From Marion Cotillard’s finely tuned Edith Piaf impersonation to Javier Bardem’s demonic monotone, actors tend to get all the credit for the way their characters sound. But when it comes time for the winning thesps to give thanks on Oscar night, you just might hear — uttered somewhere between their agents, parents and God — the names of an elite group of unsung heroes who helped them find their voice: the dialect coaches.
When the Coen brothers first approached Bardem about inhabiting the villainous role in “No Country for Old Men,” the actor worried that his Spanish accent might get in the way. “There are Mexicans and (then there’s) Chigurh, and you cannot mix one with the other,” the actor recalls, “so we had to get rid of the Spanish accent as much as we could.”
For that, Bardem turned to Howard Samuelsohn, scheduling an intensive two-week prep with the dialect coach.
“The goal is to find the things your North American audience would pick out right away as things that sound particularly Spanish,” explains Samuelsohn. “We worked every day. Javier was very conscientious. Our first lesson took six hours. We filled up four CDs, and he would listen to the stuff when I wasn’t there.”
The resulting sound, still vaguely foreign, suggests that Chigurh has been beamed in from another dimension, making the ghostlike killing force all the more terrifying.
“The way we speak is such an amalgam for how we feel emotionally, psychologically, socially, environmentally,” explains Neil Swain, dialect coach on both “Atonement” and “Sweeney Todd.” “We have this blueprint of sounds, but they will be very different in the mouth of Cecilia than they would (coming from her mother or sister). I find that endlessly fascinating, how a character then inhabits those sounds, or how those sounds inhabit a character.”
From traditional to esoteric, coaching strategies vary wildly depending on the actor, role and time constraints.
“One has to be prepared to modify their technique,” explains Andrew Jack, who worked with Viggo Mortensen to develop the right accent for Russian mobster Nikolai in “Eastern Promises.” Of Mortensen, Jack says, “He can hear subtleties that other actors don’t hear at all,” adding that the star went to Russia and “all sorts of devious places where he was able to meet ex-convicts.”
Expanding upon the system he developed working with Mortensen for “The Lord of the Rings,” Jack typically steered clear of the scripted text, coaching Mortensen in Russian sounds, then ad libbing conversation in the dialect.
“In the end, if the actor is able to speak from spontaneous thought, it doesn’t matter what’s in the script,” he says.
But beyond the accent, “Eastern Promises” also required Mortensen to sound convincing when delivering lines in Russian. For that, the Oscar nominee worked with a second dialect coach, Olegar Fedoro, who brings his own acting instincts to bear on the process.
“Usually, I live through the character myself, in parallel with an actor as if I was his brother,” says Fedoro. At times, his approach proved a bit too intense for director David Cronenberg. “Being on the set, I constantly watch (Viggo) doing his version of the character and compare it with my own version. … I became very possessive towards the character.”
Because the nuances of foreign-language performances can easily be lost on American audiences, the training spent mastering specific accents must not detract from that most important of acting tools: body language. In assisting Marion Cotillard with her transformation into French singing legend Edith Piaf, “La Vie en rose” acting coach Pascal Luneau focused on embodying Piaf completely, not just mastering her Parisian street accent. Finding Piaf’s voice was a unique two-month process, beginning in Luneau’s living room.
“For me, there is no role; there are two souls,” he says. “If you accept this way of work, it is important to leave a little place for the other soul. I wanted to create a zone where Marion and Edith were able to fight together, work together, live together in the same person.”
Swain favored a much stricter approach with “Atonement” and “Sweeney Todd,” making historical accuracy the priority when molding the appropriate dialects.
“Johnny (Depp) tends to do his own thing — wonderfully,” says Swain, who coached the other actors. “He showed up on the set with a history of working with the cockney accent. He likes to take a voice or a person that is like the character and follow this example.”
With “Atonement’s” aristocratic Tallis family, “The vowels are very short, very clipped, the consonants very sharp and very articulated and muscular,” he explains. “There was no sense at that time of people (in England’s upper class) having to come out and meet others with their speech. They felt very comfortable in themselves, and they weren’t used to being contradicted.”
Before building the appropriate sounds, Swain had to disguise the actors’ original accents: James McAvoy hails from Scotland and sports the distinctive brogue to prove it, while Oscar nominee Saiorse Ronan speaks with a thick Irish accent. The technique, termed “accent reduction” among dialect coaches, is similar to Samuelsohn’s work with Bardem.
Swain was particularly impressed with 13-year-old Ronan’s maturity. “I could sit down and work with her as if she was an actress in her 20s or 30s. We worked on placement, mouth shapes, specific sounds, and we talked about the history and the feel behind the accent,” he says.
The coaches may help with the mechanics, but the actors ultimately bring the characters to life — for that reason, the modest pros who do the coaching insist, it’s fitting that their names remain unspoken.
“That’s part of the deal,” Samuelsohn says. “When you go into a job like this, if you do your job right, no one will notice.”