Everywhere you look these days in Hollywood—from Selma to Superman—a British actor seems to be swiping a choice American role. So it’s nice to see that the door swings both ways. In Man Up, a romantic-comedy that’s premiering April 19 at the Tribeca Film Festival, Lake Bell plays Nancy, a single Londoner who spontaneously goes out with Jack (Simon Pegg) after he mistakes her for his blind date. Complications ensue only after they have a great time together—because even if he’s Mr. Right, her deception eventually has to come to light.
The London accent wasn’t exactly a stretch for Bell—she attended drama school in the British capitol, and In A World, the festival hit that she starred in and directed, proved that she was obsessed with voices and dialects. Even so, that doesn’t mean Bell took the acc for granted. She worked with a dialect coach and spent months mastering it again before she joined Pegg and director Ben Palmer (The Inbetweeners) in London. “Accents are very important to me,” she says. “Once you get the accent done, then you can play the part.”
In an exclusive clip from the film, Bell stretches that accent with a sexual soliloquoy that is pure poetry. Austin Powers himself would blush.
Bell, who had her first child in October, is busy working on her next script and is also getting ready to direct The Emperor’s Children, a Noah Baumbach script based on Claire Messud’s 2006 novel about young well-educated New Yorkers circa 2001. She spoke to EW in her natural accent—I think.
EW: What made you want to play Nancy?
LAKE BELL: I went to drama school in England, and on my career bucket list has always been to play comedy in a sort of Anglo setting—to kind of go back there and play a fully realized British character. I couldn’t believe that [producer] Nira Park and [director] Ben Palmer would actually even want to meet, because as a director, I would just cast a Brit. Like, what’s the point [of casting an American]? So initially, I tried to talk my agent out of my going in to audition for it, and he was like, “Don’t be an asshole. Go in and give it a go. You would’ve begged to go in on something like this years ago.” So I went in, and I hustled to get my accent chops back on par, because you want to be able to exist within the accent as yourself, versus the accent sort of wearing you. Once I auditioned for it, that’s kind of when I know if I really want something or not. It’s not until then that I sort of realized, “Oh shit, now I care.”
What exactly was it that got you excited?
There’s a comedic camaraderie between Simon and I, in terms of just the musicality of how we play as comedy counterparts. Then the words that Tess Morris wrote, they just fit in my mouth well.
Well, speaking of that, there’s the scene at the bar where you deliver a soliloquy of British slang and sexual profanity. I’m going to have to Google most of them to learn what they really mean. Was that all proper slang, or is it made up to sound cool?
[Laughs] Thank you. It was all incredibly wittily penned by Tess. She’s hilarious, and there’s no improvisation in that. It’s completely written. I went to college in the U.K., so when I talk shit with my friends at college, all of those words and all these phrasings, that diatribe is sort of ripe with all of those things that I remember.
Romantic comedies used to be a major box-office engine for studios, and especially for actresses’ careers. Now it’s more rare for them to break through at the box office. Is the genre exhausted?
I think it’s a fair observation. I think there’s a dearth of female-driven content in the studio system, but I think there’s a lot out there [on television and in independent film]. I don’t want to overly soapbox about it, but it’s something that we talk about all the time. And in a way, a lot of the really great films that are female driven, they now come from an independent system and then they get bought by studios. If you’re a female filmmaker, you’ve got a project, it’s easier to have more creative control if you do it independent. And because they don’t have as many opportunities, if women get the opportunity, they want a lot of creative control. You end up sort of finding yourself without the studio system, on the independent circuit. That’s just my theory.
How did directing In A World change your career? Has there been a tangible result, or more of the same, in terms of opportunities?
Making In A World not only changed my career, but changed my life 1,000 percent. It’s one of those things where I can’t even pretend to be flip about how vastly it shifted everything in my world. Not only did it forge many opportunities as a director, but definitely as an actor as well, putting myself in a leading role and then sort of putting all my love and energy and heart and soul into it. In A World wasn’t a huge monetary gain, but what I gained was something that is ostensibly kind of priceless. I am forever proud of it. I think of it as my firstborn—as I sit here with my physical firstborn upstairs.
I imagine proving to the industry that you can take an idea and turn it into entertainment and art certainly changes everything. You’re directing again: The Emperor’s Children. Is that the present or the future?
I’m in pre-production right now. And you’re entirely right: at the end of the day, we all know making a movie is hard, whether it’s a big movie or a tiny movie, whether you’re a man or a woman. Making movies is very challenging. That’s why it’s a privilege to do it. So I kind of commend anyone who even just gets one in the can. Because the path is hard, and not everyone has the stomach for it or the endurance. It’s really an endurance race at the end of the day. I remember right after In A World, everyone was like, “Well, what’s your next thing, what’s your next thing?” I’m like, “Well, the reason why I cared so much about In A World, and why it had some modicum of success, was because it takes time.”
I think creativity is lost if there is fear in the room. So I always strive to create without the fear-based environment that I think often sort of seeps into the cracks of many rooms in Hollywood. I’ve got an original screenplay that I’m still working on. Even today, I was chipping away at it. It’s just not ready to be made yet. Emperor’s Children, which means a lot to me, is a completely different combination of creativity. I’m not in it, and it’s a drama, and it’s based on a novel that I did not write and it’s an adaptation that I did not write, with this prestigious company, Imagine, that I look up to. It’s just a different thing. I’m learning so much and also feeling justified and validated that I have a lot to bring to the table as well.