Accents & The Actor

by Michela Carattini

As a multi-local and global actor, I am asked to work ‘in accent’ more often than not, and I consider it an essential part of my actor’s toolkit. Growing up in Germany with a Panamanian-American father and an Australian mother, as well as graduating from a language- specialist high school, drama school and university has given me a fantastic ear, but the methods I’ve learned below are what really make the accent. For the record, most consider my natural accent to be ‘Standard American’-- though, there are hints of Sydney and New York which cannot be denied. I have worked professionally in the following accents and languages: English, Gaelic, Australian, “Shakespearean” Australian, Standard American, New York, Southern U.S., Sardinian, Italian, French, Czech, German and Latin-American Spanish.

How do you do another accent well?
  • Be Specific. For the film 54 Days, I was told I needed to do an “English” accent. There are, of course, hundreds of versions of an English accent, each authentic in their own right. I couldn’t start work on the accent until I knew exactly what I was aiming for. After extensive character work, I discovered my character was from London-- more specifically, from the Surrey-Hampshire border. Educated, but not upper class, and influenced by having lived for many years in Australia as an adult. Gender, class, and time period have a heavy influence on accent, so don’t ignore these. For foreign language accents, you must even be specific about where (from whom) they learned English. Helen Mirren tells a great story about how she produced a perfect Russian accent, but the director didn’t feel it was quite right. It wasn’t until she discovered the Russian accent she was using was that of a Russian in England rather than America that she was able to give the director (and the American audience) what they felt was an authentic Russian accent. Believe it or not, being this specific makes it easier to learn an accent, and to make it yours. (More on that later).
  • Listen. Over and over, day after day. Find someone with an authentic version of that accent. For the example above, I settled on Billy Pipher in Secrets of a London Call Girl and later worked in touches of Australian. For other projects, I have posted on Facebook cultural community groups, rung foreign consulates and even restaurants to ask if someone was willing to chat with me and/or be recorded saying my lines in return for free lunch. I like to get a version where they are ‘acting’ it, so I get an idea of cultural communication of emotion, but also, a flat version so I can make it mine. IDEA (The International Dialects of English Archive) is also a great resource if you’re speaking in English, and You Tube has a vast array of accent tags these days. For foreign accents, don’t forget to listen to the character’s mother tongue language as well, as you will usually be using elements of melody and rhythm from that language. If you can afford it, a good dialect coach, their exercises and their ear are worth their weight in gold. I do know actors who swear by the international phonetic alphabet, however this is not a method I tend to use.
  • Repeat. Work separately on the different components of the accent, such as: pronunciation, vowels, melody, resonance, rhythm & emphasis. Speak in the mother-tongue language of the accent if you can, because this sets your mouth, jaw, resonance, etc in the correct place for the accent as well. Don’t get upset if you don’t get it straight away. This takes work people!
  • Practice until it becomes yours. Get out there in the world and do it. Get it wrong, laugh at yourself, and start to own the accent, melding it with your own vocal and personality idiosyncrasies and trying out new ones that might suit your character. Did you know accents and cultures change facial expressions and body language too? Sometimes an accent can breathe the entire life of a character into me, making it that much easier to become them in every way (‘Carmen’ in Americans in Oz was like this for me). Some actors live in accent from beginning of project to end. This is not for me for a few reasons: it’s exhausting, I don’t want to lose my original accent, and I want to differentiate between me and the character while living other parts of my life. One of my favourite dialect coaches recommended to me to set aside a few hours each day where I remain in accent no matter what I’m doing, and then use my own the rest of the day. This has now become my standard way of working.
  • On the day. I like to do a vocal warm up no matter what I’m working on, as voice is so important, but if I’m working in accent, I warm up in accent. I repeat the vowels in accent. And usually, I walk on set in accent. At some point, let go of thinking about it. You should be able to wear it like a comfortable shoe by now, and if you believe it, others will too. Finally, I must agree with Helen Mirren when she says, “A good performance in a bad accent is better than a bad performance in a great accent.” Every time.

What to do when you’re not happy with the job you did?

  • Remember that you’re not the best judge of your work. Have you ever heard your voice played back on a recorder or video and thought-- is that really what I sound like? We can’t hear ourselves as others do, and that’s important to know. Furthermore, accents are dynamic and individual, not the static stereotypes we would have ourselves believe-- the layers in your accent may have given your character more depth as well.
  • People who know you are not the best judge of your work. Once you hear someone’s accent and vocal quality, that becomes an essential part of who they are in your mind. It is extremely difficult for people to let go of that once it has formed. They may say they “can tell” your accent isn’t real, but really they are working off previous knowledge. When people who’ve never met you believe your accent, you’re doing it well.
  • Go watch Kevin Costner in Robin Hood. It will make you feel better, because you weren’t as bad as that (sorry Kevin), and probably not on that grand a scale either.
  • Learn what you can for next time. If there are specific things you know you would like to change for next time-- put those into practice-- and why not now? If there’s an accent you tend to get work in a lot, why not start before your next job? Time is always scarce, so get ahead of the game whenever you can. Continue to evolve, learn from your mistakes, and get better-- that’s the point.
  • Let it go. Your job as an actor was to help tell a story, not to mimic perfect accents. I always think of Martin Short in Father of the Bride when I think about this-- his accent for ‘Franck’ was far from a perfect mimic-- it was an artistic impression, a satire even-- perfect for the character, story and genre, and I love it so much more because of it. Audiences are usually caught up in story and not accent, and most will be forgiving. But most importantly, if you didn’t live up to your own standards, forgive yourself. You did your best, and you will keep getting better.

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