Lake Bell twirls into our interview sporting a snazzy summer minidress, red high heels and legs for days. The look is enough to make any man reconsider prior commitments, but this beauty brings so much more to the table.
This native New Yorker and new mom is smart and sassy. She’s a versatile actress, writer and director (witness all three talents in the Sundance award-winning In a World…). And she can be graceful yet funny whilst wearing bellbottom overalls, as she proved in this summer’s raucous Netflix series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.
Now she’s starring in her first action movie, the Dowdle brothers’ relentlessly intense thriller, No Escape, alongside Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan. Poised to take the mainstream by storm, Bell told us about being “on the run” for almost two months in Thailand, women finding their voice and… Paul Newman.
“At the end of In a World…, my character says, ‘Women should sound like women, not baby dolls who end everything with a question, let’s make a statement… now who’s ready to be heard?’ Yes! I love that line!”
Hold on. Lake Bell doing an action movie, jumping across buildings, beating up bad guys while helping to save her family? Where’d this project come from?
One of the reasons I love this job so much is that it challenges you so deeply, but it also brings you to foreign and new lands. It provides opportunities to play not only with different roles but also varied genres. I’d never been considered for something quite like this, a family drama set in an action genre, so it was enticing, because I’d never pushed myself in this way.
Your story sees a violent insurrection kick off in a foreign country, and outsiders are summarily executed. How do you describe this movie?
I think of it as an emotional action movie. It’s unique and refreshing, as opposed to just being about a person or even a couple on the run. It’s very much about their little tribe—husband, wife and two young daughters. What the Dowdle brothers did very well was make sure you are invested in these kids, that they’re not just props that we’re whisking from one location to another. They’re fully realized characters. Usually, it’s like, ‘OK, got to grab the kids.’ Here, they’re little people who have feelings and thoughts, which makes it all the more uneasy because these terrible things are happening to this family we’ve now come to know.
It was raining, there was mud, there’s explosions. Did this movie kick your butt?
The physicality was something that I was excited to take on as a challenge. But, I didn’t realize how much they wanted us to do our own stunts. I was thrilled about doing them because a lot of actors enjoy saying, ‘Oh yeah, I did my own stunt work.’ And I actually threw my back out two days into filming as I wasn’t as prepared physically as I probably should’ve been. So that was even more challenging. Yeah, we had stunt doubles and everything, but just the way they shot it, you always had to do the stunts once at least for the camera. You’ll notice there are virtually no times when mysteriously the hair will be covering your face as you come out of a stunt. You see us doing everything, as director John Dowdle was very adamant about that… We were on the run maybe six to eight weeks. It was crazy. Jesus, it was the best workout, every day just running fiercely.
You earned the prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting award at Sundance for your In a World script, in which your character wants to be the first woman to do the famous trailer voice-over words, “In a world…” Talk about women finding their voice.
There were several themes—finding your own voice, fighting old/sexist thinking, and having fun—so it was a mixture of all these things. I didn’t set out to make a movie that was intensely feminist, I just am a feminist, so it just happened. There were pretty clear messages that I hope didn’t come off heavy-handed. I wanted to express certain things in a very palatable, comedic way. I’m on the record being pretty passionate about the voice being one of the key things in how we present and put ourselves out there. I think about women and their voice, the lay of the land culturally and socially where we’ve come—the voice itself can be detrimental to a woman’s success and finding and achieving her dreams. There’s this like diminutive, sexy baby voice that you hear. And at the end of the movie, my character says, “Women should sound like women, not baby dolls who end everything with a question, let’s make a statement… now who’s ready to be heard?” Yes! I love that line!
Some say the indie movie scene is dying, others that it’s evolving. How do you see it?
I tend to be an optimist when it comes to making movies. We all know it’s challenging to make movies and it takes a lot of time, patience and endurance, which sometimes we underestimate. All in all, it’s a huge privilege to work, and you’re a fool to think that it’s easy. Of course it’s hard, and it involves so many moving parts, and then everything has to magically come together in a fleeting moment for the project to come to life. It’s so just not a linear path.
You used to write an automotive column for The Hollywood Reporter. Tell us about your love of cars.
I love cars, they’re a big part of my life. My dad, Harvey Siegel, and my family are into American muscle cars, Shelby Mustang and the like, that’s what I grew up with. Because he was a collector, that was his wheelhouse, pun intended. He once said “Porsches are arguably the most successful race car in history.” And, they’re great but it took me to test-drive one for the column to understand and investigate the history of Porsche. I may’ve been kind of judgmental from afar, why was everybody so impressed by them? And then once I got into the history, how they started, how they blossomed, that gave me a deeper appreciation. My dad was big fan of auto enthusiasts like Steve McQueen (in Le Mans), but also of Paul Newman. My dad owned racecar tracks, and Newman used to come there and I think my dad had a bro-crush on him. I don’t blame him.
What’s next for you?
I love voiceover work. I have a movie coming out, The Secret Life of Pets, next year, and I am so jazzed about it as it’s my first co-starring animation feature. The character that I play is a big fat cat, and it’s a version of myself [laughs]. If I was a sarcastic and insecure, big fat cat, this is what I would sound like. I’m also directing The Emperor’s Children, based on Claire Messud’s novel and Noah Baumbach’s script. It follows a web of characters surrounding this famous literary patriarch, Murray Thwaite, played by Jeff Bridges. It delves into their interpersonal relationships leading up to the moment of 9/11, and how that offers a re-set button for all the characters. It’s a quintessential New York story, and this will be the first job that I’m just directing!