Dialect Coaches on Actors and the Best and Worst Accents

Professional dialect coaches on the importance of authenticity and the best and worst examples of on-screen accents.

Photo: Warner bros/Paramount/Disney/Pathe/BBC

Congruity is important in fiction. Trust and verisimilitude are the first casualties when breaches of the unspoken contract between creator and audience occur. Each of us has our own limits on what we’re prepared to accept before that crucial tipping point is reached and our minds unmoor from a piece of fiction. Although we understand that show-runners and directors will sometimes bend reality or sacrifice elements of the truth or historical record in the pursuit of spectacle or entertainment, some things are sacrosanct.

Arguably our ears are the fiercest arbiters of truth. These days, botched accents or dialects in entertainment vehicles are the elements most likely to trigger flash-bangs of furious incredulity, and offend cultural sensibilities (especially now that we’re past the era of casting people in serious dramatic roles out-with their own ethnicities). Though the 1995 movie Braveheart was rife with historical inaccuracies – akin to Abraham Lincoln teaming up with Grover Cleveland to fight WWII alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger – it retained a plausible and satisfying emotional core in the hearts of most Scots largely thanks to Mel Gibson putting on an eminently passable, forgivably imperfect Scottish accent. That wouldn’t have been the case had he sounded like Christopher Lambert or Pee Wee Herman.  

So accents are important. They strike at the truth of who we are, where we’re from and where we’re going. It follows then that the gate-keepers of the human voice – the vocal coaches and dialect specialists that lend their expertise to the entertainment industry – perform a vital function that transcends mere entertainment. Den of Geek spoke to three of them, to get a flavor of the work they do, the professional choices they make, the role they see themselves playing, their views on the industry, and their take on the issues of the day filtered through the prism of their profession. 

Nic Redman is a well-known and knowledgeable vocal coach and voice actor who hails from Northern Ireland, but now lives and works in the north of England; her coaching helps regular folks, commercial clients and famous faces alike. 

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Paul Meier is a voice coach, actor, professor, Shakespeare enthusiast, theatre director and archivist of dialects who made the leap from the southern UK to the mid-western US in 1978, bringing with him a wealth of expertise. 

Joy Lanceta Coronel is a Kentucky-born, NY-based dialectal wunderkind, who, as well as being an eminently qualified voice and acting coach, conducts research into Asian identity and cultural representation, particularly those aspects that intersect with her profession.    

Of course you can’t have three voice coaches on hand without first asking them their opinion on the worst and best examples of accents in TV and film. 

Music to your ears

Let’s start with the best.

Nic singles out Jodie Comer in Killing Eve. “I’d seen her in one other thing, and she spoke in Received Pronunciation (RP) – like a standard, southern English sound – and I just assumed she spoke RP. And then I saw Killing Eve, and I was like, ‘Wow, she’s good at accents’. And then I heard her in an interview, and I’m like, ‘You are kidding me’. Because she’s a proper Scouser, like [from Liverpool, England]. And unabashedly, unashamed, wearing it proudly, as everyone with a regional accent should.”

Paul’s pick is Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. “I’ve never seen a better impersonation. She transcended impersonation and totally got the accent, but it was a brilliant impersonation as well. I did a podcast with the dialect coach on The Iron Lady, Jill McCullough, and Jill just sat in the corner twiddling her thumbs while Meryl Streep worked her magic.” 

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Joy is also quick to laud Meryl Streep, particularly her performance in Sophie’s Choice. She also gives special mentions to Renee Zellweger in the first Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. When it comes to picking the worst examples of the craft, Joy favours diplomacy over dirt-slinging. “Ah this question is so nuanced because I’d hate to call people out on something that might have been the result of so many different variables. There are several instances when a coach might not have as much time with the actor for them to fully inhabit the accent. You also have to factor in that an actor might not be very familiar with an accent, and oftentimes it makes it more difficult for them to take on the sounds if it is difficult for them to hear them in the first place.”

Luckily for us and our salacious appetites, Nic and Paul have no such reservations. “I really want to give shout outs to Gerard Butler in P.S. I Love You,” says Nic. “As an Irish person I found that pretty horrific. Keanu Reeves in Dracula, Don Cheadle in Ocean’s Eleven. And, then, just a couple of shout-outs for some ladies. Anne Hathaway in One Day. I know she tried really hard. I married a Yorkshireman so I think I’m a bit more sensitive to that one. And Mischa Barton in St Trinians.”

