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How Lake Bell in ‘Harley Quinn’ Made Poison Ivy TV’s Best (Animated) Character

Listen, Lake Bell is no stranger to the world of voice recording. Just scroll down her IMDb page and see for yourself—her impressive career is littered with voice-acting roles. Heck, she even wrote, directed and starred in a movie all about voice-over work. (Seriously, if you haven’t seen In A World…, get on that.)

The point is that Bell has played a lot of iconic roles both in animation and live-action, but for the past four years she has been stealing hearts and taking names as the voice of Poison Ivy in HBO Max’s bonkers—in the best way—animated series Harley Quinn. And it might be her best voice work yet.

It’s a daunting task to take on a role in the DC Universe. Fans can be ravenous about any portrayal of their favorite comic book characters, and a beloved one like as Poison Ivy is an even bigger target. But, funnily enough, Bell was unaware of all of this. In fact, it’s what drew the Harley Quinn creators to her in the first place.

“They were enjoying the fact that I had little preconceived notions about the character, because it allowed for a refreshing take,” Bell tells The Daily Beast. “I just look at it as this person that I’ve created, this character that I’ve created with the extraordinary writers. I have trust in them and they have a trust in me to improvise and to go off the rails when I see fit.”

Which is to say: If you think Bell goes into the recording booth knowing every line she is going to say and exactly how she is going to say it, you are sorely mistaken. “I have a Wild West approach to recording anything to do with Harley Quinn as my Poison Ivy alter-ego,” she says. “The trust is just there now that I can show up and really just jump off the ledge into the character and into the abyss of wild craziness that they always seem to deliver.”

Improvising often occurs in recording sessions for Harley Quinn—and most of the improv, as Bell describes it, revolves around cursing. There is a certain allotment of “fucks” that can be said per episode, so there is always a battle between the cast mates over those final “fucks.” And much like Ivy, Bell loves to win that competition.

“I really try to sponge up all of them, to be honest,” she says. “You gotta fight for your ‘fucks.’” Considering this, it’s funny that Bell’s favorite improvised line doesn’t contain a “fuck” at all. This particular one can be found in the ninth episode of the second season when Ivy says “piss cakes of a dick” after waking in bed with Harley on her bachelorette weekend. “I tend to always try to push the envelope with cursing in creative ways,” Bell says with a laugh.

It’s this very unique blend of outrageous cursing with complete calm that makes Bell’s iteration of Ivy so refreshing. The character of Poison Ivy (aka Dr. Pamela Isley) was created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino and first showed up in Batman #181 in 1966. She has long been portrayed as a beautiful temptress and femme fatale that often serves as foil for Batman and his vigilante friends. But, much like Harley Quinn herself, Ivy is not a one-dimensional villain, often teetering on the line between villain and anti-hero.

In addition to voicing one of the most iconic characters in the comic-book universe, Bell is now responsible for one half of one of the most important and beloved couples in animation. And, for the first time, it happens to be a same-sex couple—in a superhero universe, at that! Season 3 of the series is so good because of how deep, how raunchy, and how relatable the relationship between Harley and Ivy is. So much of that is owed to the humanity—and the wild streak—that Bell gives the character.

In other words, this is a perfect time to hop on the phone with the voice of one of the most consequential characters in animation right now.

We talk about all matters great and small.

For an example of the grandeur, one aspect that remains constant in both the comics and Harley Quinn is Ivy’s dedication to plants once again ruling the Earth. Considering the climate crisis we are currently experiencing, she is not entirely wrong about the damage humans have caused on the ecosystem. And it’s this very part of Ivy’s story that Bell enjoys getting to play with. “It’s an unusual combination to be a villain and to seek abject evil whilst also preserving the environment and the Earth,” she says. “It’s a funny juxtaposition, but I do think it makes for a really fun contradictory path.”

But then, too, is the wonderful factoid that, in this show, Poison Ivy gets to wear pants. Gone (but not too far gone) is the iconic green leaf dress from the comics. “She’s not in a bikini [or] half-naked and I think that’s telling of her intellect,” Bell says. “She is smart, she is heady and a little intellectual. So, I think that that becomes intrinsic to her sound even.”

Intellect is something both Harley Quinn (who is voiced by Kaley Cuoco) and Ivy have in spades. Both characters have their PhD’s—in psychology and botany, respectively and ironically—and the animated series never lets you forget that. Harley’s self-therapy sessions are the introspection television needs, as are her quick and unasked for diagnoses of friends. “They’re like crazy smart. And you know, they’ve got a point sometimes,” Bell said.

Since the first season of Harley Quinn, which originally premiered on the short-lived streaming platform DC Universe, Bell’s Ivy has always been Harley’s moral(ish, they are villains after all) compass, voice of reason and best friend. She helped Harley realize and escape the toxic relationship she was stuck in with Joker (Alan Tudyk), she has bailed her out of failed heists on many occasions and has always been a shoulder to cry on.

But, now, after many episodes of will they/won’t they, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn are finally together in a romantic relationship—a development that came as no surprise to Bell. “When I first read the script that they were going to be together, it just made so much sense,” she says. “There was zero question. It was so obvious that they were in love with each other.”

The superhero genre has always been hesitant to portray LGBTQ relationships, especially in movies, but on television and streaming DC shows (whether on HBO Max or The CW) have always pushed for inclusivity. In that spirit, Harley Quinn does not shy away from showing the Harley and Ivy relationship in its fullest and truest form. All the speed bumps, fights and make-ups are shown and portrayed with real gravitas—which may come as a shock since Harley Quinn is an R-rated cartoon.

“It’s my pleasure to be a part of it, because I do think the relationship is very true and very real,” Bell says. “Despite it being animated and in this heightened space, it’s a beautiful thing to normalize and to ingest something in media and culture that feels more representative of how relationships are today.”

A lot of the beauty of the relationship comes down to how Cuoco and Bell convey the passion through their voice acting. Both actors absolutely nail the chaos of the show, but also bring passion, sincerity and heart-break when they need to. That’s even more impressive when you learn that Cuoco and Bell do not record their scenes together.

“It’s so funny because Kaley and I have this really beautiful, intimate relationship in this other dimension on the show, but we haven’t been in the same room for like two years,” says Bell with a laugh. “We just do our parts and then we watch the show and see our relationship unfurl. It’s still exciting for me to see the show because I didn’t get to hear all the other parts put in. So, it becomes this kind of very unique experience.”

The voice-acting skills of these two stars become even more apparent when you see all that the couple traverses this season—whether it be normal relationship issues like exes or a deeper look into how a couple with an independent person (Ivy) and a codependent person (Harley) can still thrive. Again, a rare concept to see a cartoon tackle, but Harley Quinn isn’t your average cartoon. It’s always walked a precarious tonal tightrope.

“The most avant garde way to attack animation is to take on actual, real human condition stories,” says Bell. “So, in the midst of all of this absolute madness and heisting and things blowing up, it’s incredibly, as I said, avant garde to take on something as nuanced as communication and relationships.”

This tightrope walk goes the extra distance this season as Ivy starts to discover more and more of herself, now that she is in a loving and committed relationship with Harley.

In a funny twist, as our conversation ends, Bell happens to be passing by a billboard for the show and takes a minute to admire it. “There I am. It’s very cute. They look cute,” she laughs. Classic Ivy.

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