For years, Lake Bell has been that actress who you recognize, but just can't figure out from where. She stars in smaller TV shows like Adult Swim's "Children's Hospital" and the short-lived HBO drama "How to Make it in America," while appearing in bigger movies like "No Strings Attached" and "It's Complicated."
It's fitting, then, that the film that will put her front and center – "In a World...," which she wrote, directed and stars in – is about an entertainment subculture unseen but familiar to movie-goers. (Think of all those epic trailers that begin with an ominous, "In a world…") "In a World..." is a clever, hilarious look at the cut-throat (pun not intended) voice over industry in which her character Carol is trying to find her footing.
Bell was obsessed with vocal manipulation before setting her film in the voice over world; she even planned on doing voice over work rather than acting when she first moved to Hollywood.
"What excited me most was the idea of blind voice, which is you aren't judged by what you looked like," Bell says. "You can be anybody. You can be any social [class], any nationality, any gender for that matter."
That someone can escape identity and gender through voice is also important to the film. Carol – who starts the movie as an aimless 30-something voice coach living with her father – seeks to break into the voice over boys' club after the death of one of its titans, the real life Don LaFontaine. Even her dad, played by Fred Melamed, resists the idea that a woman belongs in the sound booth.
In its insularity, "In a World..." presents a wicked satire of the entertainment industry at large – the voice over narrators consider themselves "the voice of God." But Bell says she was hoping to hit something even bigger.
"In any industry, whether it's a hierarchy at a newspaper and who gets what stories, or you work at a real estate company where there's some jerk with the big personality who thinks he runs the show, ego is universal," she says. "Within this little microcosm that is the voice over world, it's the petri dish that can mirror other industries as well and other intra-industry dynamics."
Bell began playing with her voice when she was a little girl performing for her parents' friends, and she honed her skills while studying drama in London.
"I started collecting accents and anyone who spoke a different language or was from a foreign land," Bell says. "My name in itself is two nouns and I could have it translated into any language. So I would hunt down people of different nationalities to ask them what my noun names were translated as."
Likewise, her "In a World..." character keeps a voice recorder at the ready to archive any dialects she meets along the way, and even when not playing Carol, Bell's vocal talents show up elsewhere. She plays the agent of one of Carol's voice over rivals, who is heard only over the phone.
"I would likely not traditionally get cast as a big, fat, old Jewish agent dude. But in voice over you have the power to do anything," she says.
Bell is the latest in a wave of women, working primarily through the independent film circuit, to write, direct, produce and/or star in female-centric smaller films, competing against big-budget, action-heavy, male-oriented blockbusters.
"It's obvious there's a dearth of [female] filmmakers in these studio systems, that's just the truth," Bell says, adding that women – already facing limited opportunities – may be discouraged by the studio system where they must comply with a boardroom of opinions.
"Men who dominate the industry can maybe afford to work with that construct, but maybe it's less alluring for a woman who is just starting to make her mark," she says.
After "In a World...," Bell stars in "Million Dollar Arm" with Jon Hamm, and she is also working on her next feature. And if all goes well, she'll be back juggling writer, director and acting duties, which she calls a "cocktail of chaos."
"The energy that I expended during the shooting of ["In a World..."], and really the whole damn process is so profound that filmmaking is an athletic sport," she says. "And that's why you've got to wear comfortable shoes."