Paul goes with something of an old classic from the accent hall of horrors: Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. He follows up his choice with a salient point: “I did a podcast with my son, who is a movie critic, talking about best and worst. I found myself saying that Dick Van Dyke was so utterly charming in the role of Bert the chimney sweep, that despite his egregious cockney accent, you would say, ‘But this is how Bert speaks. This is Dick Van Dyke’s Bert’s cockney’, and it’s almost become institutional now, even though it’s a really bad cockney.” 

You could say the same of Karl Urban’s accent in The Boys. Butcher is supposed to be from London, but his accent is a hotchpotch that takes in the antipodes via South Africa. Again, though, the character, and Urban’s portrayal, is such a powerhouse that you stop caring. Perhaps we make allowances for bad accents by great actors just so long as the place they’re evoking isn’t an integral part of their character’s make-up; or that the character isn’t intended as a vessel to speak for, or about, people from that place. 

Do the coaches agree that many actors from the US seem to struggle with UK accents in general, and London accents in particular? 

“The thing about Americans encountering British accents,” says Nic, “is they have two representations of what we sound like: Downton Abbey and anything by Guy Ritchie. English or Cockney. You’d think that would help them be specific, but I think they really struggle with it because it shares a lot with Australian as well, for very specific historical reasons, and I think they flip stuff around and get a bit confused.”

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Paul believes that US actors struggle with some UK accents mainly for social reasons. “Brits and Australians are better at American accents than vice versa. And it’s not because of any innate ability. It’s just because Americans tend to be more insular. American English is the global language, very few Americans have passports, they don’t travel. It’s a big country, very self-sufficient. And so for these social, socio-linguistic reasons, Americans don’t tend to be as good at accents.” 

Sometimes, says Nic, we the audience will not have been privy to the decisions made on the modelling of a character’s accent – their background, their idiolect – and thus can judge a performance unfairly. “That’s how I felt about Elizabeth Moss in Top of the Lake. She got a lot of flak for her accent, but I loved the performance so much, and she was a person from a place living in a different place, so there were going to be influences from that side, so maybe she made a conscious decision to do it that way.”

A Day in the Life

How, then, does a voice coach operate? How do they assist performers? And what’s in their toolkit? Joy clues us in:

“Sometimes I get pulled in at the last minute and I have to work with an actor who has already spent time with the script without my guidance, so those instances can be challenging,” she says. “What I do enjoy is that I get one-on-one time with the actors, so it is an intimate process. I shape my sessions based on different variables: how much time I have with them; how familiar they are with the accent or dialect, how difficult the accent or dialect is, what kind of space we are working in. It’s usually a conversation that triangulates between director, actor, and coach. If possible, I try to find an audio sample of a person who meets the criteria we discussed, and we work from those audio samples. Using a real speaker as a model is the best way to humanize the work.”

What about those rare cases where a play, movie or TV show is set in a non-English-speaking country, yet casts English-speaking actors as natives, and has them speak in English? The examples that spring to mind are the TV mini-series Chernobyl and the movie The Death of Stalin. Do voice coaches have any opinion of, or involvement with, those scenarios? Paul takes the mantle:

“If you start with the idea of a Chekhov play; all of those characters are speaking Russian to each other, and we, simply for our own convenience, are speaking a translation into English, so does it make any sense to play your Chekhov characters with a Russian accent? Not really. Because they’re not speaking a language other than their own, their first language, so why would they get it wrong? If you have a play or a film where the Russian character is speaking English, then it wouldn’t make sense not to give him a Russian accent. And then I think of exceptions, like [the movie] Chocolat. All of those characters were speaking French to each other. We, simply for our own convenience, hear them in English. And yet the director and the dialect coach very astutely gave a very slight French accent colouration to the film. And I thought it helped. It put me in that little French village.” 

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Authenticity and avoiding stereotypes

Authenticity clearly plays an integral role in both the coaching process and ethos. This article has so far concentrated on those dialects that predominate within the English-speaking world, but what of the importance of ensuring the authenticity of accents from other parts of the world; countries and continents whose languages and cultures may well have become an integral, though still too often marginalised, part of the shared experience of living in the US or Europe?    

“I can speak from the work I’ve done in the past with accents such as Thai, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean,” says New York-based Joy. “These East Asian accents have a long history of stereotyping, mimicry, and caricature and it has hurt these communities. So, for that reason, it is all the more important to add as much authenticity and humanity to the accent and frame the accent through the lens of a real human being, and not just the stereotypes that were so often seen in TV, film, and stage. Studies show that most Americans don’t know a lot about Asian culture, much less the nuanced sounds of each language. It’s just not something Americans have paid attention to because of racist portrayals and phrases like ‘Ching chong chang.’ I feel a great deal of responsibility for showcasing these languages authentically, and it is my hope that audiences will begin to recognize these sounds and hear the drastic differences among East Asian languages, so that we can slowly veer away from our problematic past.”

