Americans dial up dialects to take on meaty roles

Move over Gwyneth, your American colleagues have become as deft with dialects as you have.

Take Forest Whitaker channeling Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” Derek Luke and Tim Robbins as South Africans made enemies by apartheid in “Catch a Fire,” Edward Norton and Liev Schreiber as colonial-era Brits in China in “The Painted Veil” and Leonardo DiCaprio as a South African mercenary in “Blood Diamond.”

“Right now there’s a strong sense of being part of the world in a way that we (as Americans) haven’t always been,” says producer Paula Weinstein of “Blood Diamond.” “I think America’s writers are looking for situations of people in heightened states, to tell the story and talk about, and that becomes international.”

Helmer John Curran, of Warner Independent’s “The Painted Veil,” lensed entirely in China, concurs. “Actors are creative people. They look for challenges and ways to expand and do something they haven’t done before. And sometimes that means taking on a more exotic character of another culture.”

In pre-production, Curran and actor-producer Norton discussed the possibility of altering the nationality of Norton’s character, but “the story Edward was interested in was the folly of colonialism that is inherent in a lot of Somerset Maugham’s stories,” Curran explains. “We both felt it would have diluted the character to make him American.”

There was no question of modifying character details to fit the star in “The Last King of Scotland.” As helmer Kevin Macdonald explains, the actor who portrayed Uganda’s notorious despot Idi Amin had to be explosive, humorous, charismatic and terrifying, plus middle-aged, black and big.

“After we finished the script, I realized I had been willfully blind on how incredibly hard it would be to cast the part of Idi Amin,” Macdonald says. He considered actors from Africa and the U.K., and then journeyed to Los Angeles for further casting sessions. Whitaker landed the role after a mesmerizing audition.

“For me, finding the right person was not about star,” the helmer contends. “I did look everywhere, and (Whitaker) was the right guy to do it, and that’s what it came down to.”

To prep for the role, Whitaker immersed himself in Amin and absorbed Ugandan culture for three months prior to production by doing the usual (watching archival footage, working with a voice coach and meeting those who knew Amin) to the unusual (like learning to play the same kind of accordion Amin played and eating only what Amin ate — mashed, boiled green bananas).

Luke also traveled to Africa for his role as Patrick Chamusso in Phillip Noyce’s “Catch a Fire.” Noyce began casting in Africa but also came to Los Angeles, where he met Luke.

The actor was initially hesitant: “When I was over in South Africa, my concern was: How are they going to feel about me telling their story, when they are very capable?” Luke says.

What he soon realized was how conscientious and truthful he had to be in his role. “I didn’t think of the responsibility of telling a story from one nation to another or perhaps bridging the gap cinematically,” Luke says. “It’s really a journey when you go outside of your comfort zone.”

By revealing the truths and stories of other nations, the film experience is educating audiences — “bringing a painting home,” about another culture — Luke notes.

“America as a whole has become more interested in abroad,” Macdonald observes. “There are more interesting films being made in interesting, exotic locations than there have been in the past.”

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