Talking Accents with Gaby Santinelli – LA’s Coaching Cowgirl
THREE LEVELS OF ACCENT TRAINING
ACCENT REDUCTION: minimizing an accent that is difficult to understand when speaking in the English language
ACCENT APPLICATION: learning & applying a new accent, e.g. General American to everyday speech (in-the-moment chit-chat)
ACCENT INTEGRATION™: incorporating an accent into the acting at source; every performance with accent is seamless and consistently accurate.
ACTING + ACCENT = ACCENT INTEGRATION™
Gandhi said, “The end is inherent in the means.”
Meaning….you cannot work on an accent by itself, separate from the acting, and then have it somehow magically integrate into an acting performance later on.
Acting and Accent must go together at the start of the work, ALWAYS. For optimum efficiency and consistency, Acting and Accent should never be divided, or the end result will also be divided.
BOOK LEARNIN’ = INTELLECTUALIZING
I sometimes work with actors who’ve been taught phonetics, rigid “tongue placement”, or unnecessary muscular activity. Their attention is consumed with these rules, which leave no bandwidth for the task of acting!
While some of these elements (namely phonetics) can be extremely useful to understand, even at a basic level, actors who are taught only intellectually tend to be, by definition, wildly in their heads…which is the last place you can deliver good acting from. Acting with an accent should be fun! But when you are confused, you cannot enjoying acting anymore.
HOW AMERICANS REALLY SPEAK — SOME URBAN MYTHS DEBUNKED
I oftentimes hear that actors have been taught some sweeping generalisations, like:
- Americans end all their sentences with an upward inflection (we do?)
- Americans chew their words (that’s exhausting, just to watch, let alone attempt!)
- Americans keep their tongues pressed down in the bottom of the mouth (I do not even know how this is possible…)
- Americans only speak at a lower pitch register (really?)
- Americans talk in their nose – their voices are nasal (Wait, we all sound like Janice on Friends?!)
So…when taught in a generalised way, actors sound like annoying, robotic, cardboard cut-outs, with vastly reduced vocal and emotional expression. Again, it can’t be much fun to act that way, can it?
Actors who are trying to “chew” like an American tend to over-activate their facial muscles, which must be exhausting. Plus, it looks totally unnatural to the viewer! Sorry — you cannot put that on screen. When you really look at how real Americans really speak…? No one actually speaks in this “chewing” manner, not in real life.
No one ends ALL their sentences with an upward inflection. No one speaks all the time in a low pitch register, with nasal placement, with the tongue rigidly stuck to the bottom of the mouth…! NO ONE!
Clearly these overly-simplified short-cuts are NOT working. They are a false economy, as myriad crossed wires must become untangled about how Americans really speak.
Because the bottom line is that, if the accent is not working, then the actor ain’t gonna be working either…certainly not as a professional actor at the top level!
AUDITIONING WITH AN ACCENT
I often hear, “It sounded great with my coach, but when I started acting at the audition, my accent went out the window. I worked so hard on it. What went wrong?”
What went wrong was that they worked so hard on the accent that they did not factor acting into the mix from the get-go. And maybe they coached with an acting coach after working with the accent coach…? Which makes things even more confusing.
And by the time they got to the audition, the whole thing fell apart. That’s really disheartening, when we work so hard just to get into the room! We cannot afford to blow our opportunities, after all that “hard work.”
Regardless of whether the new accent is accurate with the accent coach or not, the actor still had no technique to apply the new sounds to the actual acting. There was no Accent Integration™ in the mix.
SO….WHAT DID YOU LEARN?
When I ask what someone learned on an accent course, or with a particular dialect coach, I rarely, if ever, hear a concise, solid, practical TECHNIQUE. A technique should be able to be applied to all text you come across. If you are not learning an actual technique when you train, you are just being taught how to please that particular teacher’s accent aesthetic…and you are throwing your money away.
I hear about a particular vowel or consonant that was deemed to be “wrong”, and that the actor should try to “work on more.” They then say that they’ve NOT been working on it enough, and they have “lost” their accent…after all these lessons and courses!?
But when you learn an actual technique, you cannot then LOSE it somewhere. Sure, you probably have to practice it a lot, to make it second nature, and that may take a long time…but at least you know what you are practicing. Because you cannot ever lose something that you really learned.
To be honest, a handful of sounds phonated “correctly” or “incorrectly” is not a solid technique upon which to build a consistently accurate accent. There is so much more that goes into a convincing accent than the correct vowels and consonants.
And without that solid technical foundation, the accent will slip and slide, and will never be convincing. Additionally, the actor will never have the stamina to work long hours, over weeks, months, or even years, in that accent if it’s such hard work…at some point, proper technique makes it just as easy to talk in another accent as it is in your native accent.
ARE YOU LEARNING AN ACCENT WITH A BOOK, MP3 OR ONLINE?
There is nothing wrong with this level of exposure. But if that is ALL you’re doing, more often than not, even good mimics tend to overdo it: the face becomes distorted, and is therefore rendered un-filmable.
But how would you know you are doing any of this, if you are not being guided by a qualified coach, who monitors your work from the outside, while you are acting out the piece?
OVERDOING AN ACCENT
Actors are often worried about overdoing the accent, for fear of sounding forced. This fear inhibits their vocal commitment to the acting, and blocks the flow of their acting. So the accent must come from within, never be slapped on top, for best effect.
But without having a solid internal technique, actors overwork the accent externally, which then does indeed sound forced, and “too much”.
The best acting draws the viewer in. But that won’t be achieved if the accent is this forceful barrier between audience and actor. It has to be an organic part of you.
UNDERDOING AN ACCENT
By the way — the other extreme is when actors do “nothing” with their faces, because they are frozen. They clamp the muscles, restrict the flow of air, compress the space needed for natural movement, and end up looking as if they’ve had too much botox. Under-commitment is just as detrimental. It is a delicate balance, to get it all aligned correctly!
