Brits etc. Playing Americans on TV
December 2, 2020 12:05 PM   Subscribe

Is it obvious to American audiences when Brits (or Australians or whatever) play Americans on TV?

It seems like whenever an American actor plays a Brit/Australian/New Zealander/Canadian etc, there's a lot of criticism of their accent.

However, when I read online reviews and things, I never really notice much discussion when a Brit (or other English-speaking nationality) plays an American character. The last time I remember hearing anything on this was with Hugh Laurie back when House came out.

Is that because actors from other countries are just really good at doing American accents? Or do American audiences notice but just let it slide? Or something else?

(All of this is being sparked by the character Helen Pierce in Ozark, by the way. I found out she is played by a British actress and got curious).
posted by iamsuper to Media & Arts (68 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
I had absolutely no idea that Hugh Laurie was a Brit. While watching House, I mean. The first time I heard him speak naturally I was really surprised.
posted by Splunge at 12:16 PM on December 2, 2020 [11 favorites]


It is not obvious to me and I am from the Midwest, where we all think we don't have an accent. The last ADA on the original Law and Order series was played by Linus Roache and I didn't know he was English until I saw him in a movie.
posted by soelo at 12:17 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


I almost never notice bad American accents. I suspect it's because American media is much more pervasive in non-US anglophone countries than the other way around. And that non-US actors specifically practice/train American accents in order to get work on US shows.

Personally I was very surprised to find out Henry Cavill was British, having only seen him in the Superman and Mission Impossible movies.
posted by theodolite at 12:19 PM on December 2, 2020


Sometimes yeah sometimes no. Off the top of my head I’d say it’s easy to miss it completely when it’s sort of a standard hollywood middle American accent but usually worse with regional accents but now I can’t think of good examples and am thinking instead of the counter example of Kelly MacDonald really nailing it in No Country for Old Men.

I think Americans largely grow up thinking there’s one English accent and that causes problems!
posted by less of course at 12:19 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


Something I have seen come up frequently in interviews with British/Australian actors who are very, very good at this: they are much more likely to go to A Drama School in which they are taught how to learn to do accents - because it's a given that they will need to do so in their careers, even in a very British career dialect and accent varies widely - and learn choreography and swordfighting and horses and stuff.

Americans are much more likely to learn on the job or go to regular universities that offer various performance majors, which is much less actual training clock hours than a performing arts institute, of which we don't actually have that many.

I mean, even most Brits cannot pull off a truly accurate local-proof hyper-regional accent - I say this as a Texan from an Ozark family, living in Southern California - but Americans can't do that either most of the time. I think we are routinely startled by British and Australian actors here, though, with a general American accent that sounds absolutely spot-on.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:22 PM on December 2, 2020 [10 favorites]


Sometimes certain vowel sounds make me suspicious, and when I check in IMDB or Wikipedia, yup: British. I think watching a lot of British media probably makes this easier.

(Canadians sometimes give themselves away, too, though far less frequently.)
posted by wintersweet at 12:23 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]


Like in Knives Out absolutely. Quite frequently not though
posted by aubilenon at 12:24 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


I had watched the first two seasons of Stranger Things before I found out that Millie Bobby Brown is English.

Supposedly Dominic West had some adventures in accenting on The Wire, but I didn’t watch The Wire.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 12:24 PM on December 2, 2020


Is that because actors from other countries are just really good at doing American accents?

There's a Reddit AMA with Idris Elba from some years back where people asked him about working out the accent for Stringer Bell in The Wire, and he says:

The truth is I had been living in America by 3-4 years by the time I got The Wire, so my ear is pretty good at picking up accents and I'm a bit of a mimic, so it was a combination of living in the country and picking up an East Coast accent for Stringer. So the short answer is: it took me 4 years, but in honesty I cheated because I was living in America.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:24 PM on December 2, 2020 [3 favorites]


The answer as a heavy tv and movie watcher is: sometimes.

America has a huge diversity of accents, news anchors and other people who have to be broadly appealing get voice training to speak with "unaccented" American English, a lot of our 20th century media had actors trained in using the transatlantic accent, which is an intentionally ambiguous accent, and probably like half of the most beloved "American" actors are actually Canadian.

