Lake Bell Explains Why A Woman's Voice Is Her Most Powerful Tool

lake-bellPhoto: MediaPunch Inc/Rex USA
When we met with Lake Bell to discuss her new movie In A World..., the actress didn't have on one bit of make up. Her hair was unceremoniously pulled back, her jeans slouchy and basic, and her cotton top was completely casual. And yet, she wasn't just absolutely gorgeous, but she was utterly captivating, as well. Sure, being one of the most beautiful women in New York City helps Bell command a room, but it is also her presence — almost electrifying — that makes her an increasingly popular Hollywood favorite.
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Her new movie, accurately titled In A World, is Bell's first foray into the world of directing (and starring...and writing...) and in it, the actress explores the one thing that she uses to make a strong impression: Voice. Based upon the fact that voiceover work, especially in Hollywood, is generally given to men, Bell wrote a tale about an aspiring young woman who just wants to try her hand at a trailer or two.
So not only does Bell want us to think about the way we are spoken to, but she also wants viewers (women in particular) to think about the way we speak, as well. Well said, Lake Bell.
Why do you think people prefer male voices for one thing and female voices for another?
“Well, first of all, it’s so interesting because a cacamaimey study was done that said a male authoritative voice is listened to, and the information learned is stored. Oddly, a woman can absorb the information given by a female authoritative voice, but a male can’t. It blew my mind that that was someone’s theory over why the omniscient voice is always male. I called bullshit on that because I think — if for instance in the movie trailer voice register — there’s no hyperbole involved; men really are the only ones who do it. My theory is we’re too used to it. Movies are released now in a state of fear: Will it perform? Will it do okay? Most people don’t want to rock the boat with something that could potentially put a bad taste in the mouth of future viewers. If a female voice is going to distract them negatively — perhaps it won’t — they won’t want to narrow their audience. It doesn’t make any sense that a female driven, and female targeted movie won’t use a female voice to tell us to go watch it. A male voice would never be used for a tampon commercial. I think studios might say you’re narrowing your audience using a female voice because that’s like saying no man should go and see your movie. I think it’s all based in fear. No one wants to change or rupture a system that’s been working.”
Anytime you actually hear a female voice narrating in the movie, it’s from the actual movie, right?
“Right. It’s always the character narrating something like, ‘I was four years-old and blah, blah, blah.’ It’s like Reese Witherspoon doing it. It would never be the disembodied omniscient voice because that’d be so distracting. Say you’re watching television and a car advertisement comes on with a guy telling you its one every award, and you have to buy this car because you’ll get to be this guy with a sexy voice. If you hear a woman, sometimes you do, she basically says if you buy this car, you’ll get to be with her. It’s a seductive, sexy thing. It’s never a woman saying, ‘Buy this car and you’ll get to be a badass like me.”
You do get the female badass in tampon commercials, though. You’ve said you’ve always been fascinated with voices, but can you do imitations?
“Well, doing imitations and doing dialects are different things. I’ve been obsessed with voice and sound since I was a little kid. Someone told me I have a good ear, so I ran with it. I loved other languages, and I loved other sounds. I loved listening to other people speak. It was intriguing and felt so mysterious. You know, here were these people from foreign lands who have brought this strange tongue to us. That became a dinner party trick where my parents would ask me to do an accent. I went to drama school — massive flash-forward — and my passion for it was fed in a major way. All we do in the first year of conservatory is work on the vocal mechanism, finding your breath and connecting it with your voice. You learn endurance training for your voice, and learning neutrality for it. There’s all these textures to your voice that you’ve attained from being sick as a kid to smoking a lot. You’ve got to neutralize it to change it. Vocal manipulation is tool, it’s a muscle. We were encouraged to take a tape recorder out into the field and listen to accents in their own environment. In order to create a new character that happens to have the Russian accent, you can’t just mimic it. A British person from southeast London sounds a lot different from a British person from central London. Being in the environment helped us understand the nuances.”
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The way in we speak and listen is really reflective of our culture.
“Honestly, the message of the movie, I feel, is the voice is the next important thing that we are putting forth that’s as representative of ourselves as our clothing. You have how you present yourself, and then what comes out of your mouth. It’s really important. For Carol to be haunted by this sexy-baby-vocal-virus thing, that’s a real thing that I’m really passionate about. I have younger sisters, I’m a woman, I care about other women, I think it’s a very unsavory trend that evokes the idea that these people are less-than. You’re a twelve year-old little girl that’s submissive. That’s not sexy, nor is it empowering.”
What do women need to be cautious of when it comes to the voice?
“We’re all a little bit guilty of vocal fry. There are trends. Women don’t have to put on a false deep voice. I think if we’re just vocally self-aware, we’d be great. If we could just all collectively agree that sounding like a little girl is not as sexy as sounding like yourself. It’s the same thing as when you walk into a room believing you’d look hotter if you stand up straight with attitude. Sure, your outfit is important, but if you believe you look good and feel good, it will reflect. The same thing with the voice. If you can accept your voice (some people have a higher pitched voice), and aren’t putting on a dialect that’s an octave higher than it should be, you’re real. At the end of the day, that’s what you’re representing. It’s an expression of yourself. Some guy criticized me once and asked me whether I thought girls should put on a lower voice for Lauren Bacall. First of all, that’s such a guy comment. If you feel like you aren’t attaining the right things in life you want, whether it’s finding the right guy or the great job, and things just aren’t working for you, I think you should look at yourself in the vocal mirror. Maybe you’re a little guilty of changing your real voice. It’s like that moment when we all decided to stop saying ‘like’ so much. I had to consciously work on that. If you go into a meeting, you look great, and are perfect on paper, and you start talking like a valley girl, people have a hard time taking you seriously. It’s not a voice that has longevity.”
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