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Lake Bell pushes the ceiling like a natural wonder

Photo:  Actress, director, and screenwriter Lake Bell

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

As soon as she appears onscreen, Lake Bell inspires people to ask, “Who’s that girl?” The dark-haired actor with the biggest smile this side of Julia Roberts has been that other girl in mainstream movies like “What Happens in Vegas” and “No Strings Attached,” the indie catch in “Man Up,” and a featured player in television shows like HBO’s “How to Make It in America.” She’s always fun and grounded by an intelligence that overcomes her character’s initial reluctance or anxiety. Bell has also carved out a space for herself as a burgeoning utility player, stepping behind the camera as a writer-director of films like her latest, “I Do…Until I Don’t.”

In talking to Bell about her experiences, I got the sense that her no-nonsense approach has less to do with breaking Hollywood’s glass ceiling than showing the people in charge of greenlighting projects on the other side of that see-through barrier that she, and others like her, are ready and willing to do whatever it takes to share their stories on their own. 

Dayton City Paper: How did the journey to becoming a writer-director begin for you?

Lake Bell: I’ve been an actor my whole life and I was interested and secretly obsessed with directing, but I didn’t dare take that on without feeling like I has the purpose or experience to do it. So it was difficult, like a chicken or the egg thing. I didn’t want to direct a feature if I hadn’t directed anything, but then how do you direct something to start with. I had been secretly writing “In a World…,” my first feature, without really telling my agents or anyone just because I didn’t want to be like everyone else in Hollywood who said they were working on a screenplay, but didn’t have anything to show for it. So, I just didn’t tell anyone until I had the screenplay (completed) and my agent was like, “Hey, I want to get this made.” Then, they came to me and said, “Why don’t you direct this?” They were having a hard time finding the right person to collaborate with on it. But I said, “Well, I don’t want to direct this without some other experience.” So they told me to direct a short film, which I went home that night and began putting a project together. I used my own money, invested in myself, and that went to Sundance and was very well-received. It (“Worst Enemy” in 2010) became my visual calling card, which I used to raise money for “In a World…” (2013), which also ended up going to Sundance, where it won an Audience Award and I’m off to the races a little bit. This is my dream job. It suits me in my heart. It is the form of expression I hope to pursue for the rest of my life.

Dayton City Paper: In terms of making this transition – from acting to writing/directing – is there a difference in how you write characters/roles for yourself versus the ones you get outside your own projects?

Lake Bell: I feel like I can only write things that are truthful to me. I’ve been a closet writer my whole life. Even as a little kid, I journaled, wrote letters, you know, everything, obsessively taking on characters in that form. But the characters I’ve been offered, as an actor, have always been great and I’ve enjoyed them thoroughly and with every role I’ve played, I get something out of it, something that I take away creatively, but I think when you are writing for yourself, you have the luxury of knowing what you haven’t been able to express in other roles. I know that there are parts of myself that other directors and casting directors don’t know as well, about me, things that I can do, so that’s when and where I have the opportunity to build something unique and different for myself to play. And as a director, I would never put myself in a role that didn’t make sense for me, because (as a director) I would know that I was wrong for the role. It’s always been in my best interest to cast myself well, because that’s just for the good of the piece overall.

Dayton City Paper: With your latest, “I Do…Until I Don’t,” there seem to be two sides to the story. The documentary filmmaker (Dolly Wells) who doesn’t believe in marriage and then you’ve got these couples (Bell & Ed Helms, Mary Steenburgen & Paul Reiser, and Amber Heard & Wyatt Cenac), in various stages of their relationships. So, what came first, in the writing, the belief in marriage or the idea that it doesn’t work? 

Lake Bell: I started writing it nine years ago, right after I had finished “In a World…” and I was coming at it from a pretty jaded and cynical point of view. I was outwardly unromantic and felt that the institution of matrimony was archaic. But I believe that every unromantic person out there secretly wants to be proven wrong, and that was very much me. I met my now-husband (Scott Campbell) while in the process of writing this movie, and that is why, ultimately, it is extremely hopeful and romantically pro-commitment. Not every relationship works out with the perfect little bow, but I do think every relationship should honor the effort.