Add to that that the UK comprises a huge diversity of accents as well, and unless you spend a lot of time watching reality television from across the pond most Americans probably don't have a clear idea of what those accents sound like.

I think it's just tough to catch because American media is such a melting pot itself, and also if an actor is coming over here to work they're probably not shit.

I've never seen Ozark, so I pulled up a clip of your Helen person. To my American who has watched a lot of British reality tv ear, her accent definitely sounds off, and believably encumbered by something from the British Isles, but not in a way that's bad or takes me out of the scene. Compare that to Michael C Hall in that show Safe where his terrible accent was so offputting I stopped the first episode several times to make a friend listen to it.
posted by phunniemee at 12:26 PM on December 2, 2020


I think it’s fair to say that British actors do better American accents than the reverse, in general. Bear in mind that Brits will have grown up watching American TV and movies in a way that’s not true in reverse. (British actors perhaps have better formal training as well?) My objection is that Brits tend to have generic American accents. This sometimes works well (e.g. Matthew McFadyen in Succession) but sometimes a more specific accent would be more authentic (as in the case of Dominic West in The Wire, who I always saw as English).
posted by rouleur at 12:27 PM on December 2, 2020 [3 favorites]


Is that because actors from other countries are just really good at doing American accents?

Depends on the actor.
posted by Rash at 12:27 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]


I had absolutely no idea that Hugh Laurie was a Brit. While watching House, I mean. The first time I heard him speak naturally I was really surprised.

They actually did a little sketch about it at the Emmys.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 12:28 PM on December 2, 2020 [6 favorites]


More anecdata: was SHOCKED to hear Sarah Snook's (Australian) and Matthew Macfadyen's (I now know this is a very famous British actor) natural voices/accents after watching Succession. But I also remember being a bit roiled by Jude Law's accent in I Heart Huckabees back in the day. I agree with the broad strokes of the Drama School argument above, as well as the vowel sounds as signal.
posted by youarenothere at 12:28 PM on December 2, 2020


Some people are good at it, some people are bad at it. Phoebe Waller-Bridge's American accent in Run was particularly bad.
posted by zsazsa at 12:30 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]


I can't think of a single time I've figured it out from accent alone.
posted by lampoil at 12:31 PM on December 2, 2020


(Canadians sometimes give themselves away, too, though far less frequently.)
I feel the exact opposite - I pick out the long Canadian O almost weekly - often in a narrator or non-scripted type series.
posted by soelo at 12:31 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


I think if a Brit is selected to play an American in an American produced show/movie they likely get voice training and work to do the proper accent. I do notice with British shows when a Brit plays an American the accent is noticeable, and what I imagine an American sounds like to a Brit.
posted by tman99 at 12:32 PM on December 2, 2020 [4 favorites]


I've noticed bad American accents in theater far more than in movies and TV, I assume because they can fix some of the bad stuff in ADR, which they obviously can't do on stage. Years ago, I saw a play called "Popcorn" on the West End, and the whole story took place in the US. My then husband and I were cringing because the American accents were so so so bad.
posted by holborne at 12:35 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


Supposedly Dominic West had some adventures in accenting on The Wire, but I didn’t watch The Wire.

I only saw the first season but I found his accent pretty glaring. Maybe he got better in later seasons.
posted by octothorpe at 12:43 PM on December 2, 2020 [3 favorites]


Jude Law trying to do Savannah Georgia in Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil: lol. To be fair, that’s tough for most Americans, too. But he sounded especially English there.
posted by kapers at 12:43 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]


I think in general, British (or just non-American) actors appearing in American movies and TV shows are quite good at generic American accents. Every once in a while you can catch them out on a vowel that isn't quite right, but you have to be listening pretty alertly for that sort of thing. And some of them are strikingly accurate. (E.g. I never would have guessed that Idris Elba was from anywhere other than the Mid-Atlantic US from the accent he used in The Wire).

Non-American actors have a much harder time with specific regional American accents. Others have already mentioned Daniel Craig's so-bad-its-good Southern accent from Knives Out and Logan Lucky, but there are a lot of examples out there. Similarly, Jessie Buckley's Minnesota accent from the most recent season of Fargo works in the context of the heightened theatricality of that show, but definitely isn't very close to the way that any actual Minnesotan has ever spoken. (Of course, Fargo, both the movie and TV series, are sometimes proof enough that American actors don't always nail American regional accents.)

