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An accent can make or break a movie. A good one earns you an Oscar nomination. A bad one condemns you to perpetual punchline status — seriously, ask Kevin Costner.
The best movie accents are the ones you don’t even really notice. They’re a seamless foundation for the character, with the actor’s performance layered on top. But things get murkier the more you delve into the details. It’s easy to pinpoint an accent as terrible, but what are the specific elements that make an accent good or bad? And how do actors prepare for the challenge?
Enter the dialect coach. As authentic accents have become more important (some credit Meryl Streep’s iconic role in Sophie’s Choice for setting the industry standard), the demand for dialect coaches has grown. Today, dialect coaches can help actors adopt an accent that is not their own, or alternatively, conceal their native regional accent. (For a really fun run-through of the best and worst accents of all time, check out this viral video.)
It’s actually interesting to note that in the early days of Hollywood, many of the biggest stars were actually not American. Rudoph Valentino, for example, was Italian; Charlie Chaplin was British; Greta Garbo was Swedish. They had accents — you just didn’t hear them. With the advent of talkies, the way characters sounded became as important as the way they looked.
Corff has been in the business since the early 1980s, when a writer’s strike halted his acting career. Over the years, he and his wife Claire, also a dialect coach, have worked with everyone from Jennifer Lawrence ( Joy) to Scarlett Johansson ( Lost in Translation), to Josh Hutcherson ( The Hunger Games), to Selena Gomez ( The Heart Wants What It Wants).
Curious how your favorite actors suddenly sound British when they star in historical dramas? (Personally, I am still reeling from the realization that Hugh Laurie is not in fact, a surly American doctor.) I asked Bob Corff to walk me through the process of faking an accent for a role.
1) Get Ready For A LOT Of Work
Rhys Ifans, otherwise known as Hugh Grant’s nutty roommate in Notting Hill, once described vocal work as “taking your mouth to the gym.” Think of it as Soulcycle, but for your tongue. You will feel the burn.
This is something that Bob Corff stresses to all the actors he works with before they even start working. “This is not the most fun you could ever have,” explained. “This is ‘I’m going to master something in a very short amount of time, and I’ve got to really focus on putting my mouth, my lips, my tongue, the back of my throat in positions [they’ve] never been in.’ Everything in your body and ego is saying this isn’t right and you have to learn how to do it enough times so you get that that is what it takes to make that new sound.”
And like Rome, it’s not a skill that can be built up in a day. “Some people just work hours and hours,” he said. “I had somebody — we were working hour after hour on this long drive, and finally we just had to pull over and stop for a while because we sort of went into an altered state of consciousness. You really have to go over it, and over it, and over it, until it goes in so that if something weird happens, your brain in the back of your mind will go, ‘What was that,’ and deal with it, and your mouth will continue to be able to do what you’ve been practicing.”
Take Margot Robbie’s performance in Wolf Of Wall Street. For the role of Naomi, Robbie, who is Australian, had to learn to speak with a thick Brooklyn accent. (In an interview, Robbie once said that she was told to “pretend that you’ve got acrylic nails on and they’ve just been painted so they’re still wet.”) But the real challenge was maintaining the accent during the many volatile and emotional scenes.
“She was unbelievable because she was screaming, she was angry,” Corf explained. “So when you’re highly emotional, when you’re out of control as an actor, you really have to have that accent locked in because, as I say to people when they’re learning accents or trying to change their accent, when you’re tired, angry, had a few drinks or are really upset, that’s the first thing that’s going to go. When you’re not focused it’ll disappear.”
2) A Brief How-To Guide To Accents
As in any workout class, there needs to be a routine. Corff and his wife have a studio in Los Angeles where they meet with actors. All the sessions are recorded, so that actors will have something to study.
The first step is to go through the vowels, which, just as a refresher are A, E, I, O, U — in Latin alphabet-based languages, at least.
Then, Corff makes actors go through melody exercises, just like how singers have to go through scales. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that every language has its own cadence, a sing-songy quality which gives native speakers a particular rhythm. Just think of Italian — can you say “Mamma mia!” without singing it like the spaghetti chefs from Lady and the Tramp?
I asked Corff what the biggest mistake people make when learning an accent is. The gist? Don’t get lazy. “A lot of times, most of the big stars, when they have a coach with them constantly going in and out between takes, they do really, really good work,” he said. “What I find is as the years go on and they start to go, ‘Yeah, I don’t need a coach, I’ll be fine.’ Sometimes people who are really really good by my standards, [will] start to get a little in and out.”
