How do actors shed their accents?
September 20, 2014 3:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm very curious how actors are taught to shed their accents or mimic an accent.

I've noticed that there are a lot of British actors who sound American for characters in TV shows. In some cases, I did not know they weren't American until I heard them speak outside the context of their character. The first example of this I noticed was Hugh Laurie in House. When I first heard him speak outside of House, I was blown away -- "He's British? How do they do that?"

More recently, I have started watching Finding Carter, which is set in northern Virginia. A "commercial" of sorts came on, and the title actress said something to the effect of, "Cheeri-O, we're chuffed as nuts that we've been renewed for another season!" (Of course, there were no actual British-isms -- I just put that in to exaggerate my "Whoa, she's British?" reaction.)

A Facebook friend of mine recently posted this video on a class using dog clicker training to attempt to "correct" a Boston accent. I'm not sure why an average Joe would want to "correct" an accent -- this coming from someone who lived in the Boston area for 8 years and sometimes had trouble understanding the accent. I did hope the video would get more technical about how exactly the people taking the class were taught to shed their accents, but I was disappointed.

Anyway, the post got me thinking again about the British actor effect. It seems that actors are able to do this so well -- to the point where I have no idea that they are British until I hear them speak out of character.

So how are people taught not to speak with their natural accent, and how are they able to do it so well and then switch back to their usual speech patterns? This obviously goes beyond merely attempting to fake an accent for comedic effect.
posted by tckma to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you google Dialect Coach, you'll find lots of hits. If the actor doesn't already have an accent in the bag from their training or previous work, there will be a dialect coach hired by the producers to assist, and they'll be present through the rehearsal process.

Broadly speaking, the reason why British actors (and actors from the Commonwealth countries generally) are able to do this so well is the ubiquity of US television shows and movies. The US export of accents is unparalleled. The average American may not know the difference between Welsh and Yorkshire accents (which sound nothing alike) because they probably haven't watched a lot of TV where being in Wales or Yorkshire is a central part of the show. But there are endless Boston based shows, NYC based shows, shows in the Deep South, etc.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:02 AM on September 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

The National Theatre in London have lots of book and CD resources for voice and accents.
posted by Lanark at 4:19 AM on September 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, part of traditional British drama school training is learning Received Pronunciation aka 'the Queen's English'. An actor with a strong regional accent might not be able to graduate from a one of the traditional prestigious theater-oriented school, or just wouldn't get as much work in the UK as someone who could switch accents to fit with what the part demands, and they'd be unlikely to come to the US looking for their big break. Unless they hit mega-star status early on, and nobody really wants/needs to see them using an American accent. Patrick Stewart can probably do any accent he wants, having started from a Yorkshire accent and switching to RP for the theater, but he got US-famous with his RP accent in Star Trek & X-Men, so it would probably pull people out of the story if he were to play in an American accent no matter how perfect it was.

I mean, there are plenty of actors from the UK & Australia who are terrible at US accents, they just don't make it over to L.A. and land themselves a pilot. (There are some hilariously bad US accents on UK shows, if you keep an ear out for them.)

As far as why someone would want to shed a Boston accent - people with strong accents routinely get treated like they're stupid, unfortunately.
posted by oh yeah! at 5:08 AM on September 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Back in 2005 or 2006, someone mentioned Accents for Actors training materials here on askme. This one, I think. I bought one on a whim (Scottish accent), and listened & did the exercises on the tape when I commuted in my car (which was the only place I had a tape player anyways). Side A was explanations on phonemes, vowel, & phrasing pronunciation, which were repeated several times for you to say and match to the recording. Side B had dialogues by natural speakers, to listen to and practice mimicking.

It was surprisingly effective, even for this non-actor. If you're interested in trying, it's a change of pace from the usual podcast.
posted by neda at 5:50 AM on September 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Okay, let me explain a bit more about Received Pronunciation.

Received Pronunciation is an accent that goes with the Standard British English dialect, and only with the Standard British English dialect.

Conversely, Standard British English can be spoken in any accent; and most British people ave a regional accent of some kind.

Received Pronunciation is often called "BBC English" because it's what you expect to hear when you turn on the news. Basically it's a default accent for performers of all kinds.

If your agent calls, and you answer in your own regional accent, your agent will assume that your regional accent is the only accent you can speak in. If you answer in RP, your agent will make no assumptions about what accents you can learn.

That's why RP is part of acting training in the UK. Along with the usual speech and articulation stuff and learning to shout so as the punters at the back can hear (or "projection" as some people like to call it).