But the place you really see bad American accents is on British TV. The various BBC mystery series are particularly egregious offenders. Pretty much every time you see an American character, at best you get an amusing parody of an American accent. At worst, you spend 10 minutes on Wikipedia and IMDB trying to figure out whether the actor is from South Africa or Australia before realizing, no, it's just that their attempt at an American accent is so bad that it is not readily recognizable as such.
posted by firechicago at 12:47 PM on December 2, 2020 [12 favorites]


I notice it pretty often, though it doesn't bother me that much most of the time. I know there are a lot of actors who do slip past me.

Where I really notice it, though, is in British TV shows, when there's an American character who appears in a one-off episode. Presumably those actors are just not as thoroughly trained on American accents as actors who are living/working in the US.
posted by gideonfrog at 12:51 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]


Most of the time, Brits do a great job and I don't notice that they're not American. That said, usually if I can tell it's because their accent is too "generic American"-sounding, not because their accent slips. Some Brits are terrible, of course -- Dominic West in The Wire was so bad it was distracting, but I guess he's the exception that proves the rule.

Australians apparently have a rougher time, there's this clipped-t thing that a lot of Australians do when they're doing an American accent that I really notice. An actor who did this a lot is Julian McMahon on Nip/Tuck. I also tend to notice it more when their accent slips (Nicole Kidman is constantly slipping!). That said, for the most part it's still fairly subtle and not a big deal.

I have literally never noticed a native New Zealander's accent when they're playing an American! I was completely shocked to discover that Rose McIver in iZombie is from New Zealand.

I actually notice Canadian accents a lot, but I think it's because Canadian actors aren't necessarily trying to fake an American accent, they're just using their natural accent because everyone figures it's close enough. Like Stephen Amell in Arrow -- I legitimately thought that the show was meant to be set in Canada because I found the Canadian accents, especially Amell's, so strong. But I think the actors just spoke how they actually speak and it wasn't supposed to say anything about the characters.

I think people are uniformly pretty bad at faking regional American accents. Americans are as bad as anyone else at that, though.
posted by rue72 at 12:52 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]


Bad American accents are much more common on British shows shown only in Britain - particularly sketch shows, etc., where someone might be playing a one-off American character and haven't prepared as they would for a longer running or more serious role. It's noticeable when Brits try to do a North American accent - hard to describe, but there is like an overdone quality, an over-exaggeration of the rhotic r and other sounds.
posted by jb at 12:52 PM on December 2, 2020 [6 favorites]


I (an American) have always had a hard time hearing it. When I've thought about it before, I've wondered if it's because American accents are less "settled" in general; there are things I can hear in second-gen friends' accents, or from people who've moved around some, and that covers almost everyone I know. So I'm used to a lot of real people having a particular vowel or phoneme that doesn't quite line up with their rest of their accent, and I wonder if that's as common in the UK.

I've also wondered if the Americans doing UK accents are more widely-known in the first place, and so hearing the "wrong" accent is more jarring. I hadn't heard of Hugh Laurie before House and was surprised he wasn't American, but have watched a lot of Jeeves and Wooster and A Bit of Fry and Laurie since. Listening to clips now, I can hear him hitting the vowels really hard. In trying to hear it again with naive ears, that same vowel thing just sounds like he spent some time in the upper midwest.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:56 PM on December 2, 2020


That is, when Brits without training try to do the accent. A lot of British actors are already well trained in accents because most are required to switch around for British roles (regions, classes).
posted by jb at 12:58 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


Bad American accents are much more common on British tv (and possibly movies); the actors who come to the US to work in American media tend to be the ones who can really pull off an American accent (at least the generic one).

