By Nick Maylor
If you’re an actor from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia or New Zealand, you probably learned to master an American accent on day one. Many famous actors from these places appear in movies all the time, rarely using their natural speaking voice. Changing dialects in films is a constant happening for actors and actresses. Sometimes, practically no one in a film’s cast aren’t putting one on (more on that later). I won’t be highlighting examples of bad acting due to lack of ability here as that is a subject for its own article. However, I will simply say that Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) warrants a “Nuff said” for now.
It also should be noted that when it comes to adopting accents for film, Meryl Streep is the all-time champion of nailing it every time. However, such a thing should go without saying.
There’s a lot to be said on the subject of movie dialects and the whole study of phonetics and language, but for now I’ve decided to highlight some interesting tidbits about movies, actors and all things film that revolve around accents.
10. All Pirates Are Imitating One Guy
Since the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), most people associate pirates with drunken rock stars. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow is widely known to be based on Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones (who would go on to play Sparrow’s father in the films). However, Geoffrey Rush’s Barbosa speaks with that classic “ARRR, matey!” dialect we’ve all come to expect from the sea-dwelling swashbucklers. The truth of the matter is that there was no one accent (or language) that the pirates of the Caribbean spoke with; nor is there any way to know what it might have sounded like. The way we hear these characters talking all goes back to Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1950). Newton spoke in an exaggerated version of his native British dialect. Hailing from Dorset, Newton used a familiar west country “farmer’s” accent for his pirate character. The rest, as they say, is history.
9. VALKYRE (2008) Avoids A Big Issue By Ignoring it Completely
Did you ever notice how some movies with foreign characters/settings in movies feature people inexplicably speaking English? Even if they are all Germans? Whenever an actor has to play someone from a non-English speaking country, they usually interact in situations that would require them to speak English but sometimes it makes absolutely no sense. In a film like Valkyrie (2008) all of the main characters are Nazis, even the protagonist. However, the film is an English-language production. Instead of having the cast (mostly British and American) use German accents, they simply had them speak naturally. British folks speak with British accents, Tom Cruise talks like Tom Cruise.
In the beginning of the film, we hear Cruise reciting voiceover, speaking confident German. He is writing a letter. As the narration continues, Cruise’s German voiceover slowly fades into English. We (the audience) immediately understand that these characters are all speaking German in the film; we are simply hearing it in English. Problem solved. No need for corny German accents. It is no longer necessary. The technique works surprisingly well with this simple trick to begin the picture.
8. GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) – Brendan Gleeson Stands Alone
In Martin Scorsese’s period-crime epic, the streets of New York’s Five Points were recreated via massive practical sets built on location in Rome Italy. The ensemble cast features British actors playing Americans, American actors playing Irish and Italians playing everyone else. Much like the melting pot that New York is (and was), the film is splattered with all manner of different regional dialects. Due to the corrupted nature of the speakers’ histories and surroundings, their accents cannot be criticized for authenticity as there would be no way to measure such a thing (at least for the Irish immigrants). Of all the actors who appear in the film, it would seem that only one of them actual speaks with their normal voice, Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, playing an Irish character. Even Liam Neeson (who hails from the emerald isle) puts on a performance dialect as his natural Belfast accent is noticeably different from the typical “Dublin” Irish accent that his character uses in the film. The irony here is that for most of his career, Brendan Gleeson has had to affect different accents as his characters are often English or American. In a movie where everyone had to do something different, Gleeson (for once) got to relax and not worry about changing his voice.
7. THE PRESTIGE (2004) Reveals Another Twist
For those unfamiliar with Christopher Nolan’s period drama about stage magicians, the premise of the film is based around the three parts to a magic trick; the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. Without getting into heavy spoiler territory, the entire film plays out as one giant magic trick, with fundamental revelations about the entire spectacle only revealed in the final moments. While Christian Bale does a slightly exaggerated version of his own London/Cockney accent, Hugh Jackman plays Robert Angier, an American. Throughout the film, Jackman speaks in an American accent (as he does in many films) but towards the end after some of those earth-shattering revelations take place, his true identity becomes clearer and during his final scenes with Bale, he speaks in an RP (received pronunciation) English accent. With so much going on with all of the twists and turns, its easy to miss. It does, however, add one more layer of trickery that satisfies upon multiple viewings (something the film requires to fully appreciate). It should be noted that Christopher Nolan co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan Nolan. Both brothers were raised jointly in England and America and both speak with a muddled mix of the two accents. However, Christopher Nolan (the elder brother) has a distinctly more British accent when speaking whereas Jonathan Nolan’s accent is much closer to a neutral American one.
6. Liam Neeson – Irish Cowboy
Liam Neeson is one of those actors who rarely use their natural accent. He used it in Love Actually (2003) and in The Grey (2011). Pretty much any other film you’ve seen him in features Liam showcasing an accent other than his own thick Belfast one. Many years ago, the sitcom Family Guy featured a throwaway joke about Liam Neeson not being able to convincingly portray an American cowboy. Neeson (who had never heard of the show) was informed about the joke by his sons. Years later, Seth MacFarlane was casting his comedy-western A Million Ways to Die in the West (2013) and approached Neeson for the role of the film’s villain, Clinch Leatherwood. Remembering the joke at his expense all those years before, Neeson agreed to take the role on the sole condition that he be able to use his own Irish accent. Despite the obvious discrepancy, Neeson’s badassery made the whole thing work like a charm.
