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Dialect Coaches Are Key to Finding Character: ‘It All Starts With the Voice’

When audiences think about actorly transformations, their first thoughts are often of weight lost or gained, hair grown or sheared, and mannerisms shed or adopted. But even if their silhouette doesn’t quite match a level of physical deterioration commensurate with their character’s malady, or their demeanor isn’t quite befitting of, say, an 18th century courtesan, an actor’s voice can be tremendously persuasive in convincing viewers that they are believably inhabiting a specific time or place.

“It all starts with the voice,” says Bradley Cooper, whose gruff delivery as Jackson Maine in “A Star Is Born” has earned him multiple lead actor nominations from critics groups across the globe. “That’s your way in because you can hear yourself as you’re talking, and it’s the best way to believe an imaginary circumstance.”

Actors often prepare exhaustively to learn and approximate the speaking rhythms of a specific time period, geographic location or even social class, but they are often assisted by dialect coaches who intimately understand the mechanics of speech, and find ways not only to introduce them effectively to a new accent, but break them of old habits in the process.

“Dialect acquisition is not simply changing a few sounds,” says Mary McDonald-Lewis, who worked with Kiwi breakout Thomasin McKenzie to convincingly adopt a Pacific-Northwest accent for Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace.” “It’s changing the biomechanical system entirely. So it’s a question of taking the accent, language or dialect, deconstructing it down to its component parts and then reconstructing it with the client.”

McDonald-Lewis, who began her career as a voice actor, takes a holistic approach with clients to ensure that they feel comfortable in their own skin before adopting a different voice. “For a youngster like Thomasin coming into this film where she was carrying so much of it on her shoulders, this process could be absolutely horrifying,” McDonald-Lewis says. “So the greatest challenge was being open and vulnerable to trying when it came to turning her own native accent inside out.

“Not only is it morally the right thing to do, it’s practically the only thing you can do in order to faithfully teach an accent. And the end result is you have an accent that lives in an actor, and it lives in a really joyous way.”
In order to play Tom, a young woman who lives off the grid with her PTSD-stricken veteran father, Will (Ben Foster), McKenzie integrated the accent work into the rest of her preparation. “Ben and I did wilderness training. We learned how to make fires, or use plants medicinally, or listen to bird language, make shelters, collect water,” she says. “All of that was key to me feeling that I knew Tom well enough to be able to improvise and have opinions that she herself would have. Once I knew my character well enough, the accent part came quite easily with the help of Mary Mac, and the confidence that Mary Mac was there to listen and to pick up on it if I was saying a word incorrectly.”

On “A Star Is Born,” Cooper worked with Tim Monich, who’d previously helped him suitably approximate the voice of Chris Kyle in “American Sniper.” Cooper indicated that conceiving his directorial debut as a two-hander between Jackson and Lady Gaga’s Ally lent them an unexpected advantage in trying to find the sound of his character’s voice. “I wanted to hear the melody and the various pitches of their voices in tandem, and that was the beginning of the idea of this lower voice,” Cooper says. “Tim approaches it from a very practical standpoint, looking at the anatomy: does this person breathe through their nose or their mouth? Where does the tongue fall? How are the vowels pronounced? And because it was almost an octave lower than my voice, it was really about sort of trying to open my own vocal instrument to a place where I can then allow that sound to go down.”

As a teacher and former voice and dialect coach at the Royal Shakespeare Company, U.K. native Neil Swain knows his way around a variety of British accents. For “The Favourite,” he was tasked not only with helping Emma Stone match the sound of her English co-stars, but also finding a commonality in the film’s accents that suited director Yorgos Lanthimos’ needs even if they weren’t necessarily faithful to the place and time in which its events take place. “Historically speaking, if we’re being accurate, the accent in ‘The Favourite’ wouldn’t have really existed in that form during this time,” Swain says. “But we wanted to find an accent that had a taste of a particular class and background, so we decided to go with received pronunciation [RP], and then it was very much about bringing people together, really.

“Olivia has essentially kind of an RP accent, but Rachel comes from north London and lived in America for a long time,” he says of co-leads Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz. “So she did come to me every so often and say, ‘If you hear some of my sounds going back to my native roots or even American, let me know.’”

Stone, conversely, had developed an English accent for her role on stage in “Cabaret,” but threw herself into the process of transforming herself in much the same way her character attempts to in the film. “She made a point of coming over to England to give herself enough time to adequately kind of work and rehearse, and we went through all of the sounds before we started to really work on the script.”

“She did such a great job of being English, and being an English woman of a certain class who was down on her luck, and that’s much more than just a combination of sounds.”

Stone perhaps reflexively credited Swain for the comfort that she eventually felt in the role and particularly with this foreign accent. “Thanks to Neil, I learned to relax into the accent in a way I didn’t know I’d be fully capable of,” she says. “He empowered me to feel very free within the dialect, and helped me shape which words were most impactful and how my dialogue would further the story. I felt like he gave me the tools to feel like myself, born in another time and country, and speak fluidly and confidently.”

For Julian Schnabel’s intimate, anachronistic “At Eternity’s Gate,” star Willem Dafoe elected not to work with a dialect coach because he and the filmmaker wanted their portrait of Vincent Van Gogh to focus on the man and the painter instead of his actual history, or the myth that has grown around it. But the multiple Academy Award nominee says he always employs an accent judiciously to ensure that it serves the film rather than the actor himself.

“Sometimes an accent can be wonderful. It can be the key to the character. But others, it can be showtime. It can take you away from the reality of the movie. So it’s kind of an instinctive thing, and then of course you consult with the director to really make the final call,” he says.

“In principle, every time out you try to abandon things you’ve done before and kind of make it fresh,” Dafoe says simply. “Otherwise you’re not treating it in the way that you want to be free. You have to find out what gets you to that character’s truth as opposed to becoming either a caricature or something that takes you away from what’s happening in the film. Disappearing into the action of the film is what you want to happen.”

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