The rain in Spain may fall mainly on the plain, but, as Eliza Doolittle complained, being trained to explain that refrain (with the proper accent) can be a real pain.
"Essentially it's like taking your mouth to the gym," says Welsh actor Rhys Ifans (familiar to U.S. audiences as Hugh Grant's daffy roommate Spike in "Notting Hill"), who is learning how to speak "posh American" for the independent feature "Human Nature." "Your tongue's a muscle, and you're training it to work in a different way."
Once upon a time, what characters said in a film was more important than how they said it. For years, Hollywood played fast and loose with foreign accents, generally relying on a stable of European character actors to provide international flavor, with the overall attitude being something along the lines of "one accent fits all." But that's no longer the case, and long gone are the days when an American star such as Katharine Hepburn could sound the same whether she was playing a Philadelphia socialite, Eleanor of Aquitaine or Mary, Queen of Scots.
Many give Meryl Streep credit for raising the accent bar in 1982 with her Oscar-winning performance as a Polish woman in "Sophie's Choice." (She's subsequently done everything from Irish and Italian to regional American--Southern, New York, etc.). Since then, many actors and actresses have altered their natural accents for film roles, with varying degrees of success, but Streep is still considered by most to be the standard against which other accented performances are measured. Now, in an increasingly international market, actors are expected to be masters of accents.
"It broadens the scope of characters you can play enormously," says Minnie Driver, whose most recent film, "Return to Me," featured the English actress as a character from Chicago. Driver returns to the Midwest in another American role in the upcoming "Beautiful."
"Accent informs so much about a character," she says. "It completely changes the rhythm of your speech and movement."
In these days of ultra-political correctness, where filmmakers are called on the creative carpet for a seemingly endless variety of historic inaccuracies, vocal verisimilitude has become a highly prized commodity. Enter the dialect coach, well-armed with a verbal bag of tricks. In the past decade, dialect coaches have become a significant presence on the Hollywood scene--and on many a film set as well.
It's a process that involves repetition, studying audio- and videotapes, visits to locations where the characters live, along with breathing and vocal exercises. Dialect coaches don't all use the same methods to get talent to mind their properly pronounced Ps and Qs, but all are in agreement when it comes to the finished product.
"You don't want to call attention to it," notes Carla Meyer, one of the busiest dialect coaches in Hollywood. "You want it to look as seamless as it can be."
Using far less equipment, these sought-after instructors work the same kind of transformational magic usually associated with makeup and special effects. They keep a low behind-the-scenes profile, but their influence is being felt where it counts. Consider the recent Academy Awards: Though it's a rare Oscar season that doesn't feature several nominees from Britain or Australia, what was especially notable this year was that every non-American in the four acting categories was nominated for a role in which he or she portrayed an American character, including best supporting actor winner Michael Caine.
It's possible to look at this trend of non-American actors striving to take on American accents as yet another dreadful sign that this country is, indeed, taking over the global cultural landscape. While that particular point is up for debate (except perhaps in France), the reality is more marketplace-based: For one thing, films are often financed at least in part by interests outside the U.S., which could make non-American actors appealing to producers. And then there's the undeniable fact that there's more film work for English-speaking actors and actresses here than elsewhere; by becoming adept at American accents, actors make themselves more competitive.
Certain actors find a change in vocalization a fundamental part of the acting process. "Every time I create a character, I don't assume they speak like I do, even if they're Australian," says Cate Blanchett, who worked with Meyer for "Pushing Tin" (1999) and the yet-to-be-released "The Gift." "Like finding the way the characters move, you have to find the way they speak."
In "Pushing Tin," Blanchett was totally credible--and almost unrecognizable--as Connie Falzone, a disenchanted housewife from Long Island, or, to use the vernacular, Lawng Geylund. (Coming after her Oscar-nominated performance as Queen Elizabeth, it was about as different an accent as you can have and still be speaking the same language.)