WHO AM I?
Sometimes, actors say that when they act in an accent, they are losing touch with who they really are (…that sounds like a job for a psychologist, or a detective…!)
I firmly believe that anyone can speak from their “real self”, with their real voice, in any accent. And I strive to weave the accent into the fabric of their technical toolkit from the very beginning.
Because an accent is really just another technical tool, to be used consciously, and eventually mastered. It is not something that should overtake the actor’s entire self, rendering him a lifeless shell, with some really well-placed vowels. Yikes! We’ve all heard that version of an accent, and it’s really not good.
FEELING FAKE VS FEELING AUTHENTIC
Oftentimes, actors say that they do not want to “put on” an accent, because they do not want to “feel fake”.
I help actors connect with their native vocal production, as I believe that their natural voice should not change, even when working in an accent. If it does change, then they have lost their unique qualities that make them different from all the other actors out there. And yes, then they have LOST something…their specialness. Your individuality is your most important asset! So it absolutely cannot be stamped out when using an accent!
So, we strive to find someone’s “American voice” (or their “British voice”, “French voice”, “Italian voice, “German voice”)— in other words, what they’d sound like if they’d just grown up in the US of A.
Regardless of where someone was born and raised, the vocal instrument itself (the set of muscles, tendons and cartilage that sits inside the throat) is the same physiological mechanism! It does not change when you start creating a few different vowels! So that special quality should be constant. Therefore, the voice the actor uses should always emanate from their innate vocal quality, not some disembodied caricature of an accent.
When actors unconsciously make too many adjustments to their sounds (vowels & consonants), it is because they unconsciously believe that when they are acting in an accent, EVERY sound that comes out of their mouths must change…so oftentimes, the sounds are over-adjusted, and have to be pulled way back.
Secret! A lot of sounds are the same from accent to accent! So we already get a lot for free when doing a new accent.
Sometimes in lessons, we are just figuring out what actually does change, and also…what does NOT. Oftentimes, very few changes need to be made, and the actor is much closer to his real self / real vocal production / real accent than he can believe! This discovery alone makes the work much easier.
Because over-changing sounds also takes them right out of themselves, and into the realm of caricature. And then their accent really does seem fake! This kind of “fake voice” is useful for sketch comedy or advanced character work (where the acting is worked on alongside the accent over a period of time, to create a very specific character)…but that’s about it.
But unless you’re a master character actor like Daniel Day Lewis or Meryl Streep, you’re almost always being cast to bring your most authentic self to the work, and not much character work. We all know that if they want someone with a different quality, they will just cast a different actor. So working with your own voice, even in an accent, is crucial for casting directors, producers and directors getting familiar with YOUR authentic self.
THE SENSE OF SOUND
Let’s face it – sound is elusive. It’s waves that are vibrating at a certain frequency. We cannot see sound. We cannot touch sound. But we can absolutely feel sound when we are creating it, inside our own bodies! So, I help actors get a SENSE of sound…and to become aware of how they FEEL sound. Not just how they HEAR sound.
And yet, if we are not trained, we try to manipulate sound in the wrong way. Actors often attack accents muscularly, rather than conceptually. (Even saying that could be confusing, if you are not aware of the sounds you make, moment to moment.)
But believe me, no one gets very far in acting class, auditions, table reads, rehearsals, performances, and on set, without a conscious awareness about how sound waves work within the oral cavity.
TEACHING ACCENT TECHNIQUE WITH VISCERAL CONCEPTS & GESTURES
I’m a classically trained opera, choral & studio singer. I studied French, Italian and German for singing. And I grew up around vocal pedagogy, because my mother is also a classical singer and a voice teacher. So I have been exposed to singing technique my whole life. And voice lessons come with strong visual imagery, and myriad hand gestures. This magical combination serves to externalise what the inner mechanism should (ideally) be doing.
Now, while it might make sense to employ external facial muscles to create new sounds, any facial activity that occurs on the outside will always feel fake and alien, and not look right. Because sounds are formed on the inside of the mouth. Not on the outside of the face!
Visual concepts help actors imagine and conceptualise the three elements of accents: 1. proper placement, 2. the shape of the language, and 3. consistently accurate sounds, all in a fun, playful way. Not an intellectual way.
So be brave, and allow yourself to feel like a 5-year old again, when we were all less concerned about what people thought! And trust that the external gestures will naturally slip away, as the technique takes root internally. Until then, these simple, specific gestures aid the actor’s sensory awareness, rather than an intellectual awareness, of the accent.
PERFECTING A STANDARD AMERICAN ACCENT (aka “General American”):
Awesome Australian Actress & Author KYM JACKSON says this in her essential book, The Hollywood Survival Guide For Actors — www.hollywoodsguide.com
- “For actors moving to Hollywood from other countries and regional areas of America, it is vital to perfect a flawless Standard American Accent”.
- “One in three hundred roles here might require a foreign accent or regional US dialect, and that’s probably being generous”.
- “Therefore, if you cannot do the accent, it is unlikely that you will book work”.
- “Having a Standard American Accent is more important to you for getting work in LA than those acting classes you’re probably taking right now”.
- “A bad actor can pass for a good actor, to say two lines in a TV show, and get away with it”.
- “A great actor with a bad accent can rarely pass for an American, even just to say one or two lines”.
- “If your Standard American Accent is not flawless, you need to fix it now. You think it’s okay? It’s probably not”.
- “Go to a dialect coach and get an assessment….”
- “A Standard American accent is hard to perfect, but once you’ve got it, you will have much more confidence when auditioning in Hollywood”.
I look forward to working with you soon!
aka The Coaching Cowgirl