As for learning specific accents, most of us use recordings, and recordings are often issued as study materials during training. I personally would just keep repeating the words one at a time until I sounded like the tape, and then I would read pages of text in the accent until it sounded right, and I might also go around using the accent all the time in everyday life until it was burned in.
posted by tel3path at 7:28 AM on September 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh and. For reasons of class snobbery, it used to be considered a necessary part of education to unlearn your regional accent and only speak in RP. That's not really usual practice any more since basic knowledge of sociolinguistics has trickled down, and as I said earlier, Standard English can be spoken in any accent; you can speak Standard English in a cockney accent, for example. It's basic knowledge in sociolinguistics that all linguistic value judgements are really social value judgements, so you'll only think "working class" accents sound "uneducated" if you assume working class people are stupid.

This is a pretty recent change; even as recently as twenty years ago my privately-educated, upper-middle-class friend said to me (very kind of her it was, too) "Ai'm orl in fayvah of people being allowed to keep their eaun accents."

Because there are so many regional accents in Britain, and because Britain is very densely populated, any given Brit is more likely to be able to imitate different accents more easily than, say, any given Canadian, since Canada has comparatively very little in the way of regional accent variation.

However, as someone mentioned, not all British actors are automatically any good at changing accents. In Frasier, for example, Jane Leeves gave the Daphne character a Manchester accent, but it wasn't very good - not because she was doing anything you could point out as wrong, but because it just didn't sound right overall. Then her brother came for a visit, played by Anthony LaPaglia, and HE had a South-East estuary/Cockney type accent, because many Americans can't tell a Cockney accent apart from the Manchester accent.

Eventually they turned this into a joke in its own right, when ALL Daphne's brothers came to visit, and they all had wildly different accents from wildly different regions of the UK; including and especially Robbie Coltrane, who put on a Scottish accent so dense that nothing he said was remotely intelligible.
posted by tel3path at 7:38 AM on September 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: There are accent coaches. See Amy Walker, for example.
posted by dfriedman at 8:52 AM on September 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, in addition to the point mentioned above about the quantity of American accents on offer for British actors to emulate, there is also the question of market size. It is more lucrative for a British (or Australian) actor to learn to do an American accent because the movie and TV market in the United States is larger than either of those countries, and, by and large, the demand for British and Australian accents in the US is lower than is the demand for American accents. So market incentives also have a lot to do with it. If you have an incentive to develop a different accent, you will do your best to acquire it.
posted by dfriedman at 8:56 AM on September 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

In both the UK & Australia there are acting colleges where a hell of a lot of really good actors go to study acting. It is seriously considered a craft and there is a lot of study involved including training in accents. In the UK being able to add or remove a regional accent as needed is an important skill. For Australian actors being able to fake a good US accent will get you more work on the US movies being shot in Australia. Add to that that they will hire acting coaches for foreign actors for US tv shows/movies, or the actors themselves will study with coaches before going for parts helps.
posted by wwax at 10:28 AM on September 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

What I know from smaller theatrical productions: you can usually figure out the vowel shifts and such for different dialects based on a bit of coaching, Wikipedia, YouTube, etc. With those rules in mind, a diligent actor will mark up their entire script with the proper pronunciations. (A less diligent actor will practice a little and then hope that no one from Cape Breton or wherever sees the show.)
posted by Iridic at 1:43 PM on September 20, 2014

Best answer: In short: practice. Accents are learned through a combination of methods and a LOT of repetition. There are web sites where you can buy training material (which used to be delivered on tape or CD in the dark ages). My iTunes library now contains "British North Country For Actors" as a result of one play my wife did. When auditioning you might be told in the casting notice what sort of accent they're looking for, and they may even give you names of actors or movies to watch for a guide. And then once you're hired, if a production requires a specific accent there should be a dialect coach (if budget allows) who will work with all the actors on vowel and consonant placement, intonation, rhythm, and tempo.

A lot of it comes down to drilling phonemes and specific sample words. You have to learn (or relearn) how to shape your mouth to make a certain sound, then make a new habit of that placement. It's like learning to sing in a lot of ways (your tongue goes here, your mouth should be a bit rounder, and so on).

Some actors are better at it than others and the Atlantic ocean is a pretty good filter. For every Hugh Laurie with a successful career over here there's somebody on a soundstage in Wales, working on a police procedural, sounding like a comic caricature of an American on Talk Like a Pirate Day. Those actors usually don't make it across the pond (with exceptions). But the British have a strange notion of what makes a good American accent, so it's possible the average limey thinks we all sound like that.

The biggest difficulty for an American going the other way is that British (or Australian, or New Zealander) accents are very precise in a way many Americans just can't hear. A Briton would probably be able to tell a Liverpudlian from a Mancunian but the average yank wouldn't know the difference.

Source: my wife is an actor.
posted by fedward at 2:01 PM on September 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

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