The romantic comedy No Strings Attached won the box office this past weekend, put a bankability feather in Oscar front-runner Natalie Portman’s cap, and introduced the world to the concept of “the period mix.” But for those who saw it, the most memorable thing about it may be Lake Bell, who took the part of the second-string love interest and made it the funniest in the film. Her Lucy, a fast-talking, neurotic, well-meaning TV writer, steals every scene she’s in with high-velocity patter and well-meaning spazs. We caught up with Bell, a co-star in Adult Swim’s Childrens Hospital and HBO’s How to Make It in America, at Sundance, where she’s premiering the short film Worst Enemy, which she wrote and directed. We spoke about Strings, finding her inner Angelina Jolie, and wardrobe malfunctions.
So let’s talk about No Strings Attached. Your character, Lucy, is a really, really charming spaz. She gets in her own way. Do you know people like that?
The character has a lot to do with the tragedy of female insecurity and neurosis, which I find utterly compelling and really funny. I know it’s supposed to be really tragic, but I find it really funny. When I read that role, I was like, “Someone needs to let me audition for this immediately. This is exactly what is making me laugh so hard right now.” So I just went for it and ran with what felt organic. Then I was in Florida visiting my grandmother, and they were like, “You need to test for the Ivan Reitman movie.” And I was in Florida with grammy. There was nothing I could do! I was freaking about it, but I was like, “Sorry, grammy trumps Ivan Reitman. I don’t know what to tell you.” So they asked if I had Skype. So I called a friend in Vero Beach to read the Ashton part. She works in real estate, she was so pissed. But yeah, we did it over Skype in a kitchen in Vero Beach, Florida. And I got the part when I was on the plane with my mom.
Lucy can’t stop talking. She has some really specific quirks. Was their someone you were modeling her on?
It’s a combination of pals I have that are totally attractive and smart, but for some reason can’t get it together or shut their trap. They’re just a diatribe of a mess, a tornado of neuroses. It’s like, “You look great, what’s wrong with you? Stop talking!”
You also played the other woman, or the alternate love interest, in It’s Complicated, though that character was really different from Lucy. Do you have any thoughts about regularly being cast as the other woman?
That particular character in It’s Complicated was fun and kind of cold, something different. I’d never played anything quite like that, that had bitch factor. It was incredibly challenging, considering I was in scenes with one of my goddamn heroes, Meryl Streep. It was an incredible challenge for me to play tough, cool, and high-status in front of someone like her. [The director] Nancy Meyers at one point had to pull me aside and be like, “You need to get it together.” It was my first day, and I just couldn’t find the power, my inner Angelina Jolie.
Did the talk work?
Totally. I always think of Angelina Jolie when I’m scared.
This thing about female insecurity that you find hilarious … do you think your field makes women crazy like that?
I do think it makes people crazy. But in general, I think … like, it’s harder for men to be faithful, or easier for them to be unfaithful in this day and age because they are so bombarded with images of women and sex. It’s all right there. It’s too easy. I think that women, especially attractive women, are more prone to being insecure because they, too, are so subjected to all the fucking imagery, all this crazy stimulation. Like, “I’m not like that. My eyelashes need to have two coats. No, three coats!” You can’t win. I think it just fuels this unmerited insecurity that perhaps you wouldn’t have had X number of years ago. Ignorance is bliss. There’s just something very specific right now.
You’re at Sundance right now to premiere a short you wrote and directed, Worst Enemy. And it’s about this sort of woman: a sad sack (played by Michaela Watkins) who eats lots of cottage cheese, even though she’s lactose intolerant, and gets stuck in a girdle.
I am lactose intolerant, and I always thought it was really funny how people who are lactose intolerant continue to eat dairy, because they like it so much. And I find it not acceptable. Like, you cannot complain then, later on, about your bloated tummy and your diarrhea. Literally, the answer is, “Just don’t eat dairy.” I don’t mean to be unsympathetic. These are things I relate to myself. But we all do things we know we shouldn’t do. Like, I’m the worst worker-outer ever. I have a bad lower back. I will not remember to work out because I just don’t want to. I don’t like it. I just never want to work out. But then I’ll complain that my back is hurting, but that’s because I have no goddamn muscles supporting the structure around it. Like, I understand the problem completely, but I struggle to do anything about it. I think we all have things like that. And I don’t think it’s admirable to not take care of yourself. I feel like throughout the little movie, I was interested in playing with the idea that there’s all these trivial insecurities that seem so mammoth, and all we do is try to find a Band-Aid to put on top of them. Whether it’s the dairy-busters or, obviously, getting stuck in the girdle.
I actually had something similar happen to me, not with a girdle but with galoshes. I couldn’t get them off. I thought I was going to have to sleep in them.
It’s the worst feeling! We’ve all been there. It’s funny, on the night of the No Strings Attached premiere, I wore a dress that was super-tight and beautiful. I was like, “Wow, it’s such an honor to wear this dress!” It was fitted to me and everything. Then I got home and literally the same exact thing happened. I zipped down the thing, and it stopped. Just too high of the hip area. I couldn’t maneuver or anything. Eventually I got on the floor. I was like, “I’m in Worst Enemy right now. I’m in my movie.” And I didn’t know who to call. The dress was super-fancy, so I couldn’t cut it. But in the end, I grabbed some scissors and, I hate to even say it, I had to cut the zipper off this couture dress. I didn’t know what to do!
Did you write and direct Worst Enemy so you can stop being cast as the other woman, and play leading roles?
I’ve been writing for years, and I had a script that was going doing the path of getting made. One of those stories where everybody’s attached and it’s ready to go, and then it all falls apart. So I’ve been doing it kind of secretly, and in a way Sundance is my coming-out party, as a writer. But yeah, I wrote this short to direct because I have a feature I wrote that I want to direct and star in. And the only way someone’s going to hire me as a director is if I have something to show for it. I mean, I wouldn’t trust myself either!
What’s the feature about?
It’s a comedy called In a World. It’s about a female voice-over artist and family dysfunction and relationships. I’m obsessed with the voice-over world, so it makes sense for me.
Have you spent a lot of time in the voice-over world?
Yeah, it’s something I partake in. When I first moved to L.A., that’s what I thought I was going to do. I was like, “I’m definitely one of the great voice-over artists.” Then I realized it’s a fucking clique, and it’s impossible to infiltrate unless you really pay your dues. It’s very serious.
Tell me about your TV shows: Children’s Hospital and How to Make It in America. How are they going?
We’re shooting the third season of Children’s Hospital now, and it’s awesome. It’s going to be insane, as per expected. I get to work and I’m like, “Wait, what are we doing? Why are there 76 clowns here?” It’s the only show where I’m constantly surprised by the day. It’s always a confusion. “Why is there a plastic ax?” But with How to Make It in America, which starts shooting in March, you get the script, and you’ve already read it, and you know what’s going to happen. It’s very like, steady cam, running around the city, being cool. I feel incredibly cool being on that show. It’s kind of like a memory bank of what New York is like right now and where I’d hang out. When I look back on it, I’ll be like, “La Esquina! Remember La Esquina? Remember we used to go there all the time?”