There were some legendarily bad American accents in the British spy show Spooks (it aired in the US as MI-5). The two actors from that show who have had the most international success, Matthew MacFadyen and David Oyelowo, both played Brits in the show. I've never seen the actors playing unconvincing Americans since.
posted by suelac at 1:00 PM on December 2, 2020 [4 favorites]


I don't recall any specific examples, but more than once while watching a supposedly American character in a British show I've been moved to wonder, "why is that character doing a John Wayne imitation?" It seems that sounding vaguely like John Wayne is meant to signal "generic American." Hey Brits: We don't all talk like John Wayne!
posted by Corvid at 1:14 PM on December 2, 2020 [7 favorites]


I'm an Australian living in the US. I can often but not always pick the British or Aussie actors, my husband who is American is damn near amazing at picking them, he says it's because he hears my mid Atlantic blend accent everyday so he hears the similarities mainly in how vowels are pronounced & the upward inflection at the end. My in Laws took me googling to believe Thor was Australian. I know that the main Australian acting school NIDA actually has classes to teach American accents to it's graduates.
posted by wwax at 1:19 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]


Russell Crowe was pretty bad at a New Jersey accent in American Gangster.
posted by octothorpe at 1:23 PM on December 2, 2020


I'm British and have lived in the US long enough that I now notice and get very distracted by the accents in both directions. They are both as bad as each other.

And I can confirm the comments above, that the absolute worst offenders are UK TV dramas...
posted by EllaEm at 1:25 PM on December 2, 2020 [3 favorites]


Benedict Cumberbatch's various attempts at American accents (mid-Atlantic(?), Southern, Bostonian) have been surprisingly terrible--surprising because he is one of those Classically Trained Ac-Tors who is supposed to be able to bust out any accent on demand. Often when you hear a bad accent your ear gets accustomed to it over the course of hearing it for an hour or two, but his Stephen Strange gets worse over the course of his movies.
posted by praemunire at 1:27 PM on December 2, 2020 [6 favorites]


Slate had an article on this a while ago - why British actors tend to be so much better at American accents than American actors are at British accents. I can't be 100% sure this is the article, as Slate won't currently let me read articles for free and I don't find their journalism worth paying for.

Anecdotally, I was utterly shocked to find out that Hugh Laurie was not American when he did House. He absolutely sounded American to me. However, a while ago, I was watching old episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus and I realized that this weird way of talking in one sketch was supposed to sound American - it was so bad, I didn't even register it as an attempted American accent. But the Python guys aren't classically trained actors.
posted by FencingGal at 1:30 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


Like in Knives Out absolutely. Quite frequently not though

Daniel Craig's accent [Foghorn Leghorn impersenation] was so bad in that and he kept slipping in and out of it that I thought it was supposed to be some kind of joke.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:36 PM on December 2, 2020 [9 favorites]


Chiming in with another "sometimes." I've been frequently surprised to find out that an actor is non-American, and I've also caught it myself many times because of vowel sounds or other giveaways. A lot of times the slips happen when a line is shouted or in a particularly distressed tone. While watching The Queen's Gambit, I noticed an "intrusive R" in a single line of dialog from Harry Melling, which sent me Googling, at which point I discovered of course he's one of the kids from the Harry Potter movies. I hadn't recognized him until catching that slip.
posted by Ryon at 1:38 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]


I think it depends on two factors - how good they are at the accent, and how more familiar people in the US are becoming with UK television.

Interesting compare-and-contrast - the British show Broadchurch made such a big splash that an American studio bought the rights to remake it; they recast almost everyone for the remake (called Gracepoint) except for David Tennant, who played the lead detective. In the remake, Tennant - who is Scottish - used an American accent, and did a pretty darn good job, to my ears. However - this was about 5-6 years after his run as The Tenth Doctor by then, a role which had already earned him a fervent fandom. He had also taken on a couple of other obviously-English roles which Americans had seen, so he probably couldn't escape people knowing he was British.

