How to Master Any Accent: 4 Experts Talk Dialect Work

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Photo Source: Old Vic Theatre/Universal Pictures/United Artists

In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast features in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy actors and creators. Join host and senior editor Vinnie Mancuso for this guide to living the creative life from those who are doing it every day.

As an actor, learning a new accent can be daunting—throw in regional dialects, tonality, and the challenge of the performance itself, and it can start to feel impossible. Luckily, we’re here to help. 

“I basically say: Learn the notes so that you can play the music,” says dialect and acting coach Denise Woods. “And acting is playing the music. But you’ve got to know the notes. It frees you.”

On this episode of In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast, we sit down with Woods, Rebecca Gausnell, Bob Corff, and Paul Meier. Combined, the quartet has over four decades of experience teaching accent and dialect work; their client list includes Mahershala Ali, Samuel L. Jackson, Faye Dunaway, and Kit Harington, to name just a few. Together, they gave us a lesson on learning any accent and turning into a dynamic performance onstage or in front of the camera.

If you’re having trouble slipping into an accent, get physical.

“I love those moments where the actor is really physical—like, they’re a physical actor and kind of come in going, ‘I don't know about this voice work. Are they going to make me do elocution lessons and repetition lessons?’ I remember one actor backstage just throwing a ball so that he could feel that sense of release on the end of the word; and he got it. It was like the accent just clicked into place. Another actress used a similar exercise. But it was that tapping of something on the last word. She really needed to get the final word in.” —Rebecca Gausnell 

Repetition is the key to success.

“The last thing on an actor’s mind when [they are] performing is the accent. If you’re thinking about the accent, you’re dead. It’s got to be habitual and instinctive by the point at which you commit to a performance. It’s a daily practice. It’s the workout. Maybe you’re in the shower and you’re going to be on set [doing] an Irish accent—a Belfast accent—and you go through familiar texts, [such as] ‘Hamlet.’ ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind…’ So you take a familiar text that’s in your audition repertoire, one that you’ve never done in that accent, perhaps, and you find what it takes to not think anymore about the accent. Just do Hamlet’s lines. By that point, if you can switch from speech to speech, from monologue to monologue, and stay in the accent, then you know that on a prepared text that you’ve been rehearsing and you’ve been coached in, you’re more likely to be able to stay in it and not think about it once you are in performance.” —Paul Meier 

There are many different ways to train your ear.

“Another thing you can use before you go onstage—which was not my idea, but I have to give all my credit to the wonderful coach Beth McGuire—is to put one earbud in or one side of headphone and have your sample speaker playing, but really low. You kind of create a café effect. You know when you’re in a café and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Why do I sound Scottish? Oh, I was sitting next to a Scottish person.’ We do tend to mold our accents, some people more than others, into someone else’s. So if you have that running through your ear very quietly, of someone speaking in the accent, that will help pull you back into it. I love that, and I tell it to my actors.” —RG 

While working on “Green Book,” Ali had a breakthrough that illustrates what goes into learning a dialect.

“How we found that voice was: I said to him, ‘Just lift up through the spine. I want you to tilt your head over—just a tilt, as if you’re looking down on the rest of the world, as if you are looking over the top of your glasses over the rest of the world. I really want you to feel the length in your spine and widening across the chest, and get that head really pivoting high above the tip of your spine. Look down on everyone else as if you’re kind of above it; you’re artistically and culturally above it all.’ And he did this, and the voice that came out of this man… He and I both started crying. How he found his voice was through opening up. His whole physicality informed his voice, which then informed the speech. It was this beautiful domino effect. I’ll never forget it. We knew that was the moment.” Denise Woods

Listen and subscribe to In the Envelope to hear our full conversation on mastering dialect and accents as an actor: