Now we can talk like the natives
John Carlin learns that a convincing American accent goes a long way in Hollywood for British film stars
Sunday 24 August 1997
Not content with playing bad guys or caricature Brits any more, they are adopting perfectly convincing American accents and competing on an equal basis for roles that used to be virtually the exclusive preserve of American actors.
British actors have played Americans in the past. Vivien Leigh, notably, in Gone with the Wind; Peter Sellers in Being There. More recently we have seen Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; Ben Kingsley in Dave; Anthony Hopkins in Nixon. But if these seemed at the time like curious exceptions to the rule, things are changing fast. With British actors impersonating Americans in a spate of films due out between now and Christmas, 1997 is likely to go down as the year when the trickle became a current.
Ian Holm, who played an Italian-American restaurateur in this year's Big Night, will be appearing as an American lawyer in a film called Sweet Hereafter. Helena Bonham Carter and Kristin Scott Thomas embody quintessential Englishness, but the former was Woody Allen's wife in Mighty Aphrodite and the latter will star opposite Robert Redford as a Manhattanite in The Horse Whisperer. Kenneth Branagh will play an attorney from Savannah, Georgia, in John Grisham's The Gingerbread Man.
In Washington Square, the film adaptation of the Henry James novel set in New York, three of the four lead parts are played by Albert Finney, Maggie Smith and Ben Chaplin. Jude Law will be appearing in two films, one directed by Clint Eastwood in which he plays the implausible part of a gay southern redneck.
Law was featured in the June issue of Entertainment Weekly magazine as one of half a dozen young British actors tipped for Hollywood glory. The article drew analogies with the impact Sean Connery and Michael Caine had on America 30 years ago. The difference, in the case of Law in particular, is that American audiences may never realise that they are foreign.
Such is the case already with Gary Oldman, who stars in the current box office smash Air Force One, and Minnie Driver, who played the female lead in this year's less successful but widely praised Grosse Point Blank and is an American medical student opposite Robin Williams in a film due out in the autumn.
How has this trend come about? Why is it that suddenly so many British actors are cracking the American market?
The secret of their success, of course, is that they have learnt to speak like the natives. Elaine Showalter, an English professor at Princeton University who works in Britain part of the year, observed that the quality of the American accents mimicked by British actors has improved hugely in recent years. "The reason why British actors are getting so much better at it now is that so many are living in the US," said Ms Showalter, who writes frequently on American popular culture. Familiarity, she said, has taught their trained ears to pick up the complex nuances of American speech. "An American accent is harder to do than an English one. It's more subtle - the regionalism is more subtle. It's easier for a Brit to do a New York or a Texas accent than a standard American one."
David Suchet, the RSC actor best known for playing Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot on TV, disagrees with Ms Showalter. He should know what he is talking about: in Sunday, an independent film that opened in the US last week, he plays the lead role of a middle-aged, once affluent New Yorker reduced to destitution and homelessness after he is "downsized" by a big corporation. It won first prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
In real life Suchet's voice is pure Royal Shakespeare. But, working with a voice coach, he perfected what he described as an accent that blended "a bit of Queens with upstate New York". (A similarly honed British equivalent would mix a bit of Streatham with northern Hertfordshire.)
Suchet has an anatomical explanation for what he believes to be the greater facility British actors have doing American accents compared with American actors doing British ones. "It's easier, because the English accent tends to use more muscle. We tend to use the mouth more, open and close it more. It's easier to withhold your accent, to make it flatter, than to put a new one on. It's not such a muscular exercise."
Suchet, who played an Arab terrorist opposite Kurt Russell's all-American hero in Executive Decision, is building on his success with Sunday. Next spring he will be starting a film in which he plays another straight American role. His co-star will be Minnie Driver.
The larger explanation for a trend that seems likely sooner or later to cause grave disquiet among native-born American actors obeys the cliche, as Suchet observed, that the world is getting smaller. "I think people are now casting for who they think is right for the role more than necessarily worrying which country they come from." Which would suggest that popular mythology is right, and British actors are indeed better than American actors or, at any rate, that they tend to be held in awe, as Suchet put it, by American film-makers. "When I was doing Executive Decision the other actors would hear that I was English and part of the Royal Shakespeare Company and they'd say 'How wonderful, we do look up to you'."
The major reason why the British are penetrating the American film industry in ever greater numbers has to be that there are more acting jobs, and far more money, in America. "I think it is true to say that economics does come into it," Suchet said with heavy British understatement. "Tony Hopkins, I suppose, being the exception, we don't command six, seven, eight-million dollar fees."
The test of whether American actors can imitate British accents as convincingly as British actors do American ones would only come on the day, far distant, that British film companies offer fees to match their transatlantic counterparts. Gwyneth Paltrow played Emma Woodhouse to perfection. Give Robert de Niro $20m and he would play Mr Knightley to a tee.
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