Don LaFontaine had a voice anyone would recognize. As a voice-over artist, he recorded thousands of movie trailers and TV commercials, and became famous for his delivery of the phrase "In a world," which kicked off countless trailers. He died in 2008, but the new comedy In a World ... — written and directed by actress Lake Bell — tells the story of voice-over artists competing to become the next LaFontaine.
Bell co-stars opposite Fred Melamed, who doesn't just play a voice-over artist — he is one, with any number of ads, trailers and TV-network commercials. He's an actor, too, perhaps best known for his performance as Sy Ableman in the Coen Brothers movie A Serious Man.
Bell, for her part, starred with Meryl Streep in It's Complicated, and co-stars on the Adult Swim comedy series Childrens Hospital. At this year's Sundance Film Festival, she won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for In a World ..., which casts her as a veteran voice coach who wants to break into the male-dominated world of voice-overs. One of the men she's competing with is her father, played by Melamed, who's already near the top of the field.
Bell and Melamed joined Fresh Air's Terry Gross to talk about the attractions of voice-over work, researching an accent, and the perils of "sexy-baby vocal virus."
On what initially drew them to voice-over work
Bell: "I always wanted to be an actor, [and] I guess it seemed like the ultimate acting to me. You know, the idea of blind voice was very alluring — because in a way you weren't judged by what you looked like, you could be any character and create any characterization. ... It's the only medium where you can be anyone, any social [level], any nationality, any gender, for that matter."
Melamed: "I always felt, frankly, I couldn't stand the way I looked, and voice-over was an opportunity to play anything. ... [Voice-over acting] has always been my waitress job. I got out of drama school in 1981 ... and I've never had to have another job outside of being a performer. ... And it's strictly because I do voice-overs that I was able to tough it out through the periods [when] there was scant work, which is something that happens to all actors."
On how male and female voice-overs are used differently
Bell: "If a man is selling you a car in a voice-over, it's like, 'Buy this car and you'll get to be me.' And if a woman is selling a car via the voice-over, then it's sort of, 'Buy this car and you'll get to be with me.' So it's this interesting dynamic."
On sexy voice trends through the ages
Bell: "The vocal trend that is infecting the female youth in this fine nation is the sexy baby vocal virus. [It's] a huge problem for a myriad of reasons, one being ... is that sexy? Because ... I think [what] is intended is this submissive I'm-a-12-year-old-and-you-can-tell-me-what-to-do [thing], which I think is pretty weird, for that to be considered sexually enticing.
"But I think women of all ages adopted this thing. Whilst, when I was growing up and I first saw Lauren Bacall in a movie and I heard her voice — and Faye Dunaway and Anne Bancroft — I mean, that sounded hot to me. That sounded like something I wanted to aspire to. And I mean, Lauren Bacall is like 19 years old in To Have and Have Not, and she was talking like a Big Girl.
"[The sexy baby vocal virus] originate[d] and then festered from reality television, in some respects. ... I would love to talk to some of the ladies who are on reality-television shows. I have a fantasy of helping them find their true voice."
On researching what a Bulgarian woman educated in England sounds like
Bell: "The first thing I thought was, obviously, I'm going to go to the embassy, because they have a lot of those kinds of people there. So I went out there — 20 years old with a tape recorder, an American to boot — and knocked on the door of the Bulgarian Embassy. I realized that ... perhaps it's not the ideal to dress all in black with a tape recorder and start asking questions in an embassy. You know, you gotta learn. There are growing pains. That didn't play out so great. I had to go to a Bulgarian restaurant, which are really hard to come by."
On Don LaFontaine's larger-than-life personality and work ethic
Melamed: "Don LaFontaine was famous for having a white stretch limo with the letters 'DLF' on the side with a little coronet, and he would run around from one studio to another all day. And this is before cellphones. He had a very expensive ship-to-shore phone, which is a thing that costs many, many thousands of dollars, that barely worked, that he had installed in his stretch limo. And he hooked up a fax machine to it, and while he was riding from, say, Fox to Columbia, he would have the next set of scripts faxed to him so he could rehearse. So by the time he got to the studio he could do it quickly, and he could go to the next studio. So his whole day was spent going from one studio to another. ... But there was nobody who came close to him in terms of the amount of work that he did or the money that he generated."