However, early on in his career - right when he'd just left Doctor Who - he was approached by an American TV company to make a pilot for a show called Rex Is Not Your Lawyer. It ultimately didn't get picked up. If it had, he probably might have escaped the recognition factor - but the accent....not so much.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:45 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


Yes, very very often. My husband and I regularly have "lol not American" moments when we hear someone talking. It's something I happen to be unusually good at identifying. I was just trying to find the last time it happened and it was a couple days ago when we watched the first episode of a show called "Titans" and we "lol not American"'d at the dude who plays Robin (who, after a quick googling, turned out to be Australian).
posted by brainmouse at 1:47 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]


Yeah, it depends. I remember on early seasons of Battlestar Galactica, Jamie Bamber's American accent really stood out to me. That's a good example of what it sounds like, though -- a little bit like the person is having trouble locating the top of their mouth, is the best way I can put it. Conversely Dominic West and Idris Elba came across as completely natural in The Wire.
The absolute worst I've probably ever heard was in Colette. I can't remember the character's name, so IMDB isn't any help, but it's the red-headed woman who was Colette's lover for a time. She attempted a Southern accent that was agonizing. Regional accents are hard, but this was ridiculous.
posted by kalimac at 1:48 PM on December 2, 2020


Where I really notice it, though, is in British TV shows, when there's an American character who appears in a one-off episode. Presumably those actors are just not as thoroughly trained on American accents as actors who are living/working in the US.

I call it American Murder Suspect Voice because the random Americans in British detective shows always have hilariously bad accents. You can hear them straining to get those rrrrs out and they end up sounding like a cross between a Texan and a corgi.

The only time accents didn't distract me was the first time I watched The Wire because I was so into it, but the second time I wondered how I could've missed all those times McNulty slides into RP.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:50 PM on December 2, 2020 [4 favorites]


Yes, very very often. My husband and I regularly have "lol not American" moments when we hear someone talking. It's something I happen to be unusually good at identifying.

This. I'm really, really good at spotting accents. I wish there was a way to get paid for it because I'm nearly always right. Like 99 times out of 100 right. My husband always looks to me to identify Irish/Scottish/Wales/various parts of the UK accents. I just have an ear for it.

So yeah, I can absolutely tell when a Brit is doing an American accent. Some are incredible at it (see: Hugh Laurie). Some, not so much (see: the actor who plays the Harry Beltik character on The Queen's Gambit, and that absolutely counts because the only reason I went to IMDB was to see what part of the UK he was from because I had NO IDEA he was the guy who played THAT CHARACTER in an 8-movie franchise).
posted by cooker girl at 2:02 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]


The standard American accent is so ubiquitous in movies that get shown all over the world, and I don't think it's always obvious when someone isn't American. There are tells, especially with Canadians, and sometimes with a few specific people (Nicole Kidman comes to mind).

Relatedly: I am always astounded that Alexander Skarsgård, who grew up speaking Swedish and not English as far as I know, has an excellent American accent. That's incredibly challenging when English isn't your first language.

Also many American actors are terrible at regional accents, like Boston and southern, etc.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:02 PM on December 2, 2020


Yeah at this point I have watched so much BBC that I notice the ways in which the actors move their mouths. Like, I can tell Hugh Laurie is doing an accent on House by how he moves his mouth. It doesn't mean it's a bad accent -- Hugh Laurie's in particular is really great -- but just that I am aware. I was hyper-aware of this with Matthew Rhys in The Americans as well.

The podcast Jordan, Jesse, Go! has a recurring bit in which Jordan does an impression of Liam Neeson doing an impression of an American and I find it to be a perfect skewering of that slightly overdone American tough-guy voice.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:52 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


It's the "r"s that give them away. "Arrrr, I'm an Am-airr-uh-cun" is the phrase that pops up in the Corpse household when an actor does a particularly bad one. They really think we lean into those r's.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:54 PM on December 2, 2020 [3 favorites]


And I can confirm the comments above, that the absolute worst offenders are UK TV dramas...

I see you all UK TV dramas and raise you UK radio dramas. Ouch. (And I'm British).
posted by penguin pie at 2:59 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]


It’s always obvious to me, but I’m in the biz.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:19 PM on December 2, 2020


Aussie here. I rarely notice Brits playing Americans (the first that springs to mind is Jamie Bamber in Battlestar). If I know they're a Brit, I sometimes focus on their accent to see if I can pick anything different, and I usually can't. Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange was an exception - he sounded like somebody impersonating somebody else impersonating an American TV commercial.

