Part of the appeal of No Escape is watching actors not typically associated with the action-adventure genre punch and kick their way out of the film. Here Lake Bell, best known for her comedic work, gets to beat up a bunch of people (whilst getting beat up quite a bit herself). The actress stars as Annie Dwyer, who along with her husband (Owen Wilson) and two daughters, moves to an unnamed Southeastern Asian country. Their move, unfortunately, coincides with a coup in the country aimed at outside Westerners. Trapped in a hotel, the fraught family must work together to survive the ordeal and make it to the US Embassy intact.
There’s something surreal about watching Bell fend off an armed militia and do so (moderately) successfully. The casting adds a level of uncertainty to No Escape. If this film were Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt trapped in a hotel room surrounded by a group of violent rioters, there wouldn’t be any question that the two could handle the situation. But Bell and Wilson – you expect them to crack jokes, not necessarily beat a man to death. As such, their fate and whether or not they’ll make it out alive is more up in the air than normal for a studio action film.
In the following interview with Lake Bell, she discusses getting beat up in No Escape, the art of dramatic improvisation and her next directorial effort The Emperor’s Children.
Collider: Do you have a favorite action-adventure heroine that you looked to [for your role in No Escape]?
LAKE BELL: You know… I didn’t even think of this movie as a quintessential action picture because it’s not like all of the sudden Owen [Wilson] and I know how to do Kung-Fu. You don’t forge a bomb launcher out of a hair dryer. It’s more emotional, in my opinion. You’re invested in the emotionality of these people, even the kids.
Yeah, I think the best action films always have the sort of “everyman” characters. Even something like Die Hard, he gets beat up constantly in that movie, and you get beat up constantly in this movie.
BELL: Right? I love that this character endures the nastiness, like getting beaten up, or assaulted or whatever. If I was in a situation like that, I don’t think that I would be able to get out unscathed. Owen and I definitely had many conversations trying to figure out how to justify – especially like on the roof – trying to play out what this would really mean, how would we navigate this in real life?
How much does the script change on set based on, “Oh this is how I would react during this situation” or, “I can’t see how I would react that way”?
BELL: It should be a little bit but nothing much. There’s nips and tucks and pitches that happen on the day if something feels, you know, if we feel very passionate about what we would say there. We did a lot of rehearsal too; but for the heightened and elevated moments, you don’t know how it’s going to feel when you’re really playing out those circumstances. That’s when on the day, you do back-and-forth reactions and feelings, and sometimes if something’s good you stick it in because it just feels right.
Is there a particular example that stands out?
BELL: Yes, there’s a couple of them. One of them is when Owen and I are speaking about throwing our children [off the roof]. We’re almost arguing back-and-forth about whether we’re going to do it or not. That was something that we investigated on the day. The script is altered a little bit but the Dowdle Brothers love all that stuff. We would always talk about feeling safe enough to improvise the scenarios. Obviously it’s not like comedy improvising. It’s a different beast and you have to feel really safe with the people you’re working with in order to go that far.
There was another time when we were in the rain with Owen’s character after [redacted] dies. [Owen] doesn’t really know what to do next and my character has to kind of snap him back into moving forward. That’s another time where we just had a really good time trying to connect with each other and trying to figure out with John and Drew [Dowdle] what you really say in that time.
You mentioned a rehearsal period, how long was the rehearsal?
BELL: Rehearsals were two weeks, I wanna say. There was time built into adjusting to the time zone and also culturally. We were definitely fish out of water in the town of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
What was it like shooting there?
BELL: God, it was, I mean, I feel so lucky that I got to spend two months of my life there. Part of what’s cool about being an actor or being in this industry, frankly, is to be able to travel to distant lands. That’s part of the deal. I always thought when I was growing up, “I wanna be an actor and go see the world.’
What is the process for creating familial bonds with these actors, creating this family unit?
BELL: We did a number of things. We went to see the elephants a number of times in the sanctuary and all of us would go together as a “family”. Just being in Chiang Mai — even just walking through the market to get lunch is an experience into itself. It’s unlike anything that I have ever experienced. These little girls, Claire [Geare] and Sterling [Jerins], are such phenomenal actors. I’m so in awe of them. Not only was I looking at [Thailand] through my eyes but through their (the girls’) eyes as well. I think it helped us become a unit and to feel camaraderie in the fact that we were all fish out of water.
You mentioned dramatic improvisation, how is that different for yourself from comedic improvisation?
BELL: I think it’s a similar muscle. It’s all about confidence. You have to have a confidence in the people you’re working with and in yourself in order to do it. Owen really set the tone for feeling supported. He went full force into this character, playing out these circumstances in a way that’s so authentic, so unapologetic. He set the tone for us to all be like, “Alright, here we go. Let’s do this. We’re going to take it seriously.”
How much of your performance is dictated by what your costars are bringing, versus some sort of preconceived notion of how you would approach the scene?
BELL: It’s really damn important. When you think about drama school students doing trust exercises… you got to really trust the person you’re going out on a limb for. Acting would be super embarrassing if you don’t believe in it, if you’re really self-conscious.
How do you approach working with child actors? Do you have a different approach?
BELL: With this movie, particularly, I just became so fiercely “mama bear”, my persona shifted into being protective of them. There are moments when we’re shooting things at 3 in the morning and we’re in the middle of the river and there’s rain machines and it’s freezing and their teeth are chattering and I’m angry, because like, “Get a Goddam warm towel for them”. I would use my body to warm them. Getting maternal on them was very easy.
What do you think makes for a good actor-director relationship, having worked both sides of that relationship?
BELL: I think it has largely to do with respect and trust. I think great directors really respect their actors and vice versa. That mutual respect makes the job fun instead of anything but. So if it’s a quiet scene, if your director respects you, then they’ll come in with that same energy and lead you there in order to set the tone. Then if it’s exciting, they’ll meet you there. It needs to be an energy dialogue between those two players in order for it to function effectively.
Is there a particular [filmmaking] experience that stands out?
BELL: I feel incredibly lucky that I haven’t had any experiences in my career thus far that I’ve felt like, “Oh God, that didn’t go really well”. I’ve learned from every director I’ve worked with. Everybody’s style is very different, and I always say that being an actor is the best film school that I could ever go to. So it’s how I sponge information and I’m always a respectful, quiet observer of how other people do what they do.
What’s the status on The Emperor’s Children. I was a big fan of In A World… [Bell’s previous directing credit] so I’m interested, what is the status of that one for you directing wise?
BELL: As you well know movies take a long time to make. We’re in pre-production still and it’s going great. We’re trying to shoot this fall and everything looks like all systems go. We’re just solidifying some things. Yeah, I’m excited for it too!
It’s interesting because that’s a script that Noah Baumbach wrote. How has that been, potentially directing something that you haven’t written?
BELL: It’s cool. It’s great. First of all, I’m a huge fan of Claire Messud’s books. That’s what got my interest initially. Imagine had this adaptation that Noah wrote so when I heard that he had written it, I was super jazzed because obviously he’s a brilliant writer. It’s like being privy to someone else’s project. It’s nice to see what Noah’s version of this novel is. Again it’s always an education when I’m working on someone else’s project whether as an actor or a director or a producer. It’s another entry point and an educational source for how I can do things in the future.
No Escape is now in theaters.