Why Accents are Important for Actors
Actors Should be Shaken, Not Stirred
With reckless disregard for peripheral derision, I am a huge Matthew McConaughey fan. His charm switch seemingly has no “off” position and his films provide little diminishing returns for me. Any motions to re-watch How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, The Lincoln Lawyer and Dallas Buyer’s Club will receive my vote of approval. His screen presence conjures a man able to calibrate the front-end alignment of his Lincoln Navigator while extolling the virtues of Thoreau in French to a beautiful Parisian debutante. When I watch him, I wonder, is there anything this embodiment of all that is Man can’t do? Could the McConnaisance include him playing even the most iconic roles? Even, dare I say it… James Bond?
On second thought, maybe not.
Hollywood movie studios are more than willing, to the point of preference, to hire foreign actors to portray American cultural icons. Batman, Superman, and Spiderman have recently been played by British actors. Rare are the films that feature Americans in prominent roles with foreign accents. It’s hard to imagine Downton Abbey played exclusively by Americans, but the film Selma featuring British actors portraying Martin Luther King, Jr, President Johnson, Coretta Scott King and George Wallace is hardly questioned. Are studios, producers and directors so unwilling to trust Americans with anything outside of an American role? The answer presumes to be a resounding yes. Have you seen Matthew McConaughey in anything that didn’t, if not explicitly require, grant him license to speak as a good ole country boy? Why is it fine for Christian Bale to be Batman but not Alright Alright Alright for McConaughey to be Bond?
I would posit that the deluge of Brits, the Irish and Aussies to the American acting market doesn’t suggest a shortage of great American actors, but is an indicator that actors abroad are far more comfortable with accents than Americans. Accent work, perhaps a small tool in the proverbial actor’s toolbox, demonstrates a larger schism in acting paradigms. I think the comparative lack of emphasis in accent work in the United States is a byproduct of an endemic approach to acting that, like phylloxera to grape vines, has pervaded American acting theory in the past few decades and needs reexamination.
I’ll reflect on my own experiences with both approaches. I studied for a summer at Guildhall School of Music and Drama for a course that required no audition for admission, simply sign up and come out. It was one of the most glorious, enriching ventures of my life. To say I was a novice would have been a gross understatement. Each new concept was novel and fresh; I breathed everything in. Our classes spread the gamut, from Voice lessons to stage combat to mask to improv. We devised theatre and did ensemble work and monologue workshops. Simon Russell Beale came and spoke. I had never heard of him prior and he became my new acting hero.
I returned to Los Angeles inspired. I began taking classes weekly and reading every reputed acting book in the canon – names such as Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Stanislavski. I studied Meisner and took scene study classes. Los Angeles doesn’t lack acting teachers or classes and I made use of all I could find and afford. What did I discover? Actors and acting teachers had cultivated an atmosphere of personal reflection and personal truth. Classes were emotional and probed the psyche and anyone who had an teary-eyed breakdown in a scene was lauded for their “breakthrough.” In the spirit of Marlon Brando and Monty Clift and James Dean we wanted the Truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help us God. I adopted that mantra and subsequently applied to a British conservatory in the hopes of discovering the elixir that married emotional truth and conservatory technique that made the Brits so damn good (ie successful). I was greatly disappointed after being accepted into the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to find that emotional truth was considered a personal journey and was not taught or hardly even examined throughout my tenure of study there. But I want to cry!!
While I may never had been prodded or provoked to teary-eyed emotional catharsis, I was required to investigate and play numerous accents, including Scottish, Received Pronunciation and English West Country. Which brings us to lynchpin of my theory: accent work is pivotal to the development of an actor’s technique and imagination. Like playing an instrument affects parts of the brain for a child that stimulates learning in other subjects, accent work requires exploration and elevates the quality of the actor. The culture of American acting teaches that emotional truth to the individual is paramount. Never mind the story or the actor’s role in it, but the emotional truth is the only way to be fully present on a screen or a stage. This must influence the collective American reluctance to work in accents, “truths” we are all, by nature, foreign to. Whereas the actors of British, Irish, Australian and even Canadian descent esteem both breadth and depth, Americans generally esteem the latter exclusively and dare I say to our detriment. Irishman Michael Fassbender has played a sex-crazed New Yorker, vitriolic Southern slave owner, and now graces the screen as the iconic Californian Steve Jobs, all performances we accept and praise and never was his accent in question. Could we expect any American to play such disparate voices? Which young American actor could fulfil not only the acting duties of such high-profile films but do it in, let’s say, Cockney, Liverpudlian, South African and then Northern Irish accents? Is there a film that Daniel Day-Lewis ever does that doesn’t require him to learn a new accent?
There are always exceptions and American women seem to be much more adept than their male counterparts at applying accent work. Meryl Streep, usually mentioned as the exception, won an Academy Award for her portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Renee Zellweger was praised for her turn as Bridget Jones. Anne Hathaway deserves credit for insisting on a British accent, to varying degrees of success. However the exceptions highlight and emphasize the rule – Americans prefer to keep their acting choices homebound.
American acting theory beats actors into the submission of “emotional truth,” stripping without prejudice both unhealthy acting habits and healthy imaginative appetites. Americans are cautioned in the acting game, not encouraged. The actor’s raison d’être should be the collective promotion of the story, not expressing the caprice of an actor in the exact moment they just so happen to be on a stage/on a screen. If we as actors are constantly being told that every foot forward is false, then we will hesitate to make the journey at all. The much lauded Marlon Brando is an icon of the film world for his truthful portrayals, and rightly so. But perhaps it’s better for actors to idolize Bond rather than Brando… at least you have the chance of being cast as 007.
Outside the American acting world, the onus is on the word “play.” Commitment to accent work is a indicator of what an actor values. We should dare to be exceptional, which requires risk. If it is incumbent on casting directors to cast you in what you most closely represent, than why not play along the way? Dare to do a different accent. Dare to play a character older/younger than you. The King Lears of yesteryear were played by 40 year olds. Dare to dig deep, but also dare to stretch wide. When Americans start attempting roles that require learning accents, then maybe we’ll start getting roles at home that don’t.
Until voice and speech is taught more rigorously in American acting schools, Americans will always play second fiddle to the Speakers of British English. We’re lead to believe that we don’t have accents so we don’t understand the complexities of DOING one.