Lake Bell, who plays the thinking woman’s Bridget Jones in a new romcom, talks sexism, tattoos and her love of The Fast Show

Two years ago the actress Lake Bell posed for the cover of New York magazine, entirely naked but for a vast grey rose tattoo that wrapped around her body. “Certain family members were not very happy about that,” she notes, one eyebrow raised. The fact that the “tattoo” was in fact merely body paint did little to appease them. 

The pseudo-inking was the handiwork of Scott Campbell – an artist and tattooist whose list of clients includes Marc Jacobs, Orlando Bloom and Courtney Love – whom Bell had married two months earlier. “It was very confrontational,” she says of the shoot. “There’s something empowering about being nude and just owning it.”

For Bell is far more than simply a hot actress who regularly appears on lists of the world’s most desirable women, and on the covers of men’s magazines, happy to get her kit off. A few months before that shoot she took her film In a World, which she not only starred in but also wrote and directed, to the Sundance Film Festival, where it sparked a bidding war among distributors. She is currently in the throes of writing her second feature film, which she will again direct and star in, and is lined up to direct an adaptation of Claire Messud’s post-9/11 novel, The Emperor’s Children, which will star Jeff Bridges. 

On a sunny spring morning in Brooklyn 36-year-old Bell arrives for Stella’s own shoot, which involves many more clothes and not a lick of body paint. Bell, a native New Yorker, had her first baby six months ago and looks in fabulous shape, but cheerfully warns the stylist that her body has changed a bit.

Lake Bell 'tattooed' for a New York magazine cover shoot

We stroll around the corner to a trendy coffee shop where it seems every other patron is also a new parent. The counter is also heavily stocked with UK-import confectionery, which, Bell points out, is highly appropriate given her forthcoming film, Man Up, a thoroughly British romantic comedy, set and filmed in London, in which she stars alongside Simon Pegg. Bell plays Nancy, who ends up on a blind date with Pegg by mistake, but decides to run with the error. 

I confess to Bell that the romcom genre generally leaves me cold, with its hapless women desperate to get hitched. “The term 'romcom’ definitely has negative connotations,” she agrees. “This movie is written by a genuine romcom aficionado, though [the British writer Tess Morris]. She was very influenced by that genre – it doesn’t have any sort of cynical lens.”

Nancy is endearingly messy and raw, but not, as Bell puts it, “falling in the toilet, or unable to tie her own shoelaces”, and the film contains plenty of the superb silliness one expects from a Pegg project. The biggest revelation, however, is Bell’s British accent – not only flawless but highly specific; she had Wandsworth in mind while working on Nancy’s speech patterns. “Not too posh, but not too salt of the earth,” she says, adopting both accents for me in the one sentence. “Middle-class, estuary, relatable.” 

It is a credit to her vocal abilities that after struggling to find a British actress for the role, Pegg – who had seen In a World – suggested Bell. She had in fact trained for three years at the Rose Bruford College, in Sidcup, Kent, graduating in 2002. “Fully realising a British character has been on my actor bucket list since I went to drama school there,” she says, beaming. 

Bell in In a World 2013

Even before her stint in Britain, though, Bell says she was always “obsessed with accents and dialects and voices”. In a World is about a female voice-over artist, trying to make it in the male-dominated field of movie trailers. There’s a thread that concerns father-daughter competitiveness, too, which, Bell has said, was a way for her to explore some “daddy issues”. 

Her first foray into writing and directing her own material, the film gave her a voice (“all puns intended”, she says) in a way that merely acting never could. “It changed my life,” she says. “Without hyperbole. Full stop. It was scary to have that amount of responsibility, but it was the most fulfilling thing ever… Next to having a child,” she adds quickly.  

Bell is one of a growing band of female multi-hyphenates – also including Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig, Kristen Wiig and Miranda July – writing and directing or producing their own material in an industry that has not, in the past, been exactly flush with plum roles for women, particularly in comedy. “The industry is definitely in a better place than it was in terms of independent film and television,” Bell says. “But I think in the studio system, there is work to be done – there is still a dearth of female directors and writers and great parts for ladies. 

“I’m not an authority on studio pictures,” she adds, “but it just seems inherently more corporate. You smell the business end of it more than you do the creative end. “Of course, when you make a movie you have to think about the business side of it, you have think of it as a product,” she continues. “But that’s, like, priority three or four for me.” 

Lake Bell, photographed by Jonathan Frantini for Stella Magazine Credit: JONATHON FRANTINI

She pauses to work through her own priorities in sequence. “The first priority would be making something great that I’m proud of, and that the other people involved in it are proud of; the second would be good old-fashioned quality of life – is it fun to make? Third is, then, I guess, thinking about it as a product.” She sips her coffee and holds up her hand to correct herself. “And before all of that, priority number-one-asterisk is family.” 

