The Accent Whisperers of Hollywood
‘Why should I trust you?” Dominic Cooper said to Samara Bay, his dialect coach. “Trustya,” she replied, crushing the words together. “Why should I trustya,” Cooper repeated. The actor and coach were standing in the driveway of an old stone mansion in New Orleans’s Garden District, on break from shooting a scene for the AMC series “Preacher.” Cooper, who was born and raised in London, plays the show’s title character, a West Texas preacher possessed by the offspring of an angel and a demon. He tried another line, moving his mouth around the hard twang of the “am” in “vampire,” when the vampire in question — his co-star Joseph Gilgun — interrupted their work.
“This is why yewr all fat, innit,” Gilgun joked, stretching his Os, clipping his Is and waving a very large Smoothie King cup. The crack was directed at Bay, the lone American among the three of them; Bay is not fat at all, but slight and sprightly. Gilgun was born and raised in northern England, but his character is from Ireland. He knew a lot of Irish people growing up, he explained, so Bay often left him to his own devices.
The show’s other lead actor, Ruth Negga, was across the lawn, practicing her lines in solitude. Negga was born in Ethiopia and raised in Ireland. She was also playing a West Texan, but her accent was more flowing, in part because she was relaxing her vowels — Bay described it as a legato to Cooper’s staccato, appropriate for her world-weary character.
None of this was unusual: In the Peak TV era, a growing supply of international acting talent has met the increasing demand for high-quality television, and people like Bay were there to make it all work. Cooper continued running his lines, pausing on his “yas” and “yurs,” drawing out the edges of the deep-throated vowels, making sure he wrapped his mouth around the words when he whispered them, which he’d need to do in the coming scene.
When it was time for a take, Bay followed her actors into the mansion, slipping in her earbuds as she walked upstairs. She took a seat just beyond the spare bedroom where Cooper and Gilgun had begun blocking their scene. As the filming began, she leaned forward in her chair, cupping her ears and staring into a bank of monitors. Occasionally she whispered to the script supervisor about a word that might require rerecording, or “looping,” in postproduction. When a problem was persistent, Bay quietly squeezed her way past the crew to deliver a note directly to an actor — a bold entry onto the director’s turf, but most of the time a welcome one.
Television viewers, exposed to hundreds of different dialects every day, are increasingly aware of the tiniest differences in how people speak, even as the number and degree of distinctions continue to expand. There’s a wide and complex range of Minnesotan on “Fargo,” and Tatiana Maslany, the Canadian star of “Orphan Black,” does a dizzying array of British, American and even Eastern-European-inflected English accents. But the specificity isn’t relegated to stars. Bay says she was recently dispatched to the set of another TV show to work on a bit player’s Haitian Creole. She read the script and character notes and went to YouTube, a miraculous repository (especially under the “accent” tag), then crosschecked her YouTube finds with a Haitian-language specialist at M.I.T.’s linguistics department, who narrowed them down and sent her a few of his own field recordings. All for a few lines uttered briefly by a one-off character in a network drama that has been canceled.
The right dialects can help actors create a sense of authenticity and also quickly transmit a lot of information about their characters. An actor could sound generally as if he were from the South and pronounce “pen” like “pin.” Or he could also speak in African-American Vernacular English (for instance, pronouncing “south” like “souf”) and sound as if he were from Bankhead, a largely African-American Atlanta neighborhood. An actor could speak with all these linguistic specificities, but with a particular quicker and more clipped speech pattern that has to do with his own upbringing, and then he’d sound like Earn Marks, the character portrayed by Donald Glover in “Atlanta.” In other words: exactly like who that character is, and no one else.
This kind of efficiency and precision is pleasing for actors who take pride in their craft. It also sends a powerful signal to viewers: This is a quality production. For most of Hollywood history, accents were a character feature that could reasonably be ignored or drawn from a very limited menu of “Southern” or British or vaguely Eastern-European dialects. Charlton Heston didn’t bother to modulate his theatricalized Middle American accent for the role of a Mexican drug-enforcement officer in the 1958 noir classic “Touch of Evil.” Mickey Rooney’s 1961 turn as the bucktoothed Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was straight out of a World War II-era propaganda cartoon. It was not until Meryl Streep took home an Oscar for her perfectly accented portrayal of the title character in the 1982 drama “Sophie’s Choice” that audiences began to understand mastery of dialect as a sign of artistic merit.
