In the early days of Hollywood, actors with accents had limitations placed on their careers. Bela Lugosi became the king of horror when he played Dracula in 1931, but his dreams of being a leading man were frustrated by his thick Hungarian accent. In today’s world, the industry is much more accepting about this sort of thing.
There are two points of discussion here: Actors who can put on accents and actors who have natural accents. Let’s start with the former.
Are you good with accents? If the answer is yes, your opportunities just doubled. Depending on the role, casting directors aren’t always looking for the real thing; they’re usually open to actors who can “perform” an accent, so long as it sounds authentic. But it’s important to remember when preparing to audition for a character with an accent to not focus on the accent at the expense of your performance. I’ve had clients work so hard on getting an accent right that they forget to work equally hard on the acting. As a result, they end up giving the casting director a weak performance with a strong accent. The offer will always go to the best actor, and if that person’s accent isn’t pitch-perfect, production will hire a coach to work with them before shooting begins. It’s something to work on in preproduction, not something that will necessarily cost them the job.
(By the way, can you guess which accent is the hardest to pull off? I asked a dialect teacher and she said it’s Cajun. For reference, Dennis Quaid tried to do one in “The Big Easy” and he failed miserably!)
Now, let’s talk about actors who have natural accents that have been with them since they learned how to speak. Do they have to hide their accents when they read for Americans? Sometimes, but not always. It all depends on the part.
“If you have a natural accent and you’re up for a role that has to be American, start talking like it from the moment you enter the casting office.”
When Andrew Lincoln auditioned for “The Walking Dead,” he definitely had to turn off his English accent. It wouldn’t make sense in the American South. But let’s say he was up for the role of a businessman. In that case, his natural accent might work just fine. Unless the character being American is an important plot point, there’s no reason the guy couldn’t be English.
I used to represent an Australian actor who had an accent straight out of “The Crocodile Hunter.” He worked hard to thin it down by about 50% and ended up booking a series regular role that was supposed to be American. The producers liked his Down Under vibe so much that they decided to make the character Australian. That’s one reason I’ve always felt actors with natural accents should focus on reduction, not elimination.
Here’s some important advice: If you have a natural accent and you’re up for a role that has to be American, start talking like it from the moment you enter the casting office and don’t stop till the audition’s over. Why? Because if the casting director knows you have an accent, they’ll be focusing on your ability to turn it off when they should be focusing on your performance. The same strategy applies if you’re putting on an accent. Enter in character and stay that way. Anything else risks distracting from what matters.
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