She really sucks at shuffleboard.
This isn't shuffleboard like you'd play on the deck of the Caribbean Princess. This is bar shuffleboard—metal pucks you slide by hand down a narrow, twenty-foot, sawdust-covered bowling lane. After a couple rounds, Lake Bell is behind. And angry.
"Fuuuuuck you," she groans as one of my pucks bangs into hers, sending it into the gutter. We're at Fat Cat in the West Village, a dark, underground playroom with pool, Ping-Pong, and shuffleboard—a place where I'd hoped she'd grab a beer and instead she brought her own coconut water. I also hoped she'd be wearing, well, look around this page. But Bell, thirty-five, is comfortably dressed in dark red pants, ankle-high zipped boots, and a black sweater emblazoned with a foot-tall paper clip. The look is very Etsy-chic, as if she were someone who might make her own shampoo if she didn't have better things to do. Bell slides her last puck down the table and we follow it to the other end. We disagree over the scoring rules. She calls me a few names.
She's good at that. She makes it fun. And she's always been good at that, too.
The acting came first. Starting at four years old, "I was tirelessly motivated, because I felt very clear about what I wanted to do," she says. "I didn't fully understand what it meant to be an actor, but I knew it was someone who gets to play different characters, gets to pretend to be in different worlds, and gets to make people laugh or feel. I'm sure there was some sort of validation, where the attention is on me and I can make people laugh; that's normal kid stuff. But then it started to gestate into something more complicated and exciting and very fulfilling." After studying drama in London, Bell had some small roles—on ER; as a lawyer on The Practice and its spin-off, Boston Legal; something with Ashton Kutcher. But it wasn't until she played a manic and manipulative dreamer among a group of New York City hustlers in HBO's short-lived Entourage of the East, How to Make It in America, that her name drew legitimate boldface. Rob Corddry's very funny Adult Swim series, Childrens Hospital, didn't hurt, either. On it, Bell plays the spacey Dr. Cat Black, an obtuse and loving doctor who, at one point, tries to convince a pregnant woman that she should give up her baby because it is suffering from no-adoptionitis. "Before you say no," Dr. Black says, "consider this: I really want a baby." Although Dr. Black has the intellect and demeanour of a person who snacked on paint chips, she does share a similarity with all of Bell's characters: You can tell Bell is having a great time playing her.
The writing came soon after. When she left New York City to go to boarding school at age fourteen, writing became Bell's way of connecting with her mom. "My mother is a beautiful writer," Bell says. "Writing letters back and forth with her was an athletic endeavour, and it became something I really looked forward to." Those letters led to a journaling habit, and soon Bell stopped writing to Mom so she could concentrate on writing for herself. She focused primarily on dialogue and dialect, although not always to the greatest effect. "I had all kinds of stupid, horrible scenes and…you know, fucking pretentious investigations of the human condition." She found herself paying attention to the vocal tics around her, which led to her discovery of a social scourge she's been trying to bring attention to ever since: vocal fry—the raspy, high-pitched baby voice that women sometimes adopt in an attempt to be sexy. (She does a great impression. Search "Lake Bell" and "vocal fry.") It also led her to the frame of her first major screenplay, In a World…: how we talk.
Yes, that sounds boring. And it would have been if Bell had simply left it at that. Instead, she wrote a poignant film about the strain of father-daughter relationships and the persistent bias women still face in the workplace. Bell plays a voice coach and the daughter of a famous voice-over actor whose shadow she's trying to escape. It's full of funny performances from Bell and Corddry and a cast of real voice-over actors whose voices are so lush and velvety, you could almost rest your head on them. Sundance liked it, too, and Bell won the festival's Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in 2013.
And then it only made sense to direct. "If I write something and I'm going to put in all that love and energy, I want to direct it," Bell says. So after writing In a World…, she decided to direct it, too. She'd had some practice directing—if a few plays in high school count. And from the age of fifteen to twenty-two, in a move that presaged and upstaged the current trend of millennial narcissism, she decided to carry a VHS camera around in order to record her life. But what really helped her hone her abilities behind the camera was the ten years she'd spent in front of it. "As an actor, you have access to the trenches—to a myriad of different sets," she says. "You can sponge and learn, or you can go back to your trailer and look at YouTube videos of cute kids falling asleep. There's a time for those videos, but I had a hunger to learn."
She also had a hunger to keep writing. As soon as In a World…was done, Bell was already at work on another project, which she's described as an in-depth look at marriage. (Although she is now married—to tattoo artist Scott Campbell, whom she met on the set of How to Make It in America—Bell's views on marriage are, well, nuanced: "Marriage is traditionally old-school in many respects. It is highly antiquated, and, that being said, beautiful.") She plans on eventually directing this one, too. Through all the work, all the stress, Bell makes sure she always focuses on one thing: "I don't think I'd do it if it wasn't fun.”
We've moved on to Ping-Pong. We're just hitting back and forth. No scoring, for the sake of conversation. As we talk, there's a burbling joy just under the surface of everything Bell says—the same glimmer that shows in all of her characters. It's there when she talks about filming a new comedy, Man Up, with Simon Pegg. And it's there when she convinces me to take my mom to her movie, Million Dollar Arm. In that one, she stars alongside Jon Hamm, who plays a struggling sports agent who goes to India and creates a reality show in an attempt to find the next great pitcher. "It's sweet. And it's a true story," Bell says. "You're going to cry."
I see it a few weeks later, and she's right. Not about the crying, but it is a touching story. There's a moment in the middle that reminded me of her. Two boys selected in the competition to come to Los Angeles are struggling to find their pitches. Their coach, a diminutive Indian baseball fan who tagged along to basically become the movie's mascot, is sent out to talk them up. What he says is pure Disney, spread on thick: These guys are given a chance to make not just their dreams come true, but his. All they need to do is have fun.
From: Esquire US May 2014 issue.