+ How British Actors Learn to Talk “American”

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this article was posted online in the BBC News Magazine, by the BBC’s Stephen Robb.

Barbara Berkery gives the BBC’s Stephen Robb an American accent primer

Everyone can do an American accent… at least everyone thinks they can. But how many would pass muster with a Hollywood studio? The BBC’s Stephen Robb took a lesson from one of the movie industry’s top accent coaches.

Any actor or actress hoping to convince in a foreign accent must have three words in the back of their mind at all times.

They won’t be phrases like “shape of mouth”, “position of tongue” or “placement of voice” – although all of these will be fundamental to learning and adopting an accent.

The three words haunting the performer, driving hour after hour of dialect practice, are “Dick”, “Van” and “Dyke”.

The American’s “strike a light, guv’nor” Cockney caricature in Mary Poppins is widely regarded as delivering the worst film accent of all time. Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious, it was not.

And that’s up against competition from Sean Connery playing a Spaniard, an Irishman and a Russian at stages of his career.

British dialect coach Barbara Berkery admits that a lot of actors seeking her tutelage plead at the outset: “I don’t want to sound like Dick Van Dyke.”

Her glittering cast of former students include Gwyneth Paltrow, whom she trained for Emma and Shakespeare in Love, and Renee Zellweger for Bridget Jones’s Diary and Miss Potter.

Half-hour challenge

Paltrow won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love and Zellweger was nominated as Bridget Jones, but probably the greater tributes to their English accents were the nominations from an obviously impressed British Academy – they sounded the part.

Berkery has also coached Brad Pitt (Seven Years in Tibet), Jim Carrey (A Christmas Carol, due out next year) and Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean), and is currently working with Jake Gyllenhaal on his English accent for Prince of Persia.

In other words, or for words in another accent anyway, London-based Berkery has become the English dialect coach Hollywood turns to. “It’s a nice position to be in,” she says.

Usually conducting her training for several weeks in the run-up to a production, and then throughout the shoot, Berkery has consistently achieved convincing results with hugely-dedicated and highly-talented actors; what she can do with me in half an hour is a different challenge altogether.

Exposure to US films and television means most people probably believe they can affect a passable American accent – myself included.

But Berkery explains that “mimicry is not the same as doing accents – if somebody is just mimicking, I think we do feel it isn’t quite truthful.”

Her work involves building the accent authentically by teaching the real mouth shapes and tongue positions involved – for a general American accent, she tells me, that means a wide mouth and the tongue higher up in the mouth.

She also tells me to smile, in order to place the voice towards my nasal resonator – one of the three voice resonators along with the facial and throat resonators. Berkery describes learning to do an accent as having “a mask on the face that fits perfectly”.

With my lifted tongue, wide mouth, attempted smile, and the concentration involved in maintaining these as we start voice exercises, my mask resembles something like Jack Nicholson’s The Joker with a lobotomised, vacant look in the eyes. I feel certain that a cinema audience would find it distracting.

Berkery takes me through some of the major vowel changes from standard English to general American – their short “ah” in bath and sample, the “aw” in cloth and Boston – and the sound that comes out of my mouth is unrecognisable to me.

It is a long way from my own south-east England accent, but not much nearer my trusted American impression. It does sound vaguely American, but like an over-the-top, slightly camp game show host with an occasional lisp – not what I had been aiming for at all.

And I find the process very unnerving. “The voice is the soul and you are moving it,” says Berkery.

“People do find it very frightening – it’s like being off-balance.”

As we continue, moving from vowel exercises to working on consonant changes, Berkery frequently offers comments like “Make it less” and “Don’t do as much”.

Not only is my performance dreadful, there is clearly much too much of it; my overacting makes Dick Van Dyke’s infamous turn look like a masterclass of subtlety and technique.

“You mustn’t play an accent,” Berkery says. “You must play a character who has an accent, but you must never play an accent.”

Berkery and her students start with nothing and build an accent from its essential parts.My brief lesson hints at the phenomenal amount of work involved in reaching a point where that accent convinces on a giant screen, in surround sound and over a two-hour running time.

While Berkery suggests most actors “can have a good stab at the accent if you have enough time”, she stresses that those that “get it really perfect” do so through exceptional dedication.

She had two months working with Zellweger before filming started on Bridget Jones’s Diary, comprising lessons in the morning followed by afternoons out together in London when the actress was forced to keep up her accent.

Zellweger later worked undercover in a publishing house using her English accent, and also maintained it on set for the entirety of the film’s shoot.

“Some people never, ever heard her own accent until we finished the film,” says Berkery.

“It was a testament to her talent and hard work. It was a complete transformation; she is a girl with a very strong Texan accent and she did completely transform herself.”

An authentic accent will be “second-nature” to an actor, Berkery says, likening it to fluency in a foreign language where a person doesn’t have to think about the process of speaking.

“You don’t want the audience to notice,” she adds. “You don’t really want people to think, ‘That’s a good accent,’ because if you think that you are not thinking about the character.”

On those terms, maybe my accent wasn’t such a flop after all – nobody’s ever going to be distracted thinking how good it was.

Talk Like an American: Brits Can Try This at Home

Follow these instructions to start learning an American accent:

  • Widen your mouth, as you would making the “ee” sound in “weed”
  • Smile, to place the voice towards your nasal resonator
  • Position your tongue further up in the mouth, rather than against the ridge behind the top teeth
  • Read out loud the following:  Round the rugged rock, the ragged rascal ran.
  • Saying /l/ as you do the final letters in “bell,”  “well” and “level,” read the following:  Lucky Lily liked to live in Louisiana.
  • “Let yourself go, and have fun.”  Barbara Berkery’s advice…

source: BBC News Magazine online  on 7-21-08  www.bbc.co.uk

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