Lake Bell has found her voice.
In her debut feature as a writer/director in the film In A World, Bell plays Carol, a wannabe voice-over artist who is struggling to break into in a tight-knit industry that doesn’t take kindly to the idea of women providing the omniscient narration over movie trailers. The movie works as a pure comedy, an exploration of a quirky subculture, and a smart show-biz satire. Complicating matters is the fact that her dad, played by Fred Melamed — a real-life voice actor with a booming delivery — is a legend in the field.
The 34-year-old New York City native has spent the last decade or so climbing the casting totem pole from small sitcom and film roles to delighting in star turns in TV shows like Boston Legal, How to Make It in America, and Children’s Hospital; the movie, however, catapults her into a new class of star.
Last week, Bell spoke with BuzzFeed by phone and soon turned the interview on its ear, firing questions our way. A real pro move, done with a real pro’s voice — as well as some fun accents and dialects.
How many of these have you done today?
Lake Bell: Umm, 17.
What’s the worst question you’ve been asked?
LB: It’s not bad questions. It’s the same questions. I think that’s the main difficulty. The main one was, “Why the voice-over industry? Why the interest in that?”
Well, I won’t ask that then. I read the press notes, anyway. The answer: You were always interested in voice-over acting, and even tried to get roles doing it after college.
LB: I like this already.
This can be a very meta-interview, which works since the movie is about the industry.
LB: Let’s get meta. How about I start interviewing you?
Let’s do it.
LB: How are you, first of all?
Well, it’s raining in New York, but I can’t complain.
LB: I’m in Philadelphia and it just stopped raining here, so there’s that.
Why Philadelphia? It’s not a normal junket town.
LB: Well I’m doing a Pennsylvania tour. I’m going from city to city; yesterday was Chicago, then it’s, like, Austin and Minneapolis. I’m jumping from city to city to take my little movie into theaters with film societies and groups and sort of sharing it and doing Q&As, and then whilst I’m here, I always get a day of interviews and on camera things, local things to be a little more inclusive of local cities.
If we’re going to be meta, this movie is about voices, being able to project different tones and sounds flawlessly, and I’m always very self-conscious about my voice, I’m pretty sure that I sound like a child. Do you have any tips for me?
LB: I think you have a great voice, but I do think you have a lot of baggage on your voice, which means either you’re carrying a lack of sleep or you’ve had a lot of coffee today, or both. It doesn’t sound like you’re a smoker.
Nope, I’m not.
LB: It’s more coffee-drinky. Do you drink coffee?
I definitely drink a lot of coffee; I’m also trying to be not too loud in an office, which may be part of it.
LB: Because yeah, you have a croak, as well as do I, but that usually happens to me when I have too much caffeine or I’ve been on airplanes too much, where I can hear the history of my dehydration rearing its head through my vocal mechanisms.
Can you tell a lot about someone from the sound of their voice?
LB: I think so. There are two main tells when you meet someone, and whether you like it or not, you’re going to be judged by them. One is your visual appearance — what you’re putting forth visually to someone. And the second one is your voice, because that’s your main form of communication to the person across from you. So I think to be too lackadaisical with your voice might do you a disservice sometimes, just because it’s an opportunity to represent yourself.
This movie is a fun play on the voice-over community, but it also looks at how silly it is, in the way that any industry is silly. What kind of feedback have you gotten from people on it?
LB: Well my biggest surprise about the voice-over community is there even is one, that is so rich and profound and so loyal, it’s incredible. Every city I go to, even other countries, people reach out and show up, because I do feel that it is a subculture that is not represented ever, and now here is this movie that really does tap into a whole subculture of people.
Do they think your voice-over voice is good?
LB: I haven’t gotten a mass of criticism on it, but I think they’re just pleased to be represented and glorified in this movie. I had hoped to be supremely respectful in my representation of them whilst always being playful, and the good news is they have a good sense of humor as a community and I think they enjoy it. They’re not like, “And by the way, your voice isn’t good enough, kid, go back to the drawing board.” Basically it’s a 93-minute audition for me, because it’s like, maybe I could get an audition or voice-over role if I’m lucky.
It’d be incredibly great if you got voice-over work out of this.
LB: That would be the coolest thing that could happen. The other coolest thing that could happen is that if young women started using their big-girl voices as a result of being more vocally self-aware.
You’re not into the sexy baby voice thing?
LB: It’s like a dialect, it’s not even a real voice, it’s a fake voice. I’m into real voices.
Why do you think women put that on?
LB: I think it’s just a trend, like skinny jeans or ironic mustaches. It’s just around now. And there have been vocal trends in the past, and it’s obviously birthed from a place of pop culture and reality television and whatnot. But more interestingly, we go through generations of different vocal trends all the time. In the ’40s we got the like, “Why don’t ya get a drink for us, doll, what’s the matter with ya?”
There’s a different musicality to the way people spoke in the ’40s and there’s a different cadence for the ’50s and ’60s. It kind of sucky that our current trend is somewhat unsavory, but it’s a social conversation and still interesting even though it’s not the most ideal dialect.
I like that gangster/noir-type voice.
LB: Yeah, see that was a good vocal trend.
Ken Marino and your co-stars bellowed out very professional voices, the sort you’d really hear on trailers. Were they that good, or did you have to play with it in post-production at all?
LB: Well, that’s movie magic. Yeah, you know, you do little things, so that people aren’t taken out of the movie, so they don’t question anything. Really minimal, though; everyone did a great job. The only person I will say didn’t need any retouching at all or any movie magic sprinkly dust was Fred M, because he’s been a voice-over artist for 20 years and he played on the same playground as Don LaFontaine.
They say in the movie that they don’t like women to be voice-over artists, because men sound more authoritative, but I feel like I’d be more likely to buy something if I’m told to by a woman, not some booming man.
LB: I think everyone’s different, obviously, but I don’t think it’s necessarily that women are sort of shunned from the entire industry. That’s not true. What’s true is that in the movie trailer industry, they are; that’s no hyperbole at all, there are no women in the movie trailer industry. It’s interesting that you say that because there are some reports and studies done that say men will listen to an authoritative man’s voice in a disembodied, omniscient narration, but cannot listen to and absorb information from an omniscient female voice.
That seems like a larger societal problem.
LB: Well, I think it’s bullshit. I think that’s an archaic study that doesn’t really hold any weight. But who knows. I do think there are certain male voices that couldn’t command attention, and then there are certain female voices that could.
So how much thought did you put into making the trailer for this, considering it’s about movie trailers?
LB: I nearly ripped my hair out trying to figure out what the trailer for this movie would be. Again, back to meta, there was one version where I would do a super meta kind of voice-overed trailer that then interrupted the voice-over, to have a male voice-over and female voice-over. It was so complicated and convoluted that it started to dilute the material, so we all decided to opt for the classic, simple movie trailer that was good and got the story across, instead of being too clever, which can be annoying.
So how would you say we did in this interview? How would you rate it?
LB: From one to nailed it, I would definitely say nailed it.