Have you ever been happily watching a film or television show only to find yourself suddenly focusing on something strange about one of the actors’ accents? Unfortunately, almost all of us have. Just for a moment, I invite you to revisit that little slice of time. What was it like? How did you feel as an audience member? Did you feel a little irritated? Did you mentally disengage from the character on the screen? Were you drawn out of the storyline? Did you get so distracted by the accent that you ended up missing what the characters said next? How did the experience make you feel about the performance and about the actor in particular?
What about when an accent is skillfully woven into an actor’s performance? What happens then? For most of us, the result is that we, as audience members, remain connected to the story, and within this connection we have potential to be moved by the actor’s performance and by the film as a whole. With the exception of a handful of actors who have been publicly lauded for their ability to successfully incorporate accents into their performances time and again—such as Meryl Streep and Christian Bale—we hardly notice an actor’s accent work when it’s performed with skill, because it doesn’t call attention to itself. A well-executed accent is a reflection of our experience with the real world: It rings as legitimate and true.
So what makes the difference between accent failure and a masterful accent performance? There are many factors at play when an actor takes on an accent role, and any one of them not handled well can lead to the marring of an otherwise perfectly good performance.
Here are three things that typically go wrong, and what you can do to prevent them:
The accent the actor chooses is not quite right for the character as it is written in the script.
Typical cause: Lack of planning/incomplete or inappropriate character analysis.
Fix: Accent is a layer of storytelling, and so to work well it must be aligned with all the other components of storytelling at play in the script and the production. Sometimes actors make the mistake of focusing only on the basic geographical information provided in the script—such as noting that the story takes place in Boston—but miss subtler cues such as time period, economic standing, educational background, and relationship to other characters in the film, all of which have bearing on exactly which accent will work best to support the function of their character in the story. Taking Boston as an example, there’s a great deal of difference between the accents of Boston area natives “Car Talk’s”Ray Magliozzi and actor Matt Damon, and a large number of accents in between these two extremes. Knowing exactly where your character lies on the Boston spectrum makes a big difference in how your character’s accent will be perceived by audiences. Note: Taking the time to peruse the script for clues that help you select an accent that will ring true is well worth the time it takes, but can sometimes seem a bit daunting. If you find yourself with a great list of clues from the script, but aren’t sure which specific accent or accents would align with those clues, a consultation with a professional dialect coach will send you in the right direction.
The actor’s accent goes “in and out” or “travels the globe.”
Typical cause: Lack of training time.
Fix: Learning a dialect at a professional level is a demanding task that takes time. If you haven’t yet had an opportunity in your career to fully master and integrate an accent into performance, it may come as a surprise how much time and work it actually takes. I like the way dialect coach Mary McDonald-Lewis puts it: “There’s nothing mysterious about learning an accent, it just takes work, work, work.” She’s right. While the concept of accent training is rather straightforward, it takes consistent, targeted practice over time to be able to physically and mentally take in and use that training. New accents demand that our articulators (the parts our bodies that contribute to speech such as tongue, teeth, lips, soft and hard palate) work in new ways.
Here’s what I mean: Imagine a traditional competitive body builder suddenly taking up yoga. How long might it take for his or her tightened, bulky physique to transform into the pliable, lengthy body of a yogi? Certainly not overnight. It’s a similar situation for every actor taking on a new accent. Why? Because as each of us speaks in our own daily accent (and language) we are literally exercising our articulators in specific ways, building strength in certain areas, and flexibility in others. New accents require a shift in these muscle patterns, and it takes time and practice to learn the new patterns so they are as natural and fluid as human speech requires they be. The bottom line here is to begin training for your accent as soon as possible. It should be the first thing you do once you determine which accent is the best fit for the project. Accent is what I call a pre-production sport.
Sometimes an actor chooses an accent that is perfectly appropriate for the project and has become 100 percent technically proficient with it, but something still seems “off” about the performance. This is what many refer to as insufficient accent integration. It is actually possible to “know” an accent and be able to “talk” while using it, but to never reach the level of comfort and ownership with it that allows you to completely integrate the accent into performance.
Typical cause: Usually a combination of lack of preparation time and not understanding the steps necessary to make an accent one’s own.
Fix: In order to fully integrate an accent into performance, it’s important to know that for a professional actor, an accent is not like a prop or a costume. It cannot be effectively applied to the surface of a performance, but for success, must be integrated artfully and completely into an actor’s character development and rehearsal process. An accent that is fully integrated has been worked to the point that it truly becomes second nature. There is simply no wiggle room during a masterful performance for any part of the actor to be thinking, “Uh-oh, here comes that difficult phrase,” or “Oh, no! I just flubbed that word.”
Making the leap from technical proficiency to complete accent integration comes naturally for some people, but for most entails a series of exercises aimed at linking the actor’s own thoughts to the target accent. There are far too many to list here, but examples of these exercises include (once the technical aspect of the target accent has been mastered): spending time each day conversing with strangers in accent, as well as writing about one’s own memories and then reading them aloud in the new accent while trying to be as true to oneself as possible.
By implementing the strategies before the next time you have an opportunity to work in an accent other than your own, you will be well on your way to an appropriate, consistent, and integrated accent that does exactly what it should do: support your overall performance by ringing true.
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