But even then, he added, it ultimately depends on the viewer. “You know, if it doesn’t take you out of the performance, it’s fine. Even sometimes I will watch, sometimes the accent is so bad I go, ‘Oh, I can’t watch it,’ because you know, it’s my job and I’m losing my mind. But if it’s a little mistake here and there I don’t think most people are as tuned into it as I am because I’m thinking about it every day for 37 years.”
3) The Receipts
Taylor Lautner is proof that hard work gets results.
Corff was called in to work on an episode in s eason 2 of Scream Queens , in which a rare (fake) condition known as “Foreign Accent Syndrome,” causes all those affected to constantly switch accents. (Fave line: “Before you sounded like Keanu in Dracula, and now you sound like Leo in Blood Diamond.”)
The dialect coach had to train Taylor Lautner, Billie Lourd, and John Stamos, on a handful of different accents at once. “This was really an extreme where they had to come to my studio and work with me, and then work over Skype to learn all of these different accents, and one accent at a time which is hard to do, but to keep on changing them in the middle of a sentence really took some concentration.”
Apparently, Lautner was feeling jittery about the whole thing. “He had never had to do that before, and I was having trouble making contact with him and he wasn’t, you know, showing up, and I thought, ‘Uh oh, this could be a disaster,’ Corff recalled. “Well what he did, which was very smart, is he just went over it 50,000 times after the first lesson. So, he came in and I was like, ‘Oh boy I don’t know how this is going to work,’ and he was fabulous, because he realized that the only way he was going to be decent was to work harder than anybody, or that he’s ever had to before.”
At least Lautner didn’t have to deal with the same pressure as girlfriend Billie Lourd, whose Hollywood pedigree gave her some big shoes to fill. According to Corff, “Debbie Reynolds, who was great with accents, was on the phone saying, ‘You better get this right.'”
4) Are Some Accents Harder Than Others?
German seems like a hard one, right? Or how about Polish? That’s a tough one. And name me one American who has actually nailed an Australian accent — doesn’t exist. We all sound like Crocodile Dundee went off his meds.
But actually, Corff laughed when I asked him the question. “You know that’s the question everybody always asks and there really isn’t one. I mean if it flows and it’s easy for you it’s not hard. It’s always going to be strange to do something where your mouth is not as open as it [usually is.]
And here, we come to the strange part of accents: Positioning your mouth and tongue in ways you never have before. This is what makes accents so hard to perfect. We think of an accent as a party trick, a quick mask to put on and take off when a scene is over. But that’s probably why that one Irish accent you try to do when you’re drunk on Saint Patrick’s Day is so bad. It’s actually a very physical transformation.
“Most Americans are very big-mouthed,” Corff explained. “We drop our jaws very far down, and almost every other country in the world speaks with their lips much closer together. For Americans, the tongue is down in the back — we have to get it to be more open sounds. Like my name, Bob. Nobody has sounds that big and round and open ,where you could actually look down somebody’s throat when they say that vowel. So, we have to teach them to close the back of their throat, to get the tongue to do certain things and be in different places, and then teach them the melody. Every country has its own little song or melody. So you have to teach that little melody plus the placement of the mouth, the lips, the tongue and changing of the vowels. That’s really what makes somebody sound like they’re from this country or that, it’s the vowel shape, the sound of the vowel, if that makes any sense.”
5) How To Fake A French Accent
I thought it might be fun to end the story with a real-life lesson, so I asked Corff to teach me how to do a French accent. You can use this while buying croissants, weaving around on a bicycle pretending to be Amelie, or just to fool boys in bars into thinking you’re cooler than you are. No judgement here.
Step 1: Put your lips forward.
“When we say you, y-o-u, our lips are flat to our teeth. Most standard American speakers would have their lips flat to their teeth. The French stick their lips forward, almost like they’re giving you a kiss, they go yeww. How are yewwwww, it’s way out there. So they have on certain vowels, especially o, u, and oo as in book, the lips are very forward.
“The melody has a tendency to go up at the end. So, there’s an upward inflection.”
Step 3: Lose your TH-sounds.
“They don’t do TH-s. [It’s] “dis and dat,” and their r is very uvular, in the back of the throat. It’s like argh — for us it’s like we’re about to gargle, argh. So they’re very closed in the back of the throat, we’re very open we go: arr, arr.”
Step 4: It’s iht, not eat.
“We would go through the vowels, so the ih sounds would turn into e sounds, and the e sounds turn more into ih sounds, I want to iht — eat — so they will reverse edict, the e becomes an ih and the ih becomes an e.”
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