By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—After playing a tenacious parent who helps her family survive a bloody political uprising in the thriller “No Escape” earlier this year, Lake Bell now navigates the choppy waters of modern relationships in the rom-com “Man Up.”
The New York City native plays a Brit who, at 34, is considered by one and all to be past-her-prime single. Having survived an awkward blind date set up by her best pals, Nancy (Lake) is set to travel from Southwest England to her parents house, where they are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. Onboard a commuter train, Nancy meets a young woman named Jessica, who informs her that the reason she is unattached is that she’s too cynical and she needs to read a self-help book called “Six Billion People and You.” Nancy awakens at Waterloo station to discover that her seat mate has left the book behind.
As she hurries through the station to return the book to its owner, a man named Jack (“Star Trek’s” Simon Pegg) greets her under the station’s giant clock thinking she is his blind date (because she is holding the book). Instead of setting the fellow straight, Nancy pretends to be Jessica—at least for a while. The duo go barhopping and bowling, and are generally having a good time, until a creepy former classmate of Nancy’s shows up and threatens to reveal her identity. When Nancy finally fesses up, Jack is hurt, but then his soon-to-be ex wife shows up with her new boyfriend, so Nancy and Jack have to pretend to be a couple for Jack’s sake.
Cynical Nancy and hopeless romantic Jack soon part ways, but after a night of revelry each has been smitten with the other. Without a way to reach her, though, Jack has to get clever to track down the woman of his dreams. Opening in limited release Friday, Nov. 13, the comedy expands Friday, Nov. 20 in theaters and will be available On Demand.
Speaking by phone, Bell, who is married to artist Scott Campbell, with whom she has a year-old daughter, Nova, spoke about tackling this modern day rom-com. Written by Tess Morris, the film is directed by comedy veteran Ben Palmer (British TVs’ “The In-Betweeners” and “Bo’ Selecta”).
Q: You spent some time in England before. You went to college there, right?
Bell: Yes, I did. I spent four years there, my formative years in southeast London. I went to drama conservatory there.
Q: Did you pick up the accent while you lived there?
Bell: It’s interesting because when you go to drama school, you’re so aware of your voice and sound. That’s what you’re obsessing about—your body, your voice and your mechanism and the musculatures of your resonance. So, if anything, I became so acutely aware of my American accent that it became almost stronger. (She laughs.) I was the only American at my college too, so I was the token American, so I couldn’t lose my accent. That wouldn’t have been cool.
Q: That’s what made you stand out?
Bell: Yeah, I had a role to play. That said, while at drama school in England, everybody sort of sheds their “accent” and gets to a neutral accent which is a southern, somewhat aristocratic accent called Received Pronunciation. So everyone spoke RP, and I had to know how to do that in order to pass my courses. We’d have different semesters where we dealt with different dialects. For (“Man Up”), I definitely had the lexicon, the muscles and the training to take it on, but I did work with a dialect coach who is tremendous, Jill McCullough (who has worked with Anne Hathaway, Michelle Pfeiffer and other performers). We started two months ahead of time practicing every day while I was in Thailand shooting “No Escape.” The second I landed in London, I assumed the British accent and dialect for the rest of my time there.
Q: Nancy has a bit of a working-class accent, right?
Bell: It’s called “Estuary” (English), which is kind of a southwest London accent. It’s intelligent and realistic account of what London accents are now.
Q: How was it working with Simon Pegg? Did you meet him on this or did you know him previously?
Bell: I did a screen test with him in L.A. for this. I just thought I was meeting on the project and hoping to get it. They’d already decided to pick me, and thought I was really right for it. They just wanted to see if the chemistry was there and that we had a good rapport. It clicked very quickly. What you look for in making a comedy, certainly, is that your players can riff off each other, that they have a built-in playfulness. With both of us, we definitely had a sort of musicality. We could play that comedy table tennis that you need to do in order to rat-a-tat, to do that type of dialogue and improvise.
Q: There’s a lot of that patter between you and Simon as well as Ophelia Lovibond, who plays Jessica, on the train. It’s almost a throwback to the ‘40s Hollywood screwball comedies.
Bell: Wow! I like that reference.
Q: Since Nancy is this kooky gal who hijacks this girl’s date, was there a date or dates from your past that you drew on?
Bell: I talked to Tess Morris, the writer, about this a lot; she has better dating stories than I do. But I do have some pretty good war stories. She wrote this movie because she had an experience that took place under the Waterloo clock (like in the film), where someone said to her, “Claire?” And she said, “Uh, no.” But she thought, “What if I’d said yes? Because he was all right looking; so it might have worked.” This is her fantasy scenario playing out, I suppose. I’ve been on a blind date but it didn’t go fantastically atrocious. There was nothing fantastically atrocious about it. It was just sort of bland. (She laughs.) I don’t have a whimsical tale. But I do have all sorts of dating horror stories.
Q: Nancy is all about mantras. Do you have mantras that you use in your life?
Bell: I’ve got all kinds of things that I say to myself. But in writing and directing and acting, I definitely have one where I say, “Exercise restraint,” which is sort of funny because it’s contradictory to Nancy’s (mantra). I tend to be gregarious and I gesticulate a lot and I have a wild imagination. I think I do best when I’m true to myself, so I can be playful but I also can exercise restraint. As an actor, I think that’s where things get interesting. That said, I love the message of the movie, which reinforces the idea of taking chances and saying “yes.”
We live in a time where we’re so passive because we can hide behind our technology—our cell phones and watches. We have all these mechanisms, so we don’t often look at each other anymore. We’re not in the front foot. So I like that the overall message to just be more active.
Q: You’ve done a few rom-coms before. How is this different from “It’s Complicated” or “No Strings Attached?” How does “Man Up” advance the rom-com genre?
Bell: What “Man Up” has going for it is that it’s unafraid and unapologetic of classic romantic comedy structure and tropes, but somehow it feels completely contemporary. It feels like London now. The thing that’s less traditional is that maybe the female and male leads have flipped—the male is the hopeless romantic and the female is the cynic. What’s refreshing about it is that, without being dated, it resurrects what we love about romantic comedies.
Q: Simon’s character makes a grand romantic gesture. Are you a fan of grand romantic gestures?
Bell: A thousand percent. I’m in full support of grand romantic gestures. I’m married to a man who is profoundly in favor of and takes the charge on all of those things. He’s an artist, so he actually builds me all these beautiful things, for no reason, sometimes. I’ve woken up to a crazy, elaborate rig of a huge bouquet of flowers over my head in the bed. In a way, it’s almost dangerous, and just because it’s Tuesday, or whatever. Yeah, he’s very romantic. We always talk about how it’s a far braver existence to lean into love, romance, honesty and baring yourself in that raw way—that’s far more brave than cowering behind the fear of rejection or not going full steam ahead.