Since the mid-80’s, after Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice (1982) and a few other actors have demonstrated an ability to expand their range by playing foreigners with real accents, accent and dialect coaching came to rise in Hollywood, then New York’s and London’s markets, too. By now, we have many actors who’ve done an amazing work by transforming themselves using not only the body, but the voice and accents as well.
Robert Downey Jr. has done it for both Chaplin and Sherlock Holmes, Javier Bardem has done it for No Country for Old Men, Hugh Laurie was thought by many to actually be an American when doing House M.D., Gwyneth Paltrow did a good job in Shakespeare In Love, Christian Bale had a great Boston accent in The Fighter, Colin Farrell and Kate Winslet have done it many times, Daniel Day Lewis, Viggo Mortensen, Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman, Kate Beckinsale, Ed Westwick, Brad Pitt, Guy Pearce, the list can go on and on. They’ve all taken dialect coaching from professional teachers.
Accent and Dialect Coaching
This type of training is something you definitely should not be stressing about in the beginning of your acting career. In fact, you don’t really need to be reading this article, unless you’re very curious what dialect coaching actually is and how it works. Try instead to go back to the Acting for Beginners Guide and skimp through articles on acting classes and improvisation training.
When actors are preparing for the role, a lot of them love to learn their character’s accent so as to distance it from themselves and make it look and sound more real. The most common combination is American to British and vice versa. But it could also be something a little more complicated, like a South African accent that you hear more rarely, or even a made up accent like it was for After Earth (2013).
It’s not an easy job for an actor to develop a perfectly good accent that is alien to them. When they ask for dialect coaching, these coaches — sometimes referred to as accent coaches — spend weeks, months and even years working with actors. The nature of work isn’t easy for both, thus these coaches are getting paid significant sum by studios for working with their actors. This is exactly why you should not worry about this in beginning of your career — first, you most likely will not need it, and second, it’s very expensive.
Some of world’s dialects are extremely complex and can come to be a great challenge for English native speakers. British actors, however, imitate Americans well all the time, as do Americans imitate the Brits.
Actors do train their accents on their own (DialectBlog has a good article for this purpose) on occasion, without any help, however, depending on the situation, that will not always turn out good results. Dialect coaching involves a lot of technicalities that actors just cannot afford to begin learning, therefore, they need a person who will just tell them what to do instead. Dialect coaches always know the exact pronunciation, intonation, pitch, phrasing and placement, phonetics, shifts and patterns of the speech. They’ve studied languages and listened to how people talk all over the world.
“Accents can be a great tool to tell a story – but if you do it wrong, it pulls you right out of the movie.” – Jeremy Renner
Foreign Actors Coming to US and UK
If you’re a foreign actor who’s making a transition into the British or American market, then it is very likely that you will need to take some dialect coaching classes. Probably more than a couple. The reason is that no matter how many famous actors have succeeded in the business with their accents (not that many!) — you still need to go into the audition room as a native English speaker. And preferably, you should be able to do the accent of the country you’re staying in if you really wish to succeed.
Various drama schools and acting schools sometimes offer accent reduction and dialect coaching classes. Central School of Speech and Drama in London specialize in this field. Such schools also work on actors’ enunciation and clarity of speech, which can always benefit any performer regardless of the stage your acting career is in. These types of classes will be usually recommended for stage actors, and one of the best examples of the perfect speech is actor Sir John Gielgud, whose enunciation is always being envied by a lot of performers.
It has to be repeated once again though: do not spend the money on accent and dialect coaching when you don’t have to. Only when you’re going to be offered a big part, or at least invited to audition for a role that might eventually catapult you onto the A-list, you might need to give private dialect coaching classes a shot. Otherwise, keep those thousands in your pocket and spend them on more good acting classes or private acting coaching instead.