Lake Bell is the real deal. Though she’s toiled in studio movies as the seventh lead (often the girl who gets dumped by the star), last year she wrote and directed In a World, and is now the leading lady in Million Dollar Arm, which comes out Friday. There’s something about Bell that — even though she is drop dead gorgeous — she never comes across as bubble-headed or as an attractive prop, and here she’s a great foil for Jon Hamm in the film. This woman deserves to be a huge movie star, but she might just become a bigger director.
To promote Arm, I got a chance to sit down with Bell and talk about the movie, auditioning, and what’s next. Oh, and “Sexy Baby” voice, of course.
You’ve crossed paths with Jon Hamm before the movie, you both appeared on Children’s Hospital.
Lake Bell: I’ve known him since way before that, I think we initially met backstage at SNL, we both have a lot of pals on the show, or at least we did, and so we knew each other from there, and we had mutual friends.
So what was the audition process like?
Lake Bell: Just a good old fashion auditioning situation.
So Jon wasn’t like “hey!”
Lake Bell: No, Jon wasn’t in the audition process. Here I went back a few times, and then I’m “in the mix” and re “in talks” and all these other phrases they use to describe it. Then I told Jon about it, so hopefully he put in a good word.
But I assume he was attached first.
Lake Bell: Yes, he was totally attached first. It was his vehicle… or project, I should say.
Did they screen test you then?
Lake Bell: I didn’t, which is weird. Most of the time you do. They have different types of screen testing, the process is super weird. Sometimes a screen test can be in a room like without lights or cameras, but then sometimes you have to deal with that as well, and sometimes it will be with the other star for a chemistry read, but Jon and I knew each other really well.
Have they ever filmed you on an iPhone?
Lake Bell: I’ve done things like that so many times. I’ve done Skype, I got cast for No Strings Attached off of a Skype screen test, so it’s always different.
When you’re auditioning via Skype, does that change the performance, do you go a little bigger?
Lake Bell: It’s interesting, a little bit, you have to adjust because you can’t be as subtle. Auditioning in general it’s slightly heightened.
That must be hard that – on top of the normal stress of being good – you have to be worried about how good your connection is. “Did I not get the job because I was pixelated?”
Lake Bell: “Did I not get the job because my dial up is screwy?” You blame your service provider for not getting the job.
F— you Time Warner!
Lake Bell: F— this! Yeah.
You’re playing someone in this film who’s slightly fictionalized but based on a real person.
Lake Bell: It’s not like I mimicked her voice, yeah.
Did you spend any time with her, did you run away from her, or was it more about the script?
Lake Bell: I didn’t get a chance to meet her beforehand, so I went with Tom McCarthy’s expression of her on the page. I know that he’s done such extensive research with JB (Bernstein) and Brenda and the whole family. I think in this situation, for all of us really, when you’re depicting people who exist it’s a little different than transforming yourself into someone iconic that we all know.
Have you ever done that?
Lake Bell: I’ve never done that. But in this situation you try to remain true to the person’s heart and soul. Maybe you don’t have the exact same look or accent or walk or whatever it is. But you want to represent their energy.
But also, you’re playing a character.
Lake Bell: Right.
Have you wanted to play a historical figure?
Lake Bell: Of course, but I don’t have anyone in my back pocket, and if I did – actually I do — I would never reveal it.
So you have your Ali?
Lake Bell: Because I grew with a dad in race car driving, I think there are some women racers that I would love to depict. But it’s one of those things that there’s tremendous pressure. I wonder if Jon felt that. I don’t think so, because though JB’s great, not everyone in the world knows how he speaks. It’s a different thing.
One of the interesting things about this movie to me is that you just directed a movie before you made this film, Jon Hamm has directed episodes of Mad Men, Alan Arkin has directed, Bill Paxton has directed, Thomas McCarthy has directed, so basically everyone else besides your director Craig Gillespe is also a director. Is that something you noticed?
Lake Bell: I now look around on sets and realize that a lot of people are multi-hyphenates. I enjoy working with people who are multi-hyphenates because you get to talk shop about how they do things. And Craig is super respectful of it. I enjoyed talking shop on set, and he enjoyed my movie so it was done with respect. We would talk about “what lens are you using on this?” and “How many cameras are you running?”
You got married in June, it seems like In A World came out around then.
Lake Bell: Yeah, it was a big year.
Is this the first movie you did after directing?
Lake Bell: Correct.
You had directed episodes of Children’s Hospital previous to that but did it change the way you looked at acting?
Lake Bell: It was nice to know that I just had to show up and know my lines and hit my mark. But I was already someone who showed up to set knowing my place because that’s how I learned to make movies, I was a silent observer, and a respectful asker of questions. A student of film on the sets I was privy to. I always sponged as much as I could. Being back on a set after directing, I have such a great respect for the process that it only made me more conscious of being a cog, an important cog, but a cog nonetheless in a very large machine.
I wonder if that makes you a little more precise.
Lake Bell: I’m an actor first and foremost and I know how to play that role on a set, but the only thing it changes for real is that when they give you estimates on how long stuff is going to take, I know the real answer (laughs). I know when they’re lying.
Are you looking for your next project to direct?
Lake Bell: Totally, and there’s three projects I’m nurturing right now. One is a spec script that I’m working on, it’s not ready, it needs a few more rewrites, but I’m respectfully taking my time to make sure it’s fully formed. Then there’s a project I’m developing that I will write, and then there’s a project that I’m rewriting based on a book, and someone already wrote it and I love it so much and that I will direct and that’s a drama.
Do you think of doing anything for television, now that it’s become so wonderful?
Lake Bell: I know.
I mean, on Children’s Hospital, you guys get to play.
Lake Bell: Right now Children’s Hospital is my television card. We shoot Season 6 June and July. And I can’t wait to get back in with my comedy camp, my troops, and I can’t wait to direct some of those. That is my TV card, and it’s kind of full. And the other days of the year are dedicated to my next film projects.
With In A World you brought Sexy Baby Voice into the spotlight, so I have to ask, how much do you hate the Californian intonation?
Lake Bell: Well, enough to write a movie about it. It’s less hate, it’s more being hyper-aware and attuned to all vocal trends and affectations. And there are some that are particularly grating, and others that are soothing. I think that particular affectation falls under the category of grating.
I’m from Portland, Oregon and when I moved to Los Angeles, it was like “oh, people actually do talk like that.”
Lake Bell: And it’s rampant now with reality television so there’s a globalization of this virus.
Do you feel like you’ve made a difference?
Lake Bell: I do. Twitter has instructed that I have made a difference in the sexy baby vocal virus pandemic.
Million Dollar Arm opens May 16.