’s perhaps not too much of 
a surprise that her British accent sounds so natural. “Are you kidding? I was the only American and got more American.”

Bell says she chose to study in the UK to allay some of her mother’s fears that her precocious determination to act from the age of four was motivated by a desire to be famous. Quite what her parents expected her to do after giving her a name like Lake Bell, though, is anyone’s guess. “I know, I remember people telling me that as a kid I always thought it was cool because my name was two nouns, so could be translated into any language. And because I was obsessed with accents I used to collect my name in different languages.”

What was her favourite?

“Lago Campana! Which is Spanish.”

There’s something endearingly nerdy about this, which feeds into Bell’s appeal. Although strikingly beautiful, she has an alternative, indie movie edge that Man Up’s unashamedly mainstream approach can’t blunt. When Pegg’s 40-year-old divorcee recoils upon learning Bell’s 34 not 24, for instance, her response is a swift “F*** off granddad.” The spiky back-and-forth banter between them builds from there.

“I do love her sweet cynicism about relationships,” says Bell of Nancy. “I hope to suture some of myself into each character I do and I certainly relate to adopting that kind of cynicism, but in a kind of a ‘God, I hope I’m proved wrong’ kind of way. I mean, there are YouTube clips of me speaking quite openly about how I think marriage is an archaic institution,” she elaborates. “And in the very same breath I was just hoping to meet someone that would prove me wrong. And I did.”

Bell married New York-based tattoo artist Scott Campbell in 2013 and had a daughter last year. She thinks motherhood might be another reason women filmmakers are less inclined to get on the studio treadmill. “You’re not going to sign on to something as a director if you don’t really believe in it because it’s not worth your time away from your child. I’m a new mother, so I’m seeing it for the first time.”

Bell, however, does have her next project as a director lined up: an adaptation by Noah Baumbach of Claire Messud’s acclaimed 9/11-themed novel The Emperor’s Children. “It’s a completely different creative cocktail,” she says of the drama, which will star Jeff Bridges, though not her. Acting wise, we’ll see her next in action movie No Escape, with Owen Wilson, and in the Netflix comedy series Wet Hot American Summer, alongside Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and a host of other luminaries. She’s also polishing her script for the next film she’ll direct and star in: an anti-romantic comedy about marriage called What’s The Point?

A busy slate, in other words. As she’s already brought up being a new mother, I ask if she’s now being bombarded with the “life/work balance” question that only ever seems to get asked of women and never, say, of directors like Christopher Nolan.

“I know! You’re so right,” she says. “But I guess in a family construct there are more responsibilities [for a woman] than for a man. And I say that having a husband who is incredibly hands-on. We co-parent. But, you know, he doesn’t have boobs. But I am sort of humbled by being a mother now and having a creative brain that craves sustenance in that capacity. And I look forward to being a role model to my daughter. I want to show her that I can do it all without having unrealistic ­expectations.”

Man Up is on general release from Friday