Lake Bell on ‘No Escape,’ Throwing Children, and Directing ‘Big-Ass Movies’
There are times when a press junket can feel like an inescapable death trap. But chatting with Lake Bell about her new movie, No Escape, was an absolute delight. Bell’s been a working actor for over a decade, but she reached a new level of acclaim in 2013, when her feature directorial debut In a World… (which she also wrote, produced, and starred in) won an award at the Sundance Film Festival and became one of the year’s big indie hits.
Bell’s yet to begin production on her follow-up to In a World (a subject we talk about below), but she’s kept busy with starring roles in Million Dollar Arm, the British comedy Man Up, and the new Netflix series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. (She also had her first daughter, Nova, in 2014.) In No Escape, she plays Annie Dwyer, a wife and mother who relocates her family to Southeast Asia after her husband Jack (Owen Wilson) gets a job at a local water company. Shortly after their arrival in their new home, a coup wipes out the local government and the Dwyers find themselves caught in the middle of a brutal civil war.
The film, a disturbing action thriller, is a change of pace for Bell, who’s best known for lighter fare. By her own admission, that’s by design. We talked about that, the shooting of the movie’s most memorable scene (where Wilson throws the couple’s children from a hotel rooftop), and her desire to direct what she called “big-ass movies.”
Four days ago I was watching you hang out at Camp Firewood in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. Today, I watched No Escape. I feel like I have Lake Bell whiplash.
[laughs] You’re like “What the hell is going on?”
Did it feel like that much of a departure to you? Or is that my perspective just because of the timing?
Look, I think part of what’s cool about what I do for a living and why I’ve always wanted to be an actor is that you can exist not only in multiple worlds, but take on different characters and play in different genres. So No Escape was definitely alluring for that reason. Not to mention that I’d never been to that part of the planet, and to get to go there under these circumstances and take on a film that is so vastly far I’ve ever done was super enticing.
It must have also been nice to play a woman who isn’t just a damsel in distress. There are times when your character seems a lot more in control than Owen Wilson’s.
Totally. I wouldn’t have taken a movie where I didn’t feel like the female character was strong and very much part of this little foursome of a tribe. We very much are a team. And I feel like my character Annie is strong and real and grounded in a place that made a lot of sense for me.
I wanted to talk about the scene where your characters have to leap from one rooftop to the next to escape, and in order to do that Owen Wilson needs to chuck the kids from one building to the next. I feel like this is a scene that is going to stay with me.
I’m not going to forget the image of Owen Wilson throwing children. I was curious about shooting that scene. How intense was it?
That scene took many days to shoot because we had a lot of technical rehearsals for the logistics of it. But also on the day even, the script shifted a little bit because you can only rehearse so much. When you’re playing a scene with that type of level of emotional energy, you don’t know how it’s going to play out until the moment.
When we got there, that’s when Owen and I started to really wrestle with how to justify this, and we both came together to figure out what stance we would take. He very much had the stance of “This is our only choice and we have to do this. There’s no time to talk about it.” My character was like “I just can’t justify throwing my children. I can’t get my head around it!” It’s a brilliant couple moment. And I think that’s what’s so wise about how the script was written. It’s respectful of what real relationships are like without being comedic. Even with the little girls, Claire and Sterling who play these girls, they really take the time to make sure that these kids are fully realized characters. They’re not just props.
I know it’s all acting and make-believe, but you mention the kids, and there are some very dark scenes in this movie that involve these kids in jeopardy. Is it different shooting that kind of stuff when there are kids around?
Yeah. I was incredibly protective of the little girls and what they were exposed to. It was scary for me — so if it’s scary for me, it’s scary for them. So I made it my mission to be a mama bear for them throughout the shoot. While their moms were on set technically, sometimes that was kind of far away from where we were actually shooting. And the girls would be crawling in mud with creepy crawlies, and the rain busting down through these machines. You’d be exhausted at 3 o’clock in the morning and think “My God! I have to be here for them, because this is really scary!”
If I’ve got the order of events right, you shot this movie in 2013 and then had your daughter in 2014. If that had been reversed, and you’d become a real-life mother first, do you think that would have changed your performance of this fictional mother in any way?
I don’t think so, because it was so easy to tap into my protectiveness over these two young girls. I feel like I’m inherently a maternal personal; I have two young sisters and I take the job of big sister very seriously. There’s something in the fabric of our being as compassionate animals that we feel protective over those that are helpless.
For me personally, the biggest change is how I see the movie. I watched the movie before being a mom differently than I do now as a mom. Especially since I’m only ten months out of the gate, so I’m probably still hormonal, but I’m very uncomfortable with some of scenes in the movie now — but in a way that’s sort of exhilarating. You’re like “Holy s---!” This is a movie that’s almost athletic to watch.
I really enjoyed In a World… and I’m looking forward to seeing what you direct next. I’ve read a few different reports on what that follow-up might be; is there a definitive next project at this point?
We’re all savvy to the fact that movies take a really long time to get made — especially indie movies. I believe that we’re shooting The Emperor’s Children this fall, so that’s what’s been my obsession for the past two years now. That’s the next directorial project, at least in feature form. And I’m still writing this other project that is an original work that I will direct as well and also star in. And that takes even longer, all the while trying to be a good mom and a present mom and learning how to juggle that.
We seem to be in the midst of this trend where filmmakers who’ve directed one independent movie — movies I would compare in terms of size and scope to In a World… — are suddenly making the jump right into directing the biggest of blockbusters. Is that something you’re interested in doing, or do you prefer focusing on smaller indies?
It’s interesting. I’m not prejudiced against any film based on size. I think it’s more about quality. I loved doing No Escape as an actor because then I could investigate how to make an action picture from the inside out. That’s how I learn how to do anything as a director. I am very much interested in taking on directorial projects that are outside of my writing wheelhouse. So I might not write a huge action movie or one of these big-ass movies, but I would totally direct one.
These directors who are jumping to these projects are always saying how they loved this movie or that comic book as a child, and how making the movie is a dream come true. Do you have a property out there that inspired you as a kid?
Even if there was I wouldn’t be able to reveal it.
[laughs] Fair enough. I wanted to wrap things up with a little thought experiment. Which is this: Who knows how it happens — maybe you inherited the gig, maybe there’s a wizard involved — but suddenly you find yourself as the head of a Hollywood studio. Now you have the power to do anything — you could give yourself a movie, you could green light a movie for someone else. What do you do?
First of all, I love this question. It’s so hypothetical though, that it’s intimidating and it’s almost too much to handle. But it’s totally a fantasy that I have. We all have it. But I don’t even know where I’d begin, to be honest. There’s so much. Look, I’m a list maker. So I’d have to make so many goddamn lists to start even answering that question. I feel like I want to write a dissertation and then submit it — but it’s also a hypothetical, so I’m like “Why are you making me do all this work for a hypothetical situation?”
It’s an invigorating question, but I don’t have a succinct answer for it. But if you’re asking me to run a studio, I will.
If the job is available, you’re interested.
I’m interested. As long as I can wear sneakers to work.