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

October 10, 2014 § 13 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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