With the rise of prestige TV in the United States, the demand for skilled performers from around the world — particularly well-trained British performers — has increased, as has the desire to quickly communicate quality with authentic-sounding accents. Actors have worked hard to deliver. For his role in the HBO series “The Wire,” Idris Elba (raised in London by a Sierra Leonean father and Ghanaian mother) spent long days with cops to improve his Baltimore sound, which is generally regarded as one of the most subtly accurate and astonishing dialect portrayals of all time. His fellow Brit Andrew Lincoln (“The Walking Dead”) set up camp in Georgia for a few months before filming began to immerse himself in the region’s manner of speaking. Gillian Anderson, born in Chicago and raised in North London, is a rare case of an actor who is naturally bi-accented. In interviews on British television, she sounds British; in America, she sounds American. It might seem like an act, but it’s her personal history, which is exactly what an accent is: an ever-changing assemblage of sounds based on where we’ve lived, who we’ve known and our perception of how we should sound based on our surroundings.
All of that said, much of Bay’s day-to-day work involves helping actors learn to eliminate specificity from their speech. Casting directors for most gigs, especially commercials, prefer something called “General American,” a kind of nowhere accent found only on TV. That makes it hard for some actors to get a foot in the door. Olivia J. Holloway, an actor from a small town in South Carolina, told me about the paradox of speaking in dialect at a time when consciousness of dialect is higher than ever in Hollywood. She hired Bay after she realized she’d been put in a box with other black women from the South; agents kept mentioning how well she’d work in a “12 Years a Slave”-type movie or “Queen Sugar”-type show. To break out, she realized, she would need to learn how to sound as if she were from everywhere or nowhere — but “if you’re from nowhere,” she told me, “you’re nobody. And who’s going to believe in you then?”
Attention to dialectical detail is a relatively recent development, not just in Hollywood but also in human history. Sarah Thomason, a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan, told me a story, probably apocryphal, set around the turn of the 20th century. A French linguist named Jules Gilliéron began charting regional dialects on maps. Lovely and rich with detail, his earliest maps disappeared over time because of the unstable ink he had used to draw them. Thomason says she often began her classes with his story. It perfectly illustrates the slipperiness of dialect, she says, and our inability to capture it as it exists out there, in the wild, where it’s ever-changing, messy and human.
Of course, being human, we’ve tried to tame its wildness. For a long time, especially in an English academy like Oxford or on the BBC, students and broadcasters were taught a standardized, “proper” form of English called Received Pronunciation that tidied up and rounded off diction like a polished stone. Boris Johnson, David Attenborough and Emma Thompson all speak variations of R.P., which is an idealized accent called a sociolect, not a dialect — its entire purpose is to manage sounds, not the regional idiosyncrasies in vocabulary and grammar that make dialects dialects.
American English has always been more unruly. In 1942, Edith Skinner, a drama professor at Carnegie Mellon who coached Broadway actors on the side, codified what were to her the proper-sounding forms of pronunciation and diction in a book called “Speak With Distinction.” Deploying a series of lessons and drills — practice phrases included “or what ought to be taught her” and “a tutor who tooted the flute” — she taught a form of “Standard American English” that doesn’t exist in a natural form anywhere. (Central Indiana is often cited as being the source of a sort of Everyman broadcasterese, but people there in fact speak with an identifiable Midland American, for instance merging words like “cot” and “caught” to sound the same.)
Skinner’s Standard tries to do away with many of the dialectic peccadilloes that make American speech sound so distinctively American. “It’s the choos and joos, mainly,” Bay explains. “And that linking ‘cha’ sound: didya, cantya, wudya, cudya.” Still, American Stage Speech, also called Good Speech, can be useful, Bay says. If you are asked to play the smartest person in the room, for example, or an angry person trying to hold it together, Skinner’s prescription can help you sound rather tight and clipped and proper.
The world of dialect coaches is small — there are only a few dozen working in Hollywood and New York, and nearly all of them share a single manager (a woman named Diane Kamp, who splits her time between the Catskills and a ranch in Montana). There is no union; nearly everyone is freelance, and a few are associated with a university’s theater department. As a result, they are generalists. At 37, Bay is among the youngest. She has a few repeat high-profile clients (she also worked with Negga on the 2016 film “Loving”), and while she now mostly books steady, longer-term gigs like “Preacher,” her reliable fallback is still charging clients for sessions on a sliding scale. (Dialect coaches charge from as little as $100 to $400 or more an hour.) Actors, or their agents or managers, find her because they either have booked a role that demands a certain sound or aren’t booking anything because they don’t sound a certain way. They are often hoping to achieve that general American sound to break in or refashion their career for the Hollywood market.