Lake Bell herself was born on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where her mother, Robin Bell, ran her own design firm, and her father, Harvey Siegel, was a property developer who also owned a motorsport racetrack in New Jersey. She was always, she says, an “annoyingly precocious” child, and she knew she wanted to act from the age of four.

“I didn’t really know what being an actor meant, but I liked making people laugh, doing dances and voices. I always had something to say, some presentation to make.”That’s not difficult to imagine; even with only me for an audience, Bell is highly entertaining, putting on accents and making deadpan witticisms. 

Her parents divorced when Lake was two years old, and her mother eventually moved to Vero Beach, Florida. Bell split her time, flying to New York as an unaccompanied minor every other weekend to see her father. The trips gave her plenty of opportunities to perform for new audiences – at 11 she persuaded the flight attendants to let her make the safety announcements.“I took it very seriously and tried to sound sophisticated,” she says, laughing. 

Lake Bell with Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached (2011) Credit: REX

At age 14 she went to boarding school in Connecticut, largely because it had a good theatre, and at 15 spent a year studying abroad, at a high school in Rennes, France. “As a kid, I was constantly looking for ways to escape – not because it was bad, I was just adventurous,” she says. Prolonged periods away from her mother engendered a strong habit of letter-writing between the pair, which Bell credits with instilling her passion for writing. “It was pre-email, and it forced us to write correspondence in longhand. I knew it meant a lot to my mother, and it meant a lot to me, so we ended up having this real written rapport.” 

It’s a habit Bell extended to other relationships, too. “Letters are really important to me – all the people I’ve cared about in my life still have remnants of the things I sent to them,” she says. Although she and Campbell met long after email had replaced post, they both “had that letter nostalgia”, she says. “So we have shoe boxes full of artefacts from our correspondence.”

Her mother was keen that if Bell was serious about becoming an actress, she should study the craft properly – in England – so she took a summer course at Rada aged 17. “And I realised very quickly that I knew nothing, and that this was actually a really wise thing that my mum was suggesting,” she says, with a side-smile. 

Her father, meanwhile, was insistent she get a bachelor’s degree, so she applied to Rose Bruford, which fulfilled both parents’ criteria. During her time there, Bell lived above a local chip shop and watched a lot of British comedy. “The Fast Show, Steve Coogan – who is now a friend – they were definitely influences in terms of comedic cadence and tone and the musicality of that comedy,” she says. 

After graduation Bell moved straight from Kent to Hollywood. “It was a huge culture shock,” she agrees. “I had just done ’Tis a Pity She’s a Whore – a Jacobean drama – and then I got to LA and my first audition was for a part where I played a sexy cheerleader and someone drops salsa on my tits,” she says, laughing. “It was very colourful.” 

Bell with her husband, tattoo artist Scott Campbell Credit: REX

She began winning roles in television comedies and dramas, which steadily grew in size, from two episodes of ER to a regular role on Boston Legal and the black comedy Childrens Hospital, and in films such as It’s Complicated with Meryl Streep and No Strings Attached with Ashton Kutcher. In 2009 she was cast as Rachel, a designer (“with her head up her ass”, according to Bell) in the HBO series How To Make It in America, which was filmed in New York. The show ran for only two seasons, but it delivered her future husband to her. 

With glee she recounts the story of their first meeting: Rachel was due to have a tattoo, and Campbell had a cameo as himself. “The show often lassoed in these really cool real-life New York people to play themselves,” she says. “It was 6am, I had my hair in curlers, no make-up on yet, and I was in a really bad bathrobe. I went into the trailer and saw Scott standing there, all in black, with a motorcycle helmet and tattoos head to toe.” She sighs, dreamily. 

The couple married in June 2013, in Campbell’s hometown of New Orleans, with guests including Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux. She moved back to New York, where Campbell has his shop and studio, and the couple bought a house in Brooklyn, where they still live. Of new motherhood she admits, “It’s a lot to juggle, but you prioritise your time deeply.”

Lake Bell in her new film Man Up, a romantic comedy set in London Credit: GILES KEYTE

As we stroll back to the studio for her shoot, she explains how she holds at-home writer’s retreats for herself, in which she sets aside four days to focus entirely on writing, after first cleaning the house until it sparkles, filling the fridge with snacks, and switching off all internet from 8am until 7pm. 

It is a practice she is currently using to work on the rewrites of her next project, What’s the Point, an “unromantic romantic comedy” about marriage, which she will also direct and star in. “I started writing it straight after In a World, when I still didn’t believe in marriage,” she says with a wry smile. “So I definitely use writing as a form of therapy.” 

“Man Up” is released on 29 May