Rarely “Spot On”: British Actors and Their American Accents

October 10, 2014 § 12 Comments

Michael Sheen in "Masters of Sex"

Michael Sheen in “Masters of Sex”

Michael Caine in "The Cider House Rules"

Michael Caine in “The Cider House Rules”

Eve Hewson in "The Knick"

Eve Hewson in “The Knick”

Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood"

Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”

Clive Owen in "The Knick"

Clive Owen in “The Knick”

If you’ve spent time in London–or just read its newspapers–it won’t be long before you come across a review of a British actor playing an American character in a play, movie or TV show. “His/her accent is spot on!” the critic will invariably say, but how could he tell, not being American? In fact, the “spot on” assessment is rarely true. While most British actors can perform American accents without embarrassing themselves (unlike most American actors doing British accents), their work almost always suffers from two major problems: exaggeration and a complete absence of regionalism.

British actors supposedly find American accents easy because doing them requires “subtraction” from their native accent. (The same theory holds that American actors attempting British accents must add to theirs, addition being the harder task.) Nevertheless, most British actors playing Americans fall back on two tricks: elongating their vowels and overemphasizing their r’s. While it’s true that Midwestern vowels tend to be flatter than their Eastern or Western counterparts, they are not loooonger. As for the heavy r’s, the actors employing them sound more Irish than American. Another dead giveaway that the actor is British is speed: talking veeerrry slooowly is an actor’s crutch, not an American characteristic.

Even actors who manage to avoid exaggeration fall into the mistake of creating an accent so bleached of regionalism that it doesn’t exist, except onscreen. One would think that actors from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would assume, given the rich variety of accents in their homeland, that a huge country like the United States would have even more. But no: the prevailing idea among British actors is that there is such a thing as a Standard American Accent. A good example is Michael Sheen playing Dr. William Masters in “Masters of Sex.” Yes, he manages to sound American, but where is his accent from? Not Cleveland, where Masters was born, or New Jersey, where he prepped, or upstate New York, where he went to college. Listening to Sheen is like meeting a Dutchman: though his English and inflections are seemingly American, his accent is untraceable.

Those actors who break the no-regional-accent rule do so with wildly varied results. Michael Caine’s Maine accent in “The Cider House Rules” sounds nothing like any American accent, New England or otherwise. At times it sounds Cockney, hardly surprising as Caine has used his own thick Cockney accent in virtually all of his movies, whether or not it made sense for the character. (See “The Quiet American,” in which he plays a Cockney-accented foreign correspondent in 1950s Vietnam, when such journalists were invariably Oxbridge types.) That he won the Oscar for “The Cider House Rules” is proof not of his success in the role but of the Academy’s tendency to give Oscars for lifetime achievement rather than nominated performances.

In sharp contrast, every accent Daniel Day-Lewis does is flawless, the product not only of his enormous talent but research and hard work–three to five years of grueling preparation for each of his roles. As Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood,” he speaks in an intricate blend of Yankee, Irish and Wisconsin that explains Plainview’s origins better than any visual montage.

Notable American accents by non-Americans can be found in the new TV drama “The Knick,” set in New York at the turn of the 20th century. As Dr. Thackeray, Clive Owen speaks in Gilded Age tones that were probably inspired by Day-Lewis in “The Age of Innocence.” Though Owen does well with the accent, he is completely outshone by Eve Hewson, whose character Nurse Elkins is from West Virginia. Unlike Owen, Hewson is Irish (and the daughter of Bono and Aly Hewson), which might explain her facility with accents; her real-life speech is Dublin with trans-Atlantic overtones, though you’d never know it here. Her performance is all the more impressive because Appalachian accents are so hard to imitate (and, for natives, hard to lose)–twangy and lilting, with flattened vowels. Yet Hewson never falters, displaying a deft touch in every scene. It’s an accomplishment that can hardly be exaggerated: seamless, unforced and spot on. I’m sure Daniel Day-Lewis would agree.

