proved she’s a pro at accents in her directorial debut “In a World
…,” which won her the Screenwriting Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and made her one of the most promising new filmmakers on the scene. In that winning comedy, Bell played an aspiring voiceover artist struggling to make a name for herself in a male-dominated industry. She’s back showing off her impressive vocal range in the Tribeca Film Festival
world premiere “Man Up,” a romantic comedy in which she’s tasked with playing a British lass who thinks she’s done with dating until she meets a man (Simon Pegg) who mistakes her for his blind date. The film is directed by Ben Palmer, who made “The Inbetweeners Movie,” and written by first-time screenwriter Tess Morris.
Indiewire sat down with Bell shortly following “Man Up’s” premiere to discuss the project and her next directorial outing, “The Emperor’s Clothing,” which boasts a screenplay by Noah Baumbach (based on Claire Messud’s beloved novel).
I know you can do accents thanks to “In a World…,” still, I didn’t see this coming. Did you surprise yourself by nabbing this role in a very British production?
I mean, I’m so thankful for the opportunity that my little movie “In A World…” provided me with afterwards. Right after “In A World…” happened there were myriad of opportunities to direct projects and star in them and do a similar thing that I just did, and I was like “Well, why would I want to do that, because that’s what I just did.” I never want to do something that’s a diluted version of “In A World…” What’s interesting and challenging and exciting in general about the creative function is to do things that are new and outside your comfort zone and something that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
So I found myself in a position to make a play for this movie. I went to drama school in England, clearly obsessed with accents and dialects, and Tess wrote this film that’s so generous in spirit. There’s a lot of rom-coms that come out in this day and age that have such an either winky-winky, or they apologize for being a romantic comedy or they are mean-spirited to be edgy, and this was the antithesis of that. And I though, “Well actually it becomes super refreshing again.” I mean, it’s still modern because of the way that Ben directed it, and even the soundtrack and the movement of how the movie functions is very modern. But there’s something kind of classic and sweet about it.
Like “In A World…,” I’m attracted to movies that have a kind spirit. I like the feeling I have when I leave the theater with that type of a film, so there’s something kind of universal about it in that way, regardless of it being based in England. And then the other part of it was because I went to drama school in England and because I had on my actor bucket-list to play a fully-realized British character, this was an opportunity to fully wrap myself around the challenge of that.
When Renee Zellwegger was cast as Bridget Jones, the Brits were not pleased — that is until they saw how good she was in the role. Did you feel pressure taking this project on? Granted, it’s not based on a literary phenomenon.
I remember loving “Bridget Jones’ Diary” when it came out, but I never even thought about that when we were doing this movie. I did think, I just want to play the comedy and the truth of this character without thinking about the accent. So whatever work I have to fucking do, like for months ahead of time I worked with this woman called Jill McCullough. I want to put in the hours and the commitment to not having to think about it on the day. And so that resulted in me explicitly speaking in the accent from the beginning, and I don’t know if I’ll do that again, but it was an experiment.
Why won’t you do it again?
Just because it gets to be confusing in your brain. For me, I don’t need to go to the nth degree like that. I think I probably wouldn’t do it just because at the end I remember giving a speech to thank the crew, and I thought “Oh, this’ll be really groovy. I’ll do this speech.” You know, because I’d only spoken to them in a British accent and you only get to know people X amount, so there was a majority of them that didn’t know that I was American.
Oh my god.
And it’s not like I’m some huge star that they’re like, “Well obviously she’s American because we know her from all of these major motion pictures that she’s done.” So it didn’t play as nice as I thought it would be, because I thought I’d just come out and generously be like, “And here’s really me.” You know, like pull the mask off. So I went up and here I’d gone through this — it’s a little extravagant to say this but there are these little awards that you give with this miniature family. And here we’d been in the trenches together and I said, [in British accent] “Look, I just want to say to everyone that this has been such a nice experience and I feel like I’ve wanted to say that [in American accent] I’m actually American, and I just want to tell you authentically because that was really Nancy. I wanted to authentically thank you for all of your hard work.” And everyone was like [gives look]. “What a fucking liar!” You know, they just looked at me and they felt dirty. [Laughs]
I’m guessing you didn’t speak to your child and husband with the accent during the shoot —
Well I didn’t have a baby yet — I got pregnant while I was there. [Laughs] My husband came over.
Did you keep the accent up?
With my husband? No. I spoke like his wife. But that was the only person though. So like I’d jump in a cab to go somewhere alone, with no one, or going to the shops to get fixings for dinner, whatever it was. Rehearsals to going out with my friends from school, from college. Of course I went to drama school so it was like we all talked shit and do accents anyway so that was totally fine. They were accepting of my cloak of Britishisms.
You were talking earlier about not wanting to repeat yourself, especially following the success of “In A World…” You’re doing that with your next film, by directing a project penned by Noah Baumbach, not yourself.
I know, I’ll tell you outright that I have a spec that I wrote called “What’s the Point?” that I wanted to direct next, but it wasn’t ready, and I thought, “Well the good news is not in a rush.” There’s a lot of pressure in our industry for like, “What’s next, what’s next, what’s next?” and instead of rushing that into production when I really wanted to just rewrite it again. Writing is a longer process for me, I’m a bit luxurious with how much time I like to take with it, but especially because it’s about marriage I’m investigating constantly the ins and outs of that story. And so I wasn’t ready to direct it, and then I heard about “Emperor’s Children,” a book that I had heard that I had loved was up for grabs, was looking for a director. I heard that Noah had written it and I looked at it and thought, “I’m going to make a play for this. I might as well.” So I went into Imagine and I pitched to them how I would do it. Yes it’s very different, it’s a drama on top of things so, and I’m not in it. I got the gig and I thought, “God this is so cool, to have such a different relationship to the way that the project’s being put together,” but then also the whole journey to make this movie. It’s just very different from the way “In A World…” was put together.
It’s interesting, it’s very much a learning curve, and I’m supremely thankful to be able to have the opportunity to do something so different than “In A World…” Like I said, why do something exactly the way that I just did it? There are just so many ways to make movies and I’m learning another way.
Do you feel a lot of pressure in following up your debut, given how well it was received?
I don’t, only because I feel like then it’s not fun. Anytime something feels not fun then I’ll look elsewhere. I don’t need to do it, that’s the truth. And that’s why I didn’t make “What’s the Point?” right now. Because there was a second where people were like, “Come on, you’ve got to make another movie that you wrote and directed.” And I was like, “Well, who’s going to do that? What’s the point of rushing it?” Because it’s a privilege, it’s a really cool job, and I want it to always feel really cool and fun. So I feel like we all know within the industry that movies take years to make. So just pool your love and energy and support into projects you believe in simultaneously, and you have to sort of feel organically which one is coming forth.
Right now “Emperor’s Children” is my next baby, and that’s the way that the lamp looks. I’m also an actor, so it’s like I think that I am very lucky that directing — writing and directing — is not the only thing that I do. So it allows that pressure to be a little bit looser. Other people, if you’re only acting then it’s, “Well, you’re only as good as your last picture.” But if you are also a writer-director, then, “Eh, maybe I don’t want to act for a while, I’m going to go do this.” So I feel lucky that I can do both.
You’ve proven that you’re obviously adept at voice work. Is there another accent you’re dying to show off in a movie anytime soon… French?
Oh, yes. Oh yeah, mother-fucker.
You would? No fear?
Well I also speak French so, I lived in France, so I totally would do that. I would love to play a French or and Italian so that I could speak Italian too. But absolutely, I think playing a different nationality is the ultimate–
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