Lake Bell can do incredible things with her tongue. She can touch her nose, twist it to both sides, and fold it backward as flat as an omelet.
In a Silver Lake studio, recording vocal exercise warm-ups for an online campaign promoting her directorial debut, In a World... — a comedy about cutthroat voice-over artists, which debuted at Sundance and opens Aug. 9 — Bell puts her whole mouth to work. She pants, hoots a crescendoing tribal chant, then explodes like sea spray hitting a rock. Despite a table heaped with noisy snacks — tortilla chips, gingersnaps, apples — her fellow cast members and engineers remain respectfully silent, even when Bell breaks into a nonsensical koan: "Tabletop tabletop tabletop tabletop Zsa Zsa Gabor Zsa Zsa Gabor Zsa Zsa Gabor."
"I'm obsessed with the voice-over industry," Bell says. "Clearly."
Before launching her career in 2002 with two episodes of ER, the New York–born actress spent 3½ years at a London theater conservatory, where her instructors nitpicked her cadence and vocal control. "In England, they still honor the radio play as an art," she explains. "The voice is just honored in a tremendous way."
She has mastered more than a dozen accents — "BBC English, Southeast London, Russian, French dialect — really good at that one — Italian, some Southern accents, though my specificity wanes only because I haven't fully studied regional dialects. All parts of New York, Jersey. I can babble a little German."
So when Bell graduated and moved to Los Angeles, she seized upon scoring voice-over jobs instead of waiting tables. "I read an article somewhere that it was a great way to make buttloads of cash."
That was true for voice-over's big dog, movie-trailer king Don "Thunder Throat" LaFontaine, the man who coined "In a world...," earned millions every year and cruised around in a white stretch limo painted with his initials and a crown. Bell, however, couldn't even get an aspirin commercial, let alone a lucrative trailer gig. "It was utterly impenetrable," she sighs.
But she did realize there was a movie to be made about this über-competitive clique — especially because it has the firmest glass ceiling in the entertainment business: Trailer spots never go to women. "I'm a fucking trailer junkie," Bell says. "Why is it chicks never do that?"
"It's a very, very fear-driven business — the fear is that a woman's voice won't have the authority to say, 'This is a movie that you have to see and you don't have any choice,' " answers actor Fred Melamed, who plays Bell's father, a voice-over baron who would rather rip out his daughter's vocal cords than hear her poach his jobs. The former voice of Conoco Oil, Mercedes-Benz, USA Network and CBS Sports ("I haven't sounded like a real person since I was 7 years old"), Melamed knows the industry — and its egos and paranoia. With huge budgets at stake, no studio executive wants to risk turning off male teenagers by casting a voice that might sound like a mom.
They tried it once, in 2000, when Buena Vista hired 20-something newbie Melissa Disney for the trailer of Gone in 60 Seconds, but when the Nicolas Cage/Angelina Jolie diesel-fueled flick barely made back its $90 million investment at the domestic box office, the spooked suits reverted back to cliché. "If it had been a huge blockbuster, it's conceivable that things would have been different," Melamed says. "But who's going to lose their job for hiring Don LaFontaine? Nobody."
For Disney, the job was career-changing, though at first she didn't realize what she'd done. "Women would come up to me and say, 'Thank you for paving the way,' " Disney recalls. " 'Which way?' I had no clue."
LaFontaine offered her a ride in his limo ("He taught me a lot of things about hot tea"), the old-timers dubbed her Donna LaFontaine, and then one afternoon, Bell cold-called Disney and said she'd been following her work for years and was writing a film loosely inspired by her story.
Now, although Disney is busy with ads, cartoons, games and Internet spots, actual theatrical-trailer gigs remain elusive. "People think that Gone in 60 Seconds is the only thing I've done," Disney says. "There's no reason why women shouldn't be doing trailers."
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"It could be as simple as an omniscient, disembodied voice of God is inherently male because in the Bible there's a capital-H 'He,' so it has to be a man," Bell says. "Or it could be that, scientifically, a male voice cuts through action sequences better because of the resonance and level."
Speaking of resonance, In a World... also gives Bell an excuse to lambast the sexy-baby voice, the nasal rasp Britney Spears popularized when she croaked, "Oh baby, baby." Bell, who grew up worshiping the mature purrs of Faye Dunaway and Lauren Bacall, grumbles, "It's a vocal trend for women that makes them sound like a submissive 12-year-old little girl who doesn't know any better, and I think it's fucking gross. It's a feminist issue and a trend just like skinny jeans — but skinny jeans are cool, and I hope they stick around."
Most importantly, In a World... is Bell's first crack at finding her own voice as a filmmaker. If ladies can't voice trailers, at least they can be heard in the stories female directors decide to tell. Which will happen first: a second female director winning an Academy Award or a second female voice-over actress landing a blockbuster theatrical trailer campaign?
Melamed deadpans, "Will we have a woman president? Undoubtedly. Will we have a woman Don LaFontaine? Maybe."