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§ 12 Responses to Rarely “Spot On”: British Actors and Their American Accents

  • wilberfan says:

    Any thoughts on Dominic West in “The Wire”? That was the first place I ever saw him–and had no idea he was British.

    • Not having watched “The Wire,” I had to check a few YouTube clips. I wasn’t impressed, since West’s accent is not only totally made-up but slips regularly. He drops his g’s to sound American but doesn’t hit the n’s hard enough. He also has trouble with his r’s. Another tell-tale sign that he’s British is a bit of lockjaw–with the exception of old WASPs from Connecticut and Locust Valley, it doesn’t happen in real American accents. I don’t know why people think he’s so good; I could hear his British accent breaking in throughout. But you know who’s really good that I didn’t think of? Stephen Graham, who plays Al Capone on “Boardwalk Empire.” He had me fooled, all the more impressive because he does a Chicago accent.

    • Suzanne Reilman says:

      @ Wilberfan…I’m not five minutes into episode 1 of ‘The Wire’and Dominic West’s faux-ccent
      is sticking out like such a sore thumb that I’m unable to follow the story as yet…!

  • mike says:

    What do you think of Damian Lewis in Homeland. I bet most Americans wouldn’t guess that he was British. Yet I found his “Brody” to be so speak like GI Joe, totally absent of regional color.

  • Marko says:

    What a load of nonsense. I’ve heard plenty of accents similar to Dominic West’s Wire accent in the northern tidewater and New England area.
    As for Caine, I think you are absolutely off the mark. Caine was not playing a writing reporter, not a tv-newsreel one. Also, his accent was modeled off of what Graham Greene had, who was a journalist in SE Asia btw. As for his accent in Cider House Rules, you may have a point there.

    • The tidewater accent is a southern accent with strong Cornwall influences, while New England accents are a stew of English, Irish and Scottish influences. As the two are entirely different, your conflating them proves my point.

      As for Michael Caine, his Cockney accent is absolutely nothing like Graham Greene’s. Greene came from a prominent family of businessmen, government officials and academics, and was a product of public school (that’s private boarding school to you) and Oxford. Yes, he was a foreign correspondent; and like the rest of them at that time, he spoke with a plummy upper-class accent.

      • Marko says:

        I never said the tidewater and New England accents were at all the same! I wasn’t even referring to the Tidewater accent but to the “northern tidewater region” which I used to refer to Baltimore, as some local residents I’ve talked to refer to eastern Maryland as lying in the Tidewater region. Granted imprecise terminology on my part (for which I apologize) but I never claimed the accents were the same. They don’t even sound the same. The Tidewater accent’s primary base is in Virginia and North Carolina.
        Dominic West’s accent in The Wire is very similar to many of the accents I’ve heard in that region when I traveled frequently to the Baltimore area. I’ve heard his accent very frequently in the area stretching from Maryland through NJ up through to NE. I think you were only watching clips from the earlier seasons of The Wire, where his accent occasionally slipped up. I think he was still perfecting it at that point. Watch clips of the show during the 3rd, 4th and 5th seasons and you’ll find its quite believable.
        I know how the British school system works thank you very much. But that said, I’ll concede your point on the QA as after reviewing the BBC audio files Graham Greene’s voice, I can see the marked difference in accents but I don’t think that really hurts the film or his performance. I did read that Caine was trying to base his portrayal off of Graham Greene’s own persona as he served in the same function in French Indo-China. As for Cider House Rules, I’ve actually heard Maine residents give an opposite evaluation to yours, with many feeling he perfectly captured how people in Maine spoke.

  • Marko says:

    Clarification – North Carolina is not the Tidewater region but I’ve heard many people on eastern coast of North Carolina speak with the Tidewater accent.

  • Suzanne Reilman says:

    Late to the party(ies)as always, I am not five minutes into season 1 of ‘The Wire’ and the sad attempt at any American accent, let alone a Baltimore/Mid-Atlantic regional accent of Dominic West…grating..!

  • Picoti Picota says:

    Hmmm… You obviously overlooked Gary Oldman’s work… State of Grace, JFK, The contender, among many other movies, invalidate most of your points.

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