Tribeca 2015: How the Lake Bell-Starrer 'Man Up' Hopes to Rehabilitate the Rom-Com Genre

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Lake Bell

"A great strong female lead in a comedy is something that is very seductive and highly sought after to an actor who for one writes comedy and also plays it," said Bell, who maintained a British accent throughout filming.

"How do you meet someone in the modern world? You steal someone else's date from under a clock," Tess Morris told The Hollywood Reporter at the Tribeca Film Festival world premiere of Man Up, for which she wrote the screenplay.

That scenario, which nearly played out in Morris' real life — "I was actually under the clock at Waterloo, and someone did think I was their blind date," she said — is the basis of the film. Except while Morris politely told the man he had the wrong person, in the movie version Nancy (Lake Bell) refuses to correct the misunderstanding and proceeds to go on a date with Jack (Simon Pegg) under an assumed identity.

Nancy is disillusioned and guarded, but at the same time, "there is something very earnest about her," Bell told THR on the red carpet before the screening, held Sunday at the SVA Theater. "In the movie, she has a myriad of affirmations, where she looks in the mirror and tells herself these things like, 'Take chances' … or 'Take French classes,' 'Start to cook more,' 'Try SoulCycle.' There's this idealism that she is trying to emulate."

These contradictory layers drew Bell to the part. "A great strong female lead in a comedy is something that is very seductive and highly sought after to an actor who for one writes comedy and also plays it," she continued. "I think Tess Morris did a brilliant job of harnessing what's interesting about the romantic-comedy genre and translating it into something modern and fresh."

To play Nancy, Bell had to learn to speak in a flawless British accent — a welcome challenge for Bell, who directed and starred in the indie In a World, a film entirely dedicated to her love of accents and voice work.

"She kept her accent the whole time … through the whole rehearsal process, filming and right up until the wrap on the final take," said director Ben Palmer. On the last day of filming, Bell gave a speech thanking the crew for all their hard work — in her natural accent. "There were audible gasps," remembered producer Nira Park, and Palmer agreed. "It was almost like, where did this American accent come from?"

From the beginning, the cast and crew set out to rehabilitate the rom-com. "There's a lot of misconceptions about romantic comedies. … They have a little bit of a bad reputation," Palmer told the audience during the post-screening Q&A. "When I approached it, it was trying to resist anything too sentimental and twee and anything that felt you were leading the audience by the nose. … [But] there are very obvious romantic comedies tropes, milestones that need to land. A big part of it is navigating your way from one to the other without feeling like you are patronizing the audience."

Producer Rachael Prior agreed, telling THR on the red carpet, "It's a modern mediation on what it's like to be single in your mid-30s and hopefully quite a departure from the usual format of a rom-com."

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