Lake Bell's voice has meat on its bones, but it hasn't been hung out in the smokehouse like her voice idol Lauren Bacall's. It's on the medium-well side of deep, the medium side of nasal, and it's expressive without being singsongy.
It certainly is not afflicted with what Bell terms "sexy baby vocal virus," a condition she lampoons in her feature debut as a writer-director-star, "In a World…," which won the Sundance Film Festival's Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and opens Friday. Women with SBVV talk like they've just taken a hit of helium, and every sentence rises at the end like a question.
This phenomenon of grown women speaking like little girls aggravates Bell's movie character as well as Bell herself, both from an aesthetic viewpoint and that of someone who believes women shouldn't prevent themselves from being taken seriously.
"The second you open your mouth with that voice, you're not a real contender. You're a good-time girl," the 34-year-old actress-filmmaker said over a Bell's Oberon Ale ("It's got my name all over it," she quipped upon ordering) this month during a visit to Chicago. "It does women a disservice because it is advertising that they are less than."
That Bell has chosen to make her first feature-length movie about the subculture of voice-over actors says much about her priorities as a performer. Actresses, particularly attractive ones such as Bell, tend to be judged on their looks first.
Bell has played appealing sidekick/best-friend roles in comedies such as "What Happens in Vegas" and "No Strings Attached," and she was the hot-bodied younger second wife on whom Alec Baldwin's character cheats with Meryl Streep's wife No. 1 in "It's Complicated." In Esquire magazine's "Funny Joke From a Beautiful Woman" video feature, you can watch Bell deliver a punch line in her underwear.
"The fact that she's so attractive and so glamorous, albeit exotic maybe, to some degree has limited the kind of roles that she's been offered," said Fred Melamed, who plays Bell's character's unsupportive voice-over-artist father in "In a World…" "She probably has a much wider range than people might imagine, but because her look is so specific and so strong, she tends to get asked to do the same kinds of things."
As a filmmaker, Bell dressed herself with off-handed casualness, gave herself a more-nerdy-than-hunky love interest (a sound engineer played by Demetri Martin) and centered the movie's action around people speaking into microphones.
"Clearly it's not a vanity piece," she said with a laugh. "I mean, I didn't write something that made me slow-motion get out of a car, the camera pans up the leg and then, ahhhhh, beautiful lighting. I like people messy, I like dialogue that's messy, I like art direction that's messy but all in a very deliberate and knowing way."
And she's fascinated by voices.
"I think voices are the most profound tool for an actor," she said. "In normal human interaction you have two things that people are going to judge you by from snap judgment, which is first obviously what you look like, because that's the first thing they encounter, but then there's the voice, which is your calling card. It is the means in which you communicate."
Calling movie voice work "an art that is lost," Bell pined for dialogue "musicality" of earlier years. "There are decades in film where you can hear a vocal trend in all of the movies of that era," she said. "Whether it's the '40s or the '50s, there's a very distinct way of speaking, and in my opinion the trend then is a more articulate trend."
What Bell deems her "voice obsession" began at an early age after some parent told her she had "a good ear."
"I would do accents and do dialects for people like a party trick," she said. "I was sort of a precocious kid who knew she wanted to be an actor and therefore did these little shows called 'The Late Lake Show.' It always involved dialects and mimicry, and then that parlayed itself later on to the idea of forming characterizations solely with the voice."
When she received her conservatory training at a London drama school, "my vocal obsession was satiated, because you spend your first year just concentrating on the voice and neutralizing your body so that you can fully breathe and connect the voice and the breath," she said.
While she pursued her film career back in the U.S., she also pined to break into the competitive voice-over business, with little success. It struck her that movie trailers almost never were voiced by women, certainly not those that began with such God-like pronouncements as the late voice-over master Don LaFontaine's trademark "In a world…"
Bell said she liked the idea of pointing out this gender disparity and also thought it would be funny "to see a woman to aspire to coo those three words and make that her life's aspiration." Then she hit upon the idea that her protagonist, Carol, would be viewed as competition by her father, played by the velvet-voiced Melamed, the unctuous lover of the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man" and a voice-over veteran himself.
"A lot of writing is really just therapy masked in some sort of medium," Bell said. "Without throwing my dad under the bus, we have a great relationship, but he has the capability to question — like how do I say this?"
She went on to explain that her father, Harvey Siegel, who owns Virginia International Raceway and has been long divorced from her mother, designer Robin Bell, would engage in heated car races with her older brother, and that competition informed her screenplay. But Bell also writes a Hollywood Reporter column in which she test-drives cars, a side project inspired by the passion passed on to her by her father.
"But when my dad first read it, I think he was confused and taken aback whilst I thought he would be so overjoyed and proud," Bell said. "His initial reaction was curious to me in that he didn't believe that I did it."