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Why American actors suck at British accents

Lots of British actors have really nailed their American accents, but Americans can’t seem to imitate their peers across the pond. We spoke with Erik Singer, a dialect coach based in New York, to find out why British actors appear to be so much more skillful when it comes to accents and dialect on the big screen. Following is a transcript of the video.

Kevin Costner: Sheriff calls us outlaws. But I say we are free.

Cary Elwes: Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent.

Narrator: There are countless examples of American actors who do terrible British accents.

Keanu Charles Reeves:I’ve seen many strange things already.

Dick Van Dyke:Mary Poppins, you look beautiful.

Narrator: While most British actors appear to have perfected their American accents.

Kate Winslet: Is that the going rate for saving the woman you love?

Andrew Lincoln: But, I’m gonna kill you.

Narrator: So why do Americans have such a tough time?

Erik Singer: I think part of it is an illusion. I think part of it is just the fact that we actually hear a lot more British actors doing American accents.

Narrator: Erik Singer is a dialect coach based in New York.

Singer: How many accents and dialects can I do? All of them.

Narrator: He works with actors to fine tune their accents for film and TV.

Singer: I think we can probably think of some accents from British actors in American accents that are less successful.

Orlando Bloom: I can’t imagine a world without you.

Ray Winstone:There are guys you can hit. And there’s guys you can’t.

Singer: The British actors who do really successful American accents tend to live in the states tend to come here and really be sort of be aiming at the kind of success that, you know, having a career in TV and film that’s produced in Hollywood represent. The American actors who do really good British accents, and there are plenty, tend to be under the radar a little bit more. You know they’re doing theatre in London or something like that.

Narrator: The type of training actors receive can also come into play.

Singer: More British actors tend to have a drama school training in which speech and accents and phonetics is part of it.

Narrator: So what are some examples of Americans who can do a good British accent?

Singer: I’ve heard some clips of Michael C. Hall in the Netflix series “Safe” doing an English accent that sounds really really really good.

Michael C. Hall: I’m looking for Jenny, my daughter, I think she was Chris last night, is she here?

Singer: Alan Tudyk does a great job, he’s the robot in “Rogue One.”

Alan Tudyk: I’m a reprogrammed Imperial Droid.

Narrator: On the flip side, Singer says there are numerous British actors who have really nailed their American accents.

Singer: Idris Elba’s kind of African American accent in “The Wire.”

Idris Elba: You going out on point pickin’ up business in the pit. Ain’t nothin’ else to it.

Singer: Daniel Kaluuya did an amazing job, I think, in “Get Out.”

Daniel Kaluuya: Yo, my man, they were asking me about the African American experience. Maybe you can take this one.

Singer: Mark Rylance, his native accent is English. He usually does a really great job in American accents.

Mark Rylance: Hello, I am James Halliday, if you’re watching this, I’m dead.

Narrator: For those who have struggled with accents in the past.

Brad Pitt: I need that money, Tom.

Narrator: Singer has some tips for actors looking to hone their skills.

Singer: Listen to a native speaker, listen a lot and listen some more. It’s an act of the imagination taking on another accent if you’re not familiar with the culture, the place, the people or you don’t have a strong kind of sense of empathetic identification that’s when it gets really hard. Meryl Streep is famous for having done this a lot, being surrounded by people who talk in the target accent.

Meryl Streetp: 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour.

Singer: Meryl Streep doing Margaret Thatcher which is a very specific, it’s an idiolect, it’s one person’s accent. But, it’s absolutely flawless.

Narrator: When doing a British accent, there are a few basic things to keep in mind.

Singer: Posture wise the tongue tips tend to be pointier jaw tends to be a bit higher. I would listen particularly for sounds like goat, the o-sound where it’s like hold, gold, hope. I tend to use a bit more pitch, tend to use pitch for emphasis a bit more so that will get you started.

Narrator: There were many types of British accents. And some tend to be more difficult than others.

Singer: One thing that comes up for some reason is that a lot of Americans seem to really struggle with is Welsh accents. A lot of it is a lack of exposure. It’s like Welsh, what does that even sound like for a lot of Americans. Unless you’ve gone to see a production of “Under Milk Wood” or something like that. You probably haven’t been exposed to lots of Welsh accents.

Narrator: There’s also one type of British accent that actors tend to lean on.

Singer: One of the first things that you’ll see American actors do is kind of straighten up, yes, I’ve got to be like this. And there’s an association with the kind of fanciness. Sometimes you’ll see British actors kinda get soft and floppy and lean back ’cause American are all like that. Which is adding a particular character and attitude on top of an accent. And I think it’s really important not to rely on those sorts of things. And to realise that people are people. And character is to a large extent, independent of accent.

Narrator: To perfect an American accent you need to focus on one key letter.

Singer: A huge thing is getting American r-sounds. And there’s two things that can be challenging there. One of them is just making sure they’re all there. And unstressed syllables like at the end of words like other and another, mother, sister, brother, you know, writer, baker. We tend to skip right over those.

Andrew Lincoln: Carl! Carl!

Singer: American r’s usually are made for most people with the sides of the tongue kind of bunching up. It’s a really odd thing to do with your tongue. And it can feel very awkward and clumsy and it involves a lot of muscularity.

Narrator: Regardless of your skills, sometimes your true accent will pop up unexpectedly.

Singer: Getting very emotional, yelling, also being tired or drunk, these are times when accents do tend to slip.

Christian Bale: I killed Bethany, my old girl friend with a nail gun.

Narrator: So how long does it take to master an accent?

Singer: It just depends, it really does. The more time the better. If you have six weeks before shooting starts or before rehearsals start for a play and you work on it really really hard, ideally with a really qualified dialect coach, you stand a pretty good shot of getting to a good place.

Keanu Charles Reeves:Yes sir, I will give it my full attention. Our work is finished here. Hers has just begun.

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