BRITISH ACTORS IN U. S.
This interesting article (which would, along with "AMISTAD anachronisms,"
the above "Oscars," and even Gareth's column, all be in the online magazine
that we don't have) was originally in the New York Times. I found it in the
Toronto Globe and Mail, 30 December 1997, pg. C2:
British actors cross the linguistic divide
By Michael McGough
New York Times Service
(over photo of Leslie Howard and Vivien Leigh) TALKING THE TALK/ More and
more Britons are learning American accents to take on roles in Hollywood.
What is perplexing about this traffic in verbal versatility is that it is
largely in one direction.
(below photo) It's more difficult for a British actor to do a convincing
American accent than vice versa because of differences in the muscular action
that produces sounds. Britons who have succeeded include Leslie Howard
(above), shown with Vivien Leigh in _Gone With the Wind_, David Suchet (below
right), who plays a New Yorkerin the film _Sunday_, and Peter Sellers (below
left), shown in _Dr. Strangelove_.
(...) American actors bridle at one popular explanation: that British actors
are simply better trained than Americans. A less offensive variation on that
thesis is that in Britain, a country in which dialect connotes not only region
but also social class, actors had better be able to adjust their accents
The most satisfactory explanation for the accent gap, though, seems to
lie less in linguistics than in economics. "Follow the money," that watchword
of Watergate reporting, explains the influx of British actors into American
Tim Monich, one of the dialect coaches who help actors master the Queen's
English (an ADS online magazine would interview this guy--ed.), states this
thesis succinctly: "There is much more incentive for English actors,
Australian actors, Canadian actors, Irish actors to have a career in Hollywood
and to increase their casting, of course, to do American roles."
(...) Thus an American accent can be an asset even when an audience is not
going to be primarily American. As a teen-ager, the British actor Simon
Fenton crossed the ocean to play a United States Navy brat in _Matinee_, the
acclaimed 1993 comic film set in Key West, Fla., during the Cuban missile
crisis. That performance led to a tryout for a role in _Chris Cross_, a
Canadian television series that was distributed in both Britain and the United
The linguistic trade deficit between British and American actors may be
aggravated by a professional decision by American actors not to attempt
foreign accents. Monich said directors and studio heads are leery of having
Hollywood stars speak in a foreign accent, because this would dilute their
Opportunity, talent and training being equal, is it easier linguistically
for a British actor to play an American than vice versa? There is a
remarkable lack of unanimity on this question. And, indeed, several expert
insist that the American-to-British manoeuvre should actually be the easier
"For an American to do a standard British accent, it's a matter of
dropping sounds," (stage director Richard) Seyd said. "For an English actor
to do an American accent, it's a matter of adding sounds, and it makes the
accent more self-conscious when you add a sound, and more difficult when you
add a sound, than when you're leaving sounds out."
Fenton agrees that doing an American accent involves adding sounds to
what he sees as the "neutral" British accent. But, unlike Seyd, he sees the
British-to-American transformation as the easier one. "I think it's easier to
add than to take away," Fenton said.
But David Alan Stern, a dialect coach and the author of a series of
manuals and audiotapes called _Acting with an Accent_ (IS THIS GUY A MEMBER OF
THE AMERICAN DIALECT SOCIETY? Gotta ram these points home--ed.), said
Fenton's explanation would be "exactly the same perspective that an American
actor would feel" if called upon to do a British accent.
Stern said it is more difficult for a British actor to do a convincing
American accent than vice versa, not because of the addition or subtraction of
sounds but because of differences in the muscular action that produces sounds.
Standard British speech, he added, focuses its tone and resonance in the
front part of the mouth, whereas American speech centres (American speech
centres?-ed.) most of its muscle work in the middle part of the tongue. It is
easier, Stern said, for Americans to learn to use the front-face muscles that
produce a British resonance than for British speakers to make the muscles lazy
to seem American.
Is Stern's explanation the last word on the linguistic side of the accent
gap? No such luck. Suchet, who has been an acting teacher as well as an
actor, agrees with Stern that British English is more muscular, but he draws
an opposite conclusion. "In order to speak American, the first thing you have
to do is not move your mouth very much," he said. "Now, that's an easier
thing to do than to say to someone, 'Move your mouth more.'"