Bay grew up in Santa Cruz, Calif. She started out wanting to be an actor and was introduced to speech training in San Francisco, at the American Conservatory Theater. She performed in regional theater and eventually Off Broadway, in a Theater for a New Audience production of “Measure for Measure.” When she was 23, she was accepted into the Shakespeare Lab, a six-week program run by the Public Theater in New York. There, she studied under a dialect coach named Kate Wilson, who helped her realize that as great as acting was, she also loved, and was adept at, helping other actors work on their accents. Before long she had individual actors wanting one-on-one sessions.
After 11 years of coaching, Bay has found a consistent approach. Within the first five minutes of the first session, she is likely to tell you to stand up, put away your notebook and run through a set of physical gestures tied to vowels. “Now, we’re going to be like 5-year-olds,” Bay might say. And: “Remember how acting takes your whole body? So does speech.”
She will rub her belly, make her mouth a circle, and go “ooo-ooo-ooo” and nod at you to do the same. This is “oo” as in “do,” but a lot of her clients, Western Europeans and South Americans in particular, misplace this sound into words like “good,” so that the vowels in “do good” sound overly alike, suspiciously foreign: “Doo goood.” This is fine if you’re an Italian chef auditioning for the Food Network and want to keep a bit of your accent intact. It’s not so fine if you’re trying to play a California surfer or a car dealer in Michigan or nearly anyone else, especially someone blandly all-American. You have to drop the “oo” and find the sound in the middle of your mouth.
Bay will show you important variations. She will change her belly-rub into a light stomach punch, and ask you to relax your jaw and feel the sound travel back from midtongue to get the “uh” in “cup.” The understanding of that back-of-the-throat “uh” — a sound so common we throw it in between phrases to give ourselves time to think — will open up the sonic landscape of America to you. Suddenly, “cup” is not “cop” — it’s like “love” and “does” and “what” and “none.”
Yes, Bay will note, these words aren’t all spelled with an O or a U or any single letter or series of letters that would tell you they should sound the same. Spelling is truly, entirely irrelevant to pronunciation. Then, if you’re smart, you’ll pick up your notebook and write that down.
Bay holds most of her sessions in the living area of the three-bedroom apartment she shares with her husband (a writer), their 2-year-old son and their dog in the hills below the Hollywood sign. Bay sits at her dinner table, next to her client, with both their chairs pushed as far out as the small space allows, because they often move their arms, sometimes standing, leaning, positioning their bodies to more ably work through awkward sounds.
One day Bay was working with Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, a British actor who had been cast in a low-budget indie film as a struggling American porn star. He and Bay ran through a whole scene — a fantasy about fame and money — without stopping, then again, slower, more nit-picking, with Bay acting as a sort of referee, pausing on spots that didn’t quite sound right, offering corrections.
“I’ve already got this spot of land picked out,” Jarrett said. “I’ve got my mahnsion — ”
“Maaan-shun,” she said, “get rid of that big open ‘ah’!,” The right sound was more like the “aa” in “can”: ugly.
“How ugly?” he said.
“Very,” Bay replied. She moved to Stewart-Jarrett’s next line, which contained an especially tricky phrase that included the words “America and.” Bay says that much of her training involves not just the words themselves but “the liaisons between words.” It is there in the gaps that we make sounds suggesting restive thought or high emotion — and where an actor’s native accent has a tendency to creep in.
“America and” was a liaison minefield: It contained three different “a” sounds, two of them in rapid succession between the words, separate but intimately connected not just in the same sentence but also within the same phrase, thought and breath. Our mouths also have a lot of trouble linking one vowel sound to another. Different English dialects deal with the adjoining-vowel problem differently, Bay said. British English solves it with an R — “Americar and.” American English is, again, closer to the back of the throat, burying the second “a” into a glottal “ungh” — more like “America’and.” Stewart-Jarrett tried this a few times, his eyebrows raised in a look suggesting both mild surprise and deep concentration. “Sorry,” he said, moving on. “I got a little carried away. Carried? Cay-ree-d?”
“It’s a big open ‘care,’ like ‘air’ or ‘Eric,’” Bay said. “The R influences the vowel sound. It’s not exactly right, but a bigger proportion of the country says it that way, says it technically wrong, so that it’s not really wrong anymore.”
Afterward, outside Bay’s apartment, Stewart-Jarrett and I were walking to our cars when he stopped me. “It’s a bit weird,” he said, “letting someone else into this process. A bit naked-feeling.” For the entire session he’d been speaking with an American accent. Now his natural British accent sounded jarring, like a put-on. He sounded like an actor.