Approaching a Role with an Accent

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Lena Harris
The Lena Harris Workshop, Beverly Hills, Calif.;
There are many ways to approach a role that requires an accent. Some actors study with a dialect coach. When I appeared in "Three Years Probation," I took it upon myself to master the character's Norwegian accent without a coach. My growing up in Texas made it challenging. Additionally, my character was a functioning alcoholic and nine months pregnant! The process was difficult and rewarding—a process that I bring to the actors in my workshop.

My actors are required to master accents. They use dialect CDs offering a step-by-step approach with specific drills and exercises. They practice the exercises continually and speak with the accent everywhere—at home, at the market, etc. They may lose a boyfriend, girlfriend, or roommate in the process, but their accent soon becomes second nature.

Correct pronunciation is essential in delivering an authentic accent. If the accent is too heavy, it will be unintelligible to the audience. And improvisation helps to avoid sounding mechanical.

It is also important to understand the physical behavior of the culture. Some cultures use their hands to express emotions; others communicate with unscripted sounds. And always consider the character's social status. For example, the accent and physical behavior of an Italian countess would differ from those of an Italian fishwife. Listen; be present; clarify your relationships, objectives, and actions; and be truthful.

Mastering accents expands the actor's tool set—the lifeblood of every actor—so when you get that call requiring a Brooklyn accent for a role opposite Robert De Niro, you will be prepared!

Bob and Claire Corff
Corff Voice Studios, Los Angeles;
Acquiring an accent for a role can either be an exciting opportunity to shine or an actor's worst nightmare. The people hiring you want to sense your confidence and know that you will be able to master this accent.

Find an expert dialect coach who can teach you the basics. If you can't find a skilled coach, you can find an actors bookstore or go online and find a CD and instruction book to listen to and learn from.

Our accent programs are uncomplicated and make it as easy as it can be to listen, repeat, and learn. We act as a guide, pointing out the elements needed to duplicate an authentic accent. Then we let you hear authentic speakers who best represent that particular accent, so you can hear their accent and pick up their attitudes. Knowing the attitudes of the region really helps you create the sound. These native speakers give you the sounds while telling you amazing stories about their homes.

A good teacher will give you the placement of the mouth, lips, and tongue and coach you on the melody, stresses, and cadences of the accent. He or she will educate you about the vowels, the consonants, the different mouth and throat positions, as well as the attitudes and belief systems of that area, which strongly influence the accent. If you practice, it will be unbelievably satisfying and filled with possibilities.

David Gideon
The Acting Class, New York;, (917) 453-7455
There is a need for our characters to sound authentic. Far too many actors settle for a generic brand of accent that is not specific enough, or they rely on the accent to cover the shortfall from overlooked homework. That's a shame, for working on accents is great fun and ultimately very rewarding.

If it's a foreign language accent, I ask my students to begin by actually studying the language, as if they wanted to learn it. Today, with readily available CD and DVD courses, this is easier than ever. The next step is to apply the pronunciation and the rhythm of the language to the text of the script.

That, however, is only a beginning. Accents, whether from a foreign language or homegrown, must be specific to a region within the country of origin. For this, one must listen to native speakers. Here in New York it's easy. There are so many communities within our five boroughs and neighboring New Jersey that we can always find entire groups of people to listen to and learn from. Go into that community. Find a restaurant or bar and sit down. Bring a small digital recorder (less likely to be seen and offend) and listen and record. Listen to the pronunciation, the cadence, and the music of it. Then go home and practice, practice, practice. I have found this way to be far more effective than dialect tapes or imitation alone.

Having said all this, in a time crunch, seek one of the wonderful dialect coaches that exist in all major markets.

Deena Levy
Deena Levy Theatre Studio, New York;,, (212) 340-1084
My approach to teaching the craft of acting is a "whole person" approach. Therefore, when it comes to assimilating an accent required for a role, it can never be simply a cut and paste onto your voice, however accurate an imitation you may achieve.

You must endeavor to come to life through the accent, breathing character, extending toward a multidimensional living energy that actually flows from the gift of the accent itself. There is definitely value in purchasing a CD or a session with an excellent acting coach. Diction, phonetics, and rhythm are crucial. Accents are as diverse as the numerous regions that make up an entire country. Be specific.

Watch films with performances that embody well-done accents, such as Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland" or Meryl Streep in "Sophie's Choice."

In preparation for her performance as a Russian maid in George Walker's "Suburban Motel," my student Chloe Sehr, as a last-ditch effort, stopped enunciating. Instead, she walked into the Gemini Salon and Spa to get down and dirty with the Russian working girls—sweating and polishing, feasting on Nevskaya, dancing to the Gypsy accordion. She immersed herself in listening. She spent the entire day. Chloe connected profoundly with the longing in the sounds of laughter for "something better." She both mastered the accent and found the hook that made this beautifully written character her own.

That's your job—to make it your own.

—Reported by Simi Horwitz