Interview: Lake Bell Mans Up to Simon Pegg

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An exclusive interview with Lake Bell about the charming rom-com Man Up!

We were lucky enough to catch the premiere of the charming new romantic comedy Man Up at this April’s Tribeca Film Festival, and rather than feeling like a typical cliched rom-com, its story of a woman who accidentally stands in for someone else on a blind date actually connects as a romance and an incredibly funny two-hander. The onscreen couple in question, played by Simon Pegg (The World’s End, Star Trek) and Lake Bell (In a World, “Childrens Hospital”), have terrific chemistry, with the American Bell pulling off a flawlessly authentic English accent.

We had the chance to chat with the always-affable Bell to talk about where her accent came from, following and breaking the romantic comedy rulebook and her upcoming directorial adaptation of Claire Messud’s acclaimed novel The Emperor’s Children.

RELATED: Check out our interview with the film’s other star, Simon Pegg!

ComingSoon.net: You perform with this flawless English accent. I know you studied acting in London for four years, but what region is that accent from?

Lake Bell: They call it an “estuary accent.” You know how in American accents it’s sort of in-between a posh accent and a real-person accent. The idea is it’s not overly pinpointed so that you don’t have to obsess over it. British accents are incredibly regional, so it’s the equivalent of what you and I are speaking now.

CS: Sort of like a non-regional dialect here in America?

Lake Bell: Well yeah, because they call it “estuary” which is not RP, which is Received Pronunciation, which is more of the Queen’s English, which is a more upper crust kind of perfected, newscaster accent. It’s more precious, verses something very street, very London, more lazy and languid but kind of colorful. It’s somewhere in between, the idea being you live in the city and have the color of all those regions. You’re this very real, accessible mosh pit of an accent.

CS: When the screenwriter, Tess Morris, took the stage at the premiere the other day it was hard not to notice the inflection in her voice and the way she stood and held her arms at her side… very similar to Nancy! Coincidence?

Lake Bell: (laughs) Totally. She’s someone that I vastly drew from. She was at every rehearsal and very much a part of my forming that character. Her writing is incredibly personal to her in terms of how she sees the world and how her neuroses are delightful and charming. She’s kind-spirited in her observation of cynicism. There’s nothing really dark about it, which I think is very refreshing in a time where romantic comedies tend to make judgments on themselves or feel kind of mean-spirited for the sake of being edgy. 

CS: Exactly. I thought it struck a good balance in that it was sweet but not cringe-worthy or saccharine. If I have a critique of the film, which is more of a backhanded compliment, it would be that you and Simon have such great chemistry that the only parts I felt were a bit unbelievable are the scenes where you two are bickering. Is it hard to generate conflict with someone you get along with so well?

Lake Bell: I think in general when you’re doing comedy you’re having a good time regardless of the comedy table tennis that you’re playing. I think you want that too, you’re rooting for two characters to be together and you should feel that even when they’re angry at each other, they’re still in synch with each other. That’s part of the journey of the romantic comedy, you want to root for them even when they’re in their moments of conflict. At least that’s how we attacked it.

CS: Were you a big fan of him and “Spaced” and all the stuff he’s done with Edgar Wright?

Lake Bell: Yeah, you know because I went to film school in England I was very much aware of British comedians. Even after I’d moved out to Hollywood away from my London life I still would keep up with things. I grew up being obsessed with Steve Coogan and consequently became friends with Steve Coogan. Simon was very much someone I had on my radar. It’s definitely a dream role in that I always wanted to go and play in those guys’ sandbox over there and get a chance to realize an actor bucket list item I had which was to play a fully realized British character. To do it in a comedy to boot was phenomenally exciting for me. 

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CS: In the film, Nancy has a thing for Silence of the Lambs, which helps establish the connection between her and Jack. Is there a fav movie of yours that if someone mentions or references you feel like you have an instant rapport with that person? 

Lake Bell: I would say “King of Comedy” is probably that movie for me. That said, I did break up with a guy who said he’d never seen “Annie Hall” and never understood why people thought Woody Allen was funny. I actually BROKE UP with someone because of that. I remember it being like, “Whoa, it’s over.”

CS: This movie successfully navigates the romantic comedy cliché minefield. What are some cringe-worthy things you see in those movies that you guys tried to avoid here? 

Lake Bell: What Ben Palmer, the director, did was brilliantly made a classic structure and the tropes of romantic comedy that were adhered to he made sure they were modern. While there are familiar beats they feel new and fresh, you accept the premise, you allow yourself to go on the journey a little bit. There are things he avoided like a melodramatic or sappy string score. A score that kind of is a little bit pushy about your feelings or you’re not ready to feel that or is sort of manipulative. That annoys me. I love the score and I love his choices musically. At one point during the darkest hour for the protagonist Nancy she is in a dark place and he uses a Pixies song as a score and it’s beautiful. It’s just so much cooler.

CS: “Where Is My Mind?”

Lake Bell: Yeah, exactly, “Where Is My Mind?”

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CS: As a director you have “Emperor’s Children” lined up. This is a project that’s been kicking around for a long time, at one point Noah Baumbach was gonna do it. You’re still working from his script?

Lake Bell: Yes, correct.

CS: Tell us more about it. It sounds like something very much in the Baumbach/Whit Stillman arena. 

Lake Bell: I grew up in New York City and from when I read Claire Messud’s original novel I was very connected to it. I felt very much that I could translate this world in a way that felt relatable ’cause I had lived in it. You referenced Whit Stillman and that can feel kind of rarified or not for everyone. It means a lot to me to try to take the story of this New York family and make it relatable and universal. At the end of the day it’s a world I grew up in and know very intimately. I can see the kind of levity in their flaws. The intentions of their actions might seem unsavory they are coming from a place of good. It’s sort of following this web of characters that surround this literary patriarch who’s a free thinker and liberal played by Jeff Bridges. I think even the casting of that part instructs what kind of energy and tone the movie will have.

CS: And you’re working on that with Imagine, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s company. Have they been helping you navigate your first studio movie as a director?

Lake Bell: It’s not a studio, but it is with Imagine and producer Erica Huggins is the fierce lady who is running the show over there with Brian and Ron. She has a great deal of tenacity about this particular project. I’m really excited to be working with her, and that company was a huge draw for me because they make movies that I love to see, that get me excited about cinema. It’s a dream to be working with them and Jeff is someone I have been a fan of for so many years from afar and when I read the script immediately pictured Jeff. I’m so glad he also pictured himself in the role as well!

Man Up opens on Friday, November 13 in L.A. and at New York’s Village East Cinemas where Pegg’s co-star Lake Bell will be on-hand for Q n As on Friday and Saturday. It will also be available On Demand starting November 20.