MS Advice – Auditioning with an Accent
Who will ever forget the wonderful Dick Van Dyke’s infamous attempts at Cockney as chimney sweep Bert in Mary Poppins?
Officially apologising in 2014, Van Dyke remarked, ‘I was working with an entire English cast and nobody said a word- not Julie [Andrews], not anybody- said I needed to work on it, so I thought I was alright.’
Van Dyke is certainly not alone- Keanu Reeves’ British in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Anne Hathaway’s Yorkshire in One Day, spring to mind- so imagine how it can be for a Casting Director having to listen to below par accents all day long in a casting session…
When even a high profile actor can mess up an accent, not to mention the lesser known and/or talented other actors hustling for acting work, we decided to offer up some tips from Mark Summers about auditioning with an accent.
Mark Summers says, ‘due to globalisation actors will always be called upon to perform accents and British actors are respected around the world for our ability with accents.’
He also goes on to say this: ‘Many actors put a wide range of accents on their CVs, but yet when called into the audition room they can’t actually do it. Some- a few- are naturally brilliant, but most of us have to work at it. Dialects don’t come easy to everyone. Auditioning with an unfamiliar dialect or accent can really get in your way of landing the part.’
Actors need to understand that each country has a ‘generic accent’- a generic sound that represents the overall country and what we in the UK call RP (Received Pronunciation). However, every country has many regional accents. The three most recognisable dialects in England are Southern English, Midland English and Northern English.
The US, with its’ 50 states, all use different pronunciations, phrasing, cadence, inflection, and pitch. As an actor you don’t want to be fall into that well-worn trap of switching from the Southern states to New York gangster! It goes back to basic actor training and the questions you ask when you are developing and creating a character- who am I, where am I from, what’s my background, education and class? This will all help you determine the character’s accent.
It is also about learning local slangs– for example, Liverpool might be only half an hour from Manchester, but the accent is completely different as their histories are totally different.
‘The most amazing thing that all of us have, at our fingertips, in this day and age, is the internet. It really doesn’t matter nowadays if you live in a small village in the middle of nowhere or in a big city. Listen to accents, look at the lip movements, record yourself and practice, practice, practice.’
Besides the ever essential practice, here are some more pointers to bear in mind:
- Remember to play the action, not the accent. Don’t let the accent over take the scene so you forget what is motivating your character.
- If you’re really unsure of the accent then it is better, and more professional, to admit this in the casting session. Instead offer to ‘hint’ at the accent. You can bone up afterwards if you book the job.
- Don’t assume that a highly specific regional accent is automatically expected in the casting studio. If it is less usual – say North-East Welsh- then check whether it is expected in the casting? Sometimes a Dialect Coach will be provided on set (although less these days due to budget cuts).
- However, accents are part of your Actors Arsenal and just like your prepared monologues and songs, they also need to be ready-to-go if you have written them on your CV. It is always advisable to have a basic choice available including RP, London, Irish, Australian, Southern American, and Brooklyn New York to name a few.
- Check out great actors’ use of accents. Meryl Streep is the obvious leader here as her output has been inspirational and wide ranging. Always go to the masters or mistresses! Streeps is British in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Polish in Sophie’s Choice, Danish in Out of Africa, Irish-American in Ironweed, Australian in A Cry in the Dark, Italian in The Bridges of Madison County, Irish in Dancing at Lughnasa, Bronx in Doubt, and she uses English RP as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
Once you have done your research, practiced alone using all the available info on the worldwide web, then perhaps think about hiring a dialect coach. If you have already done the essential groundwork, the time you need with a coach will be minimal and will also save you time and money.
Coming back round to the main point where we started, Mark Summers emphasises:
‘If you want to be good at accents, it is crucial that you practice, practice, practice. As we all know practice makes perfect, and there are no short cuts.’
By Clea Myers
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