The issue of representation within the entertainment industry, which dovetails with notions of authenticity, gained prominence during last year’s Black Lives Matters protests, and put a lot of hitherto accepted (sometimes only grudgingly) conventions under the spotlight. Animated shows like Big Mouth, Family Guy and The Simpsons were forced to reckon with the new paradigm by recasting, or un-casting, white actors who had been portraying POC. What do the coaches think about representation in this context, and where would they weigh in on versatility versus verisimilitude?   

Paul, whose life and work have straddled seven decades, responds with intellectual honesty and a sprinkling of Devil’s Advocate: “I have two takes on that really. One is that it’s a shame if you take any work away from an actor. Actors, that’s what they do: they impersonate everybody, without politics, without judgement, and it seems a shame in the world of infinite imagination to deprive anybody of the ability to impersonate or play any role. To me, it depends upon the spirit in which the thing is done. Take the role of Godbole in A Passage to India, played by Sir Alec Guinness. If we made the film today, of course we would cast Indian actors, but was Alec Guinness derogating or mocking India when he played that? No, he did a sterling job, with total respect for the culture. And then, you look on the other side of it. There’s an employment theme: why would you want to – with so many great African American actors – why on earth would you want to cast a white person to do that – unless there is some sort of exceptional necessity in that casting?”

Nic is slightly more unequivocal. “Yes, every actor can potentially play whatever they want and whoever they want, but it’s not about whether they can at the moment, it’s about whether they should. And we all have a responsibility in many ways in life right now to open up the doors to some of the more under-represented ethnicities and cultures. I feel that the only way I can responsibly be a coach in the current climate is to – if anything comes along that I feel could be coached by somebody of a more appropriate ethnic background, then I’ll pass that along. And that’s a no-brainer.”

Nic still has to grapple with and practice even those accents she couldn’t in all good conscience tutor someone to speak. “It’s important for me to understand how those accents work because I may get someone of that ethnic background coming to me wanting a different accent. Everybody starts at an accent from a different place, because everyone’s accent articulation patterns are different. So, for me, I may say the ‘ow’ sound as in the word mouth. I know I have to drop my tongue, because the northern Irish accent has more of a high tongue position. If I was teaching that ‘ow’ vowel to someone who wasn’t northern Irish, I’d have to understand where their tongue position may be. I can’t say to everybody, ‘Oh, for this sound you need to lower your tongue,’ because they might not need to lower their tongue. They might need to raise, flatten or loosen their tongue. So it’s not one-size fits all. It’s part of my job to look into these histories and cultures, and understand how these sounds work and feel.”     

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Joy picks up the question of representation as it relates to The Simpsons and other animated shows, and examines it all through a wide cultural lens. “I appreciate the movement to re-cast these roles. There is no justification for characters like Apu and Doctor Hibbert being voiced by white actors, and it’s something I’ve opposed for a long time. It simply perpetuates stereotypes and caricatures. And there’s no justification because there are a multitude of actors who could have voiced these characters, and who could have embodied the racial, linguistic, and ethnic background of these characters. BIPOC actors already have limited opportunities as a result of limited stories on BIPOC, so why deprive them of the opportunity? In addition to perpetuating colonialism mentality, white characters voicing Indian, American and Black characters completely ignores the history of Blackface, Brownface, and minstrel performances, all of which were racist practices meant to mimic and inaccurately portray these communities through humor.”

In closing: with whom were the trio most proud of working; who was the actor or person who shone the brightest under or alongside them? Paul plumps for Tobey Maguire, Joy for BD Wong, actors they lavish with praise. Nic takes a different approach, declining to name anyone specific. “I’m most proud of the clients who come and commit to the work – and they come back as much as they need, as they can afford, as they want, and they make genuine improvement, and it has a genuine impact on their life and their career. That’s the amazing kind of thing about this job. With the right attitude, and enough time and money I think anybody can learn an accent… but that’s a Holy Trinity that doesn’t always come together.” 

Please tell us your picks for the best and worst accents in film and TV in the comments below. Also, there are links to our interviewees should you wish to enlist their services, or are curious about their work. 

Paul Meier – Dialect Services www.paulmeier.com

Nic Redman – Voice Coach and Accent Specialist Nicredmanvoice.com

Joy Lanceta Coronel – Speech, Dialect and Communication Coach joylanceta.com

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