Same for most Aussies playing Americans (so Hugh Jackman in everything, Anna Torv and John Noble in Fringe, Toni Collette in lots of stuff). An example that stuck out was Alan Dale (NZ born but Aussie made) in every single thing he was in after moving to the US in 2000. It didn't matter which American accent he was trying to pull off, either his vowel sounds or "R" sounds gave it away.

Going the other way was surprised to learn that Renee Zellweger wasn't a Brit, and for all I know there could be a stack of American actors playing Brits and I'm oblivious.

All of this changes with non-Aussies trying to be Aussies. Dev Patel in Lion? Close-ish. Some other Brits? Possibly. An American? I can't think of one.

I guess it's a case of you know what you know. People who I think are doing a fantastic American accent probably have dogs howling in Boise.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 3:21 PM on December 2, 2020


Another vote for "it depends". Two actors that come to mind for me are Paul Blackthorne (from CW's Arrow) and Alex O'Loughlin (from the Hawaii 5-0 reboot). I had no clue whatsoever that Paul was British until I heard him in a Netflix documentary. It was a real shocker - I was convinced he was American judging by his accent on Arrow.

On the other end of the scale, there's David Tennant. I heard him do an American accent once (for a pilot entitled Rex Is Not Your Lawyer) and you can definitely hear his Scottish accent come through at times.
posted by Roger Pittman at 3:30 PM on December 2, 2020


I grew up watching Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster and sundry Georges so I was as taken aback by his "serious" turn on House as his top-notch American accent.

Eric Singer has basically turned this line of inquiry into a Youtube series for Wired. Great explanations/critique, especially the idiolect videos where he can play the Real Person and then the Actor back-to-back.
posted by basalganglia at 3:31 PM on December 2, 2020


I didn't know John Mahoney was British, in all the years he played in Frasier.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:52 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


but Americans can't do that either most of the time.

Oh this is very true and I wasn't thinking about it. I said British actors might not be great at regional American accents but it is a hobby horse of mine that American actors playing a character ANYWHERE in the south go straight for Foghorn Leghorn and it drives me crazy.
posted by less of course at 4:15 PM on December 2, 2020 [4 favorites]


The funniest example for me was Owen Wilson in Steve Zissou. He's from Dallas but was playing a Kentuckian and dropped his Rs. No, Owen Wilson. Kentucky is not Tidewater.
posted by less of course at 4:18 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


When there's something a little bit off about British actors doing otherwise excellent American accents I think it's often a result of their efforts to sound more nasal. I can't not hear Hugh Laurie, for example, making the effort to give House's speech a nasal quality.
posted by theory at 4:29 PM on December 2, 2020


I occasionally pick up a telltale of a British or Australian accent, and may think "oh, that's interesting" but I wouldn't say it's distracting. Sometimes it's obvious that the actor is trying Really Hard to get that American accent, and that's a little distracting (See: Michael Palin in Meaning of Life). OTOH, I didn't pick up on Jamie Bamber not being a US native, and was surprised when I learned he's not.

I was tickled when I learned that Antony Starr, who plays Homelander on The Boys, is a New Zealander, but is portraying such an over-the-top Americanly American, and he speaks with a perfect announcer voice. I was also tickled by Michael Fassbender putting on a stereotypically aristocratic English accent in Inglorious Basterds. In both of those cases, the obviously performative quality of the accent is part of the fun.
posted by adamrice at 4:30 PM on December 2, 2020


I do notice with British shows when a Brit plays an American the accent is noticeable

This was obvious to me in the epicode of Fawly Towers called "Waldorf Salad". The couple that is featured is a British woman and her American husband. He was rather bad at the American voice. OTOH it was a hilarious episode and I rolled with it.
posted by Splunge at 4:47 PM on December 2, 2020


I notice actors are putting an accent on when they do things like shouting. Their vowels will slip just a bit. There are so many discussions here by linguists about things like vowels that I started paying attention to actors' vowels because that is how my brain works. In particular, Australian actresses all seem to have the same voice/accent coach, although I'm sure that's not so.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 4:48 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


I said British actors might not be great at regional American accents but it is a hobby horse of mine that American actors playing a character ANYWHERE in the south go straight for Foghorn Leghorn and it drives me crazy.

