Talking in silly accents is super fun until you actually have to pass as someone from a foreign land in an audition room in front of people who may actually know good from bad. Then daunting is more the name of the game, along with choice expletives and rising terror. Which are all kinda fun-killers and most certainly death to good acting. It was just supposed to be a silly accent! When did it become HELL ON EARTH?
When I moved to New York City in the mid-aughts, MFA papers in hand and acting on the brain, I was thrust within seconds into dialect coaching off-Broadway. It kind of made sense: I had always been drawn to the fine art of talking in funny voices – dating back to my obsession with My Fair Lady as a wee kid shouting “move your bloomin’ ass!” at delightfully inappropriate moments. But it never occurred to me back then that I’d play the Henry Higgins role in real life. (With fewer marbles and less misogyny, one hopes.)
And then there I was in the city, a word-happy English major and theater geek who’d fallen into a hot love affair with the International Phonetic Alphabet (the secret code for decoding dialects) thanks to some brilliant mentors – now suddenly on the receiving end of a bunch of dialect gigs said mentors threw my way when they had a surplus. I didn’t totally know what I was doing but I helped an actor go British (“RP”) for a Frank Langella production of A Man for All Seasons and an actress go Katharine Hepburn-esque for a play about one of Hemingway’s wives, journalist Martha Gellhorn. I coached Rwandan and Aborigine and dirty modern London and clean old-timey London and Nuyorican and Irish and Bosnian and a mythical Georgia town and “Standard American” and “casual American.” (For an example of the difference between those two, say out loud like you’re pissed at your significant other, “Fine, just do what you want.” Did you say “whatchyoo” with a full-on “ch” sound in there? Did you make a t-sound at the end that puffed air out or, more likely, not? Voila, casual American. A totally legit, contemporary accent that’s pretty darn useful for TV and film but could use a little jeujing when you’re prepping to play Ophelia.)
And then, at a certain point, I did know what I was doing. And once I got used to this crazy coaching career – once I felt like I was less faking it and more making it and the impostor syndrome subsided – I realized that I had found a pretty amazing way to mesh my unbridled affection for actors and acting with a good ear, a voracious nerdiness when it comes to text analysis, and my lifelong giddiness about how language and communication works and how it evolves.
Now in Hollywood I get way fewer American clients needing to sound foreign than I did in New York, and way more foreigners needing to sound American (you know, all those Brits and Ozzies stealing our jobs – oh, oh, hi guys!) but whether they’re native or not, and whether I’m hired on a film or TV set or working one-on-one with an actor at my home office, the dance is basically the same:
Half of it is the technical act of teaching the sound differences between one accent and another – focusing on the biggest consistent vowel and consonant changes between the actor’s own accent and the accent he or she is learning, and how those new sounds feel in the mouth. If you’re from Southern California and have to sound Chicago for an audition, the first sound we’ll focus on is probably the “o as in honest” sound, which switches to an “a” that you might think of as “a as in apple” but actually more closely resembles the Spanish “a as in salsa.” So “mom” becomes “mAHm!” (This is a much more exact science when you can read the International Phonetic Alphabet, but I never expect my clients to be into that – unless they’re my students or former students at Stella Adler and then you better believe they’re breakin’ that secret code like they’re Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game.)
The other half of what I do is the kooky, inexact part, a mix of psychological and sociological nerve-calming, so that the above can actually be learned and embraced and integrated and adored (yup, in that order). Because the act of picking up a new accent inevitably arouses all kinds of internal drama, whether the client is new to acting or a big, fancy TV star. And whether the drama is conscious – I don’t sound like myself anymore! I suddenly can’t trust my instincts! I’m not even thinking about the meaning of the words! HOW WILL I EVER ACT AGAIN?! – or unconscious, which manifests itself in held breath, a flushed face, contorted muscles, even the most preternaturally blasé supermodel losing her cool at my dining room table.
Learning to speak with a new accent, like acting, takes courage. And it can and should be fun to be this courageous – to push through the fears and the rising panic and seize one’s inner heroism and a whole new identity – but of course it helps to have someone there to remind you of that, cheerleading, reflecting back that hero-in-the-making. I get to do that. And it’s awesome.
But it’s not just awesome, ‘cuz here’s the realness (hashtag the struggle): many actors who do not come from money or who feel otherwise disenfranchised, reflect this disadvantage in their voices. From black actors who get typecast as thugs to girls who fight to be taken seriously as leading ladies because their voices peg them as ditzy and/or evoke Kim Kardashian, it’s pretty clear that how we speak plays a large role in how we’re perceived – and can dramatically affect our livelihood on stage and screen. The thing about learning accents, and learning more about how our instrument works in general, is that it offers us choices. And choices are what disenfranchised people lack.
As an A student who was all about finding the wily shortcuts, I totally get the impulse to wing it, to resist learning any of the technical stuff because of that icky inorganic feeling that occurs before you get to the other side (or, let’s face it, because it requires some cash to hire a coach) but I gotta say, it’s so worth it, y’all. Because speech awareness and a bit of technique frees everyone – regardless of background or self-professed identity – to play different aspects of the human experience, with honesty. To have the tools to make choices. To play someone upper class or lower, educated or not, brilliant or… touched, old-fashioned or ubertrendy, macho/feminine or gender-fluid, humble or entitled, ironically detached or earnestly engaged. We are large, we contain multitudes, and it’s pretty satisfying to try on different versions of ourselves and admire the fit. That’s why we’re in this business, after all, and why we fight through the Hollywood crap to stay in it.
So next time you get an audition for a role that requires an accent, know that the fear is totally normal, and that breaking through it will feel oh so good. Hire someone kind but honest, and unlock a new part of you. Attack those sounds with gusto, and find your way back to the silly accent fun of it all.
For more, check out Samara’s dialect website http://www.LADialectCoach.com and send her a note with any questions there.