Lake Bell stars in a scene from the film “In a World ...,” a comedy about a struggling voice coach.
Lake Bell stars in a scene from the film “In a World ...,” a comedy about a struggling voice coach.

‘In a World…’ star and noted voice-over actor has plenty to say

Lac cloche. Sø klokke. Jezioro dzwon. Lago campana.

When Lake Bell was a kid – and already obsessed with language, dialects, the words coming out of people’s mouths – her ears would perk up when she’d be in an elevator, or on the street, and catch someone conversing in French, Danish, Polish, Spanish, some foreign tongue.

“My name is two nouns, so I would get into the habit of childishly asking any stranger who was speaking a different language if they could translate those two nouns,” she said. “And so I always felt that I was pretty international – because I translated into any language.”

Now, a few decades and a busy acting career later (“It’s Complicated,” “No Strings Attached,” TV’s “Boston Legal”), Bell has turned her obsession into a film. In “In a World …,” which she wrote, directed and stars in, she’s a slacker vocal coach in L.A., the daughter of one of the star voice-over talents in the biz.

She lives in his shadow. And she lives in his house – until he kicks her out.

The comedy – which won the screenwriting prize at Sundance in January – zooms in on the insular, highly competitive voice-acting world. Bell’s character, Carol, lands a TV commercial gig, and then becomes a contender to do the intoning for the trailer for a big studio action fantasy. Those trailers are traditionally the domain of male voices. Romantic entanglements, professional rivalries, and a faceoff with her dad ensue.

At some point in Bell’s adolescence, already a hit at parties for her ability to slip into accents (“You have a good ear,” a family friend told her), she came to understand the liberating power of the larynx.

“And then later I realized what the liberating nature of being a voice-over actor would be like, because a voice actor doesn’t get judged by how he or she looks. It is ostensibly the blind voice, the disembodied voice, and therefore can be attached to anything, whether it’s an omniscient presence, an authority, whatever.”

Bell discloses a “fun fact” to make her point: In “In a World …,” the character of Gustav Warner (Ken Marino), one of the hottest new voice actors on the scene, is constantly on the speakerphone with his gruff, phlegmy agent.

“A big fat dude is how I pictured him in my head,” Bell said, taking a dramatic pause. “And I play him in the movie. That’s my voice.

“That’s the thing. … You really can play anyone, you can be any gender, and you can be any nationality.”

Bell, 34, grew up in New York. Her father is a real estate developer and racetrack tycoon, her mother an interior designer. She studied theater at the Rose Bruford College in London and started acting professionally in the early 2000s. She has been writing since she was a kid, too, and is the automotive columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, for which she test-drives Cadillacs, Jaguars, Mercedes – the ho-hum fleet of the Hollywood crowd. (Her favorite wheels: “sexy, sharp, Italian muscle cars” from the ’70s, seen in all those Fellini movies.)

She has also long been writing screenplays. And “In a World …” was one she has been keen to bring to the screen – to get inside this crazy, cliquish subculture where how you look, for once, doesn’t matter.

“Acting is crazy competitive, but there’s something about it that, if you’re really beautiful, just cuckoo-bonkers beautiful, or you’re super-handsome, you might get a job,” she said on a recent swing through Philadelphia.

“If you’re so fun to look at, you are already halfway there. … Versus voice acting, which is one talent – just the one. There’s no hiding behind anything. So, it’s a smaller, more rarefied talent and pool of people.”

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