I received an email from a client in Los Angeles. “Judi, I have an audition for a Russian character for a television pilot. Do you have tips for a Russian accent?” Always eager to help and loving my work, I delved into it, taking her lines from the audition sides and transliterating them with a heavy Russian accent. I sent her my Russian sounding version and told her we could practice together over Skype. And then I reconsidered. I told her that if the audition notes didn’t specifically call for a heavy Russian accent, I didn’t think she should follow the notes I put together for her. Being able to do an authentic sounding accent can be wonderful, but it shouldn’t interfere with the overall performance.
I’m the first to admit that I am majorly impressed by actors who can master an accent that is not their own. Meryl Streep is a true accent powerhouse. You can hear her Polish accent in Sophie’s Choice and one of her English accents in The Iron Lady, roles for which she won Academy Awards. Matthew Rhys also comes to mind. He currently portrays a Russian KGB agent in the U.S. in the 80’s on FX’s The Americans, and he sounds completely American. He also sounded completely American in ABC’s Brothers and Sisters. It’s always a surprise when people hear him in an interview, when he speaks with his native Welsh accent. If you’re a good actor, though, don’t compromise your performance by trying to include an accent that draws too much attention away from the role itself. Have you ever watched a performance of someone trying too hard with an accent that just didn’t sound right? I know I have.
As a speech and dialect coach, I’m the last one who should be telling actors not to work on accents, I know. I do think actors should work on accents, absolutely. I do think, however, that it needs to sound as though it’s natural and not forced. Otherwise it’s a distraction. I also know that opportunities often arise quickly and without lots of notice. So how do you train long term to sound natural for an opportunity that may only present itself suddenly, if at all? Obviously, you can’t. What you can do, however, is the following:
You can work with a speech coach on overall pronunciation skills and mastering of general speech sounds from various regions and languages. This will lay the groundwork for when you need to quickly adjust to a new accent. You will acquire the skills of “learning how to learn” the new accent.
You can also work with a speech coach on polishing your standard American English accent as a base for then tweaking it for regional dialects as needed. This is especially useful for non-native English speakers, but it can be just as helpful for native English speakers, too.
How do you find the right speech coach? I think that it depends on chemistry, and the connection you need to work well with someone, as you would with a personal trainer at the gym. It has to feel right, and it’s a personal preference. Each coach has their own style and approach, and you need to find one that works well for you. When you’re ready, give it a shot, and keep trying until you find what’s right for you.