You've inadvertently reminded me of another explanation. I suspect that in the UK there is more of an emphasis on "learning other accents" in drama schools, where in the US the focus is more on "the acting method" and any accent work is focused more on filing the edges off your natural Boston or Memphis or Fargo. That was the focus on "speech" in my own conservatory, and only rarely did we venture into "trying other accents" (I remember one disastrous attempt at a Southern accent on my own part). If you have an American actor who takes on another accent, chances are they've never done any accent work before, so they probably have to do a crash course with a dialect coach, which....doesn't always work. Or if they do have any accent training, they are taught a very broad accent ("Southern" as opposed to "Tennessee" or "Georgia" or "Florida" or....)

Whereas in the UK, they've got just as many accents as here packed into a much smaller country, and our own American accent coming in on TV, so people are just plain exposed to more accents and there's more of an emphasis on trying to learn them as a tool they can use for their characters. There's also a little more leniency in letting actors keep their own accents; David Tennant shed his Scottish burr to play The Doctor, but Peter Capaldi kept his own Scot accent, and Christopher Eccleston kept his Manchester and Jodie Whitaker has kept her Yorkshire. So accent-awareness is more of a thing for British actors, maybe.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:52 PM on December 2, 2020


I was watching old episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus and I realized that this weird way of talking in one sketch was supposed to sound American - it was so bad, I didn't even register it as an attempted American accent.

I have a completely unsubstantiated theory that this was the result of turn-of-the-19th/20th-century Brits basing their American accents on doing an impression of Teddy Roosevelt, and they all copied each other, but younger generations quickly rose up who had never heard Roosevelt speak; and so it eventually mutated into the John Cleese thing where he stretches his lips back while he's talking, speaks in a somewhat gravelly voice, and sort of swallows his words. (Which, I should say, I still find quite entertaining, but as you say it doesn't actually sound like any American accent.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:35 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


Supposedly Dominic West had some adventures in accenting on The Wire, but I didn’t watch The Wire.


There’s one scene where he as an English actor playing an American tries to fake (badly) an English accent. YouTube link

To be honest, I never notice. I would have never guessed Laurie, West, Elba, Mahoney or anybody else mentioned in this thread were English. It’s always a surprise to me to hear their regular voice.
posted by cali59 at 8:03 PM on December 2, 2020


Can’t believe no one has mentioned The Undoing yet. Nicole Kidman was torturous, worse than I’ve ever noticed her being. I kept expecting Donald Sutherland to reference her Australian mother.

Hugh Laurie is great, though, ditto John Mahoney. Hell, the kid who plays the son in The Undoing is undetectable. Wonder if she got a n-take clause in her contract as a producer.

Whispering and yelling make it more obvious. Also singing (I think this was the only time I noticed Hugh Laurie sounding English on House.)

Agree that American accents by British actors on British shows are on average quite a bit worse than American accents on American shows.
posted by supercres at 10:21 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


Not really answering your question, but I thought you'd appreciate how good this guy's Australian accent is.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 10:55 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty great at spotting fake accents in both directions, and I think the fact that I watch a lot of UK and Aussie is the reason. Watching something like a mumbly Welsh crime drama requires you to train your ear to understand, and then you can't turn it off. Like Mr. Mostly and I regularly do what we call the IAMANAMERICANMAN accent making fun of this, which involves a lot of grumbling and never moving your back teeth apart. And truly, if you've never heard the hilarity of a one-off American character played by an unknown British actor in a mid-quality drama, you have never yet lived.

Like We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese, I often notice from mouth positioning and movement as a giveaway too. A French teacher told me once that when you're learning a new language, you are literally training the muscles in your mouth and face to make new sounds. Sometimes in actors, I can see the strain, almost like watching someone bench press.
posted by mostlymartha at 12:46 AM on December 3, 2020


Brit who has lived in the US almost half my life here. I can spot someone putting on an accent a mile away.

The actor in the Waldorf Salad episode of Fawlty Towers was Canadian, for what that's worth.

Hearing Gillian Anderson do a British accent in Bleak House and subsequent things like The Fall was a revelation to me, but then I found out that she grew up here.

