Lake Bell talks about ‘In a World . . .’ and the politics of dialect

Christopher Polk - Actress Lake Bell.

The actress Lake Bell is best known for sexy-funny supporting turns in such films as “What Happens in Vegas,” “It’s Complicated” and the TV series “Childrens Hospital.” Few people know, however, that she’s also an automotive columnist for the Hollywood Reporter. (Her father, the real estate developer Harvey Siegel, collects cars and owns the Virginia International Raceway.)

This week, Bell adds writer-director to her list of accomplishments as her feature-filmmaking debut “In a World . . .” opens in theaters. Bell took a few minutes during a madcap day of interviews and meetings in Brooklyn to talk about the film, the cutthroat world of voice-over artists and the politics of how women talk.

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“In a World . . .” is a very smart, funny, observant comedy in which you play a young woman trying to break into a career as a movie-trailer voice-over artist. You capture that world so vividly, I was shocked to learn that you didn’t start out doing voice-overs.

I aspired to do voice-over work, but I never was successful. Basically, I met with a wall of this sort of deeply instated hierarchical system, and that was super cutthroat and kind of cliquey. And that was really shocking, because from afar it seemed like such a colorful career, or at least side career while you were trying to become an actor, which was my main endeavor. I was always told that I had a great ear as a kid, and I latched onto that positive reinforcement and started to do dialects and accents and collecting them like stamps — and that led to literally collecting them with a cassette tape when I went to drama school.

In the film, you offer a running critique of the recent trend of young women speaking in voices that sound like Minnie Mouse on helium, something that has long confounded and bothered me, so thank you for that.

I never claim to be a full-on expert — I didn’t graduate summa cum laude from Yale in women’s studies. But I am a woman, and therefore, inherently, feminist issues are interesting to me. . . . It’s just a trend [that] is so unsavory. I think what I find most unfortunate about it is that it’s diminutive, it’s sort of diminishing. And it’s a dialect. It’s not even justified by, ‘Oh, she was born with that.’ It’s learned.

Where do you think it comes from? Is it an extension of valley-girl culture?

Just doing this movie and investigating it, it does come from the valley-girl voice originally, and it sort of gestated — or festered — into this sort of trend that’s an amalgamation of both dialect and pitch. It’s pitch, which is the higher voice, and it’s also the dialect, the affectation, the vocal fry. It really is a mix of all of those things. It’s this beast of a virus that’s taken on. But I don’t ever want to preach that women take on a false voice and speak lower. That’s not the message. The message is, find your real voice. Which is a normal, big-girl voice, which sounds like what a woman should sound like, instead of insinuating that you’ve regressed to being an 11-year-old and you’re submissive.

Your character also has a fascinating professional competition going with her father, an established voice-over artist played by Fred Melamed. We so rarely see father-daughter competition portrayed in movies.

I’d seen father-son competition in my family in a manageable way, I thought, between my dad and my brother on the racetrack. . . . Machismo is so involved in the racecar-driving atmosphere, and I used a lot of that rivalry — that macho hubris sort of swinging-swords business — I applied lot of those relationships, feelings and textures to the voice-over industry. Which is inherently funny, because racing is life and death, and voice-over is not. But they would beg to differ.

You also address competition between women. One of my other favorite scenes occurs late in the film, during an encounter your character has in a ladies’ room. She’s been competing to be the new “all-powerful” movie-trailer narrator in the tradition of the great Don LaFontaine, and she meets an older, more established woman who has supported her but also subtly undercuts her in that scene.

Everyone has their own experiences. But from where I sit, women struggle. We want to empower other women and help them find success, but there’s another strain that struggles with giving everything without sort of reminding them that the path is difficult. As in, ‘I worked really hard to get to this point by myself, and I can’t quite respect you until you’ve done it yourself as well.’ And I respect that. I’ve experienced it, and I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go do it myself. I’ll see you up there.’

You aspired to be a voice-over artist but never made it; still, you’ve done a bit of voice-over work, for the video game “Prototype” and for “Shrek Forever After.” Do you feel like you’ve finally crashed the gates?

A little. Just a little bit. I’m super jazzed for a job I just booked, “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.” I did a little part — a little, little part — playing Mona Lisa. I did two different Italian accents for that; I don’t know which one they’ll keep. Maybe one day, I’ll be the omniscient voice in some capacity. It’s a chance for the voice-over industry to see what I’ve got.

In a World . . .

Opens in theaters Aug. 16. Rated R for sexual references and language. 93 minutes.

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