Magazine article The New Yorker

Vocal Fry

Magazine article The New Yorker

Vocal Fry

Article excerpt

As a girl, Lake Bell would sneak up behind chatty foreigners and try to absorb their exotic schwas and diphthongs, in order to perfect her Puerto Rican or Russian accent. She was also obsessed with her father's Dictaphone: "I loved the rogue and anarchic little tapes that you could never play on any other system," she said the other morning. Bell, discreetly overdressed in gym shorts and a gray T-shirt, was in the sauna at the Wall Street Bath & Spaa torpor-inducing grotto where she was much the liveliest person.

An actress best known for playing the sweetly dorky production assistant who kept bumping into Ashton Kutcher in "No Strings Attached," Bell, who is thirty-four, has wide, still eyes, fidgety hands, and jittery feet. With many explanatory gestures, she explained how her childhood love of voices and recordings led her to write, direct, and star in the film "In a World . . .," which opens this week. She plays Carol, a voice coach who's trying to break into the macho world of movie-trailer narration. Carol has talent, but her voice sometimes catches, from pressure or lack of confidence. The susceptibility of the voice, Bell said, is why she loves taking a steam: "It's basically a facial for your larynx." Saunas, by contrast, are basically a camel trip across the Sahara for your larynx, but she respected her companion's need for a dryish notepad.

According to Bell, female voices lend themselves to misperception. "I always thought French women's cheekbones were very beautiful," she said, "but when I spent a school year abroad in Rennes I learned that the beauty is due to their vocal qualities. Si tu parles bien, c'est toujours ici"--she pointed to show how her pouting mouth elongated her cheeks. "And then, when I studied speech and drama in London, I learned about mouth mechanics. For Received Pronunciation, or upper-class English, you would practice with a cork in your mouth: It's oll hare"--she swirled a finger at her champing teeth. "Whereas Cockney, 'at kind of a fing, is middle back, and American"--think Shelley Winters at her most piercing--"is deep in the jowls."

Bell shifted to the cold room for a breather. When she moved to Los Angeles, in 2002, she noticed the aural devastation wreaked by Paris Hilton: "All these beautiful smart girls crying on reality shows about how they can't get a man. …

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