A chameleonic example of excellence: Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black, although the actor who played Felix in that sometimes slipped up with his English accent.
posted by Orkney Vole at 1:11 AM on December 3, 2020


Is that because actors from other countries are just really good at doing American accents? Or do American audiences notice but just let it slide? Or something else?

British actors get better training in American accents than the other way. Which makes sense.

Being able to put on a good-enough American accent opens lots of reasonably high-paying jobs in Hollywood/Toronto/Vancouver. Lots of North American jobs for British-accented roles, just as an empirical matter, don't care about doing the accent well enough for a UK audience, so being able to put on a good British specific-region accent would let you... get relatively underpaid by the BBC, *if* you could get work papers?

It's not something natural or just from exposure to American media -- American accents in British shows used to be frequently just tuh-hair-ih-bull, mashing up cowboy with Brooklyn or other atrocities.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 4:31 AM on December 3, 2020 [1 favorite]


No matter how bad their American dialect is, no one will ever equal the pure, unmitigated awfulness of James Coburn’s assassination of the Aussie dialect in The Great Escape. Ye gods.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:20 PM on December 3, 2020


I'm not great at noticing British or Australian actors doing American accents but once I know it I usually can't unhear it from that point forward. For me it's highly emotional scenes where the fake accent is usually given away.

Alexander Hodge is an Asian Australian actor who played a California native on Insecure. His accent was flawless and I didn't pick up on it at all until he did some interviews after the season was over.

In The Good Fight, Brit Hugh Dancy does a great American accent. I think it's some of his small mannerisms that give him away however.

Meanwhile, British actor Michael Sheen also appeared on The Good Fight portraying an American who was doing a bad British accent. The levels of meta in that performance were impressive.

British actor Santiago Cabrera does several accents on Star Trek: Picard and his American one isn't bad. He leans a little heavy on the flatness I think but that may be a directorial choice since some of the characters he plays are actually holograms.

Gary Carr is a British actor perhaps best known for his role on Downton Abbey but on the series The Deuce he played a 1970s NYC pimp. His accent was great in a generic New Yorker kind of way and I didn't pick up on it at all.

Damson Idris appeared on both Black Mirror and the recent remake of The Twilight Zone doing an excellent American accent. He also stars in Snowfall as a 1980s drug dealer in LA and his accent is pretty good but seems a little more affected to me. Again, I had no idea he was British until I saw publicity about him.

British actor Jake Weber played an Alex Jones-type on Homeland and his attempt at a Southern accent was not great to put it kindly. It got called out a lot and might have been a deliberate choice in subtle mockery of the person he was sort of imitating.

Alfred Enoch did an excellent American accent on How to Get Away With Murder. I hadn't seen any of the Harry Potter films and had no idea he was British.

Toby Stephens does an American accent in his role on the recent Lost in Space remake but it's unclear to me why he has to. I think the character could've easily been written to be British. Regardless, his portrayal is pretty good until he has to do a particularly stressful moment.

Brit Ricky Whittle's American accent on American Gods is not great in my opinion. It might not be considered great by the producers either, which is perhaps why his character doesn't generally talk much.

On the now-cancelled The Son, Irish Pierce Brosnan butchered his attempt at a turn-of-the-20th-century aristocratic Texas rancher accent. That on top of trying to depict an 80-year old who's unbelievably youthful.

In my viewing experience, actors from New Zealand usually do the most seamless American accent. Anna Paquin is a Canadian raised in New Zealand and I've found her generic American Southern accent to be pretty good.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:55 AM on December 4, 2020


Someone mentioned Gillian Anderson above as being an American who does an especially good English accent, and suggests it's because she grew up in the UK for a good while. That's the case - and she's not the only bi-dilectal person, there are at least two other celebrities who moved from one side of the Atlantic to the other when they were young and picked up a new accent to fit in.. Sandi Toksvig is another case - she actually was born in the US, and only adopted a British accent when she got sent to a British boarding school when she was 14. John Barrowman is an example of the opposite; he is actually Scottish, but his family moved to the US when he was a child and he picked up the American accent and is "bi-accented" now.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:18 AM on December 4, 2020


Sandi Toksvig and I went to the same international school in Denmark (not at the same time), to add to the accent mix she has going on.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:46 AM on December 4, 2020


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