5. DEATH TO SMOOCHY (2002) Haggis and Boomerangs
As I’ve talked about before this black comedy directed by Danny DeVito is an unappreciated gem. For all of Robin Williams’ considerable gifts, he was never held back by silence or a lack of voices to choose from. As the deranged and disgraced children’s television show host Rainbow Randolph, Williams is at peak levels of his manic genius. During the kidnapping of his perceived nemesis Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), Randolph takes on the guise of someone hosting a charitable event. He gives multiple aliases of similar nature during his ridiculous encounter with Mopes, and while operating as chauffeur, Randolph jumps back and forth between a thick Scottish and a thick Australian accent… for no apparent rhyme or reason. The oblivious Sheldon Mopes can’t seem to see through any of the glaring plot holes in Randolph’s disguise and with the surreal direction by DeVito, the entire escapade is a wonderful exercise in that “what the hell did I just watch?” sort of hilarity.
4. Daniel Day-Lewis
It isn’t quite accurate to say that with each of his roles, Daniel Day-Lewis adopts a new and distinct accent or voice. It seems more accurate to say that after returning to the primordial soup from whence he came, Daniel Day-Lewis will inevitably regenerate himself into an entirely new entity whenever he decides to return to the realm of the living and make a movie. Having recently declared himself retired from acting, it is unknown if he will ever be seen again. For now, we can say that his last performance in Phantom Thread (2017) is noteworthy. Not because it may ultimately be his final role; but because it was the first time in his decades-long career that he used his own natural speaking voice (something that was rumoured to exist only in myth). Going back through his filmography, a slew of distinct characters and dialects emerge but none that matched the man himself until that final role. The truth is that Daniel Day-Lewis is a soft-spoken Englishman and that’s the voice you hear in Phantom Thread (2017) but in no other films he made prior to it.
3. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (Franchise) – In Berk, Accents Are Genetic
Berk is a Viking Village on a remote island in a world full of dragons. Despite being Norse like Thor and Odin (more on that in a minute), none of the residents of Berk speak in Scandinavian accents; which is what one might expect. However, the filmmakers decided to use an accent known for its gruff, intimidating manner; Scottish. Native Scots Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson lay the foundation for what the residents of Berk sound like in the film but there is a notable anomaly amongst the population; while the adults all sound Scottish, the teenage characters all sound American. This distinction between younger and elder members of the village is not the only one that stands out. It would seem that in this world, on the night of a boy’s 18th birthday, he would go to sleep a scrawny, clean-shaven American, only to wake up the next morning a towering beastly Scotsman with a beard that would make Santa Claus jealous. The only explanation for this is that like other genetic traits, the Scottish accent only manifests in adulthood. It’s easy to see why this was done for storytelling purposes but the scientific implications are fascinating and hilarious.
2. Superhero Accents Make Zero Sense
It makes sense that Superman would speak in a neutral American accent, but why doesn’t Clark Kent have any hint of Kansas in his speech? Even if Clark didn’t grow up with a southern drawl, wouldn’t it make sense for him to play it up while in disguise as his civilian alter ego? It’s not exactly a secret around the Daily Planet offices that Kent is from Kansas. It’s often the source of many jabs taken at the “farm boy”. It’s one thing to look exactly like Superman and always be absent when he is present, but this oversight seems like he just isn’t trying.
Steve Rogers/Captain America was born in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. Yet all throughout his youth, experiment and military career; right up to being thawed out in modern times, he has no trace of any New York accent, let alone Brooklyn. Why? Did he go to boarding schools? It doesn’t seem like he got very far out of Brooklyn before he was tapped to become a super soldier.
Peter Parker/Spider-Man is from Queens but only Tom Holland’s screen incarnation of the character has had any trace of a regional dialect. For a character based in New York City, regional accents are basically no where to be found in the Sam Raimi or Marc Webb films.
Thor and the Asgardians are based on the Pantheon of gods from Norse folklore but they speak with British accents, not Scandinavian. Although referred to as “gods”, these Asgardians are basically extraterrestrial aliens. This highlights that we shouldn’t be pondering why they speak in English accents; we should be asking why they are speaking English (or any other Earth language) at all? All of the intergalactic space aliens in the MCU speak English. What are the odds?
1. In Many Genres There’s a Practical Reason Everyone Sounds British
Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and Troy. Films based on the Bible. Middle Earth. Any English-language film set in some pre-modern society is likely to have everyone speaking in English accents regardless of how little sense it may appear to make. Even in Les Misérables (2012), a distinctly French-set story where everybody sings, they still use British accents. Did cinema collectively make this decision? Is it because all the actors are British? Is it just the way things are done without question?
Pondering this issue for years, a chance conversation with a theatre friend clued me onto a much simpler explanation.
In many British period pieces, there is a distinct class hierarchy inherent to the setting and plot. Great wealth contrasted with abject poverty. Upstairs and downstairs, if you will. England and its (ridiculously numerous) regional accents have a somewhat unique trait to it, completely centered around the city of London. Within such a small space, on-screen accents were basically divided amongst these class lines, with Received Pronunciation (RP) English being the dialect spoken by the upper crust, and Cockney being spoken by the lower class.
Received Pronunciation English = Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and all the guys from Monty Python
Cockney = Michael Caine, Jason Statham, Ray Winstone
English-speaking audiences are offered this useful dialectical tool with English accents in a way that they cannot process with other, non-English-language based accents. Seriously, could you tell the difference between a rich German and a poor one? Unlikely.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is currently working on a book about the American Cinema Renaissance (1967-present) with John H. Foote. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor