Act in the language – part 3:
So… the „tech stuff“…Standard Southern British vs. General American
Working as an accent and dialogue coach mostly in/from Berlin…
here are my recommendations:
Now to phonetics, vowels, consonants, rhoticity and so on. Try saying these little phrases:
•I can’t put my men in danger
•The dancers met in the library
•Dancing the jig is always a voluntary task
•He surfed the internet, looking for British movies in the archive
•There’s another part in here
Did you say can’t with an Ä or with an AH… did you pronounce an R at the end of danger? And then did you say dAHncer or dÄHNcer, tÄHsk or tAHsk. And how did you say library, did you have 2 or 3 syllables? The same with voluntary, 2 or 3 syllables? Chances are if you mix these things up you made the potentially English-speaking listener travel across the Atlantic in a matter of a split second, which of course can be confusing… Where would they place you, British Isle or American East Coast? Jan Hayden Rowles (accent coach on GAME OF THRONES) said about this at a conference: “When that happens then what is the characters story, its background? I get confused!”
Even if you have a hint of a German accent we still can’t place what the character’s influence has been if you mix-match it too much. That is why it can be essential to be able to differentiate clearly
between those two accents without having to deny your nationality – as Diane Krüger can do impressively and Franka Potente sort of did not need to in BOURNE IDENTITY – her German accent was clear in its influence and background so it was easy to stay within “the American” vibe of the film.
So much is gained if you can learn to be specific rather than just vaguely trusting that gut feeling or following your instinct of what you think MIGHT be the right sound to make (that gut feeling can disappear in a hurry when they say “action”). So much can be improved by knowing your (articulatory) instrument and learning what to pay attention to.
A first step could be getting to know the giveaway elements of your own accent…. if you’re German:
•how do you „attack“ words that begin with a vowel, is there action in the throat (glottal stop or “Glottisschlag”)
•do you link as many words as possible in your sentences or do you clip them?
•does your speech really flow if you have a w and a v close together in a phrase (try saying “interview with a vampire” really fast)
•how about your th… yes, you can probably do it, still it is not in the German sound scape, not in our muscular articulatory memory. If you did not grow up with thick thistle stick (or Miss Heather Fortescue of Middle-Friddlethorpe– remember?) it will not fly as easy as you may expect it to (it didn’t with Evelyn Hamann), it will not be „automatic“ unless you practice it – chances are your muscles never consciously created that sound!
•how do you say bet… how did you mean bat?… and does your cattle sound as if you’re talking about a kettle?
•do you voice soft consonants at the ends of words or are they unvoiced at the ents (suddenly possibly talking about “ants”)?
Find out what it is you need to practice and play with it.
ï pick your favourite English movie, put on the DVD and imitate what you hear. For so called Standard American listen to Kevin Spacey, Susan Sarandon – for Standard British go for Emma Thompson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, (or maybe the Harry Potter movies for a more contemporary sound)… Also interesting are the movies that contrast the accents – Andie MacDowell opposite Hugh Grant in 4 WEDDINGS, Julia Roberts opposite… erm… Hugh Grant in NOTTING HILL, Kate Winslet opposite Leo Di Caprio in that movie about the ship, you know the one – and explore HOW you might perceive a difference between the two.
Find your KEY phrases…
•for British maybe try something like: mind the gap (if you know what the voice in the London tube sounds like), absolutely fabulous, how very ghastly indeed (very Downton…)
•for American maybe something like: that is totally awesome,
so weird (lingering on that American r). One actor I worked with liked „mind the closing doors“ which he’d heard every day during his stay in New York…
Find your own phrases maybe out of those movies or something you picked up while in the States or the UK and get a sense of: this makes me feel awfully British…. this makes me feel, like, really American, man…
Make the language your own – move it, create a memory, get specific.
Speak your KEY WORD, find out what you lean toward – US or UK – find out at this point what you may be UNSURE of: do you truly own the word/phrase, are there ANY question marks (should I speak the r, should I say Ah or Äh)
Nancy Bishop says in her book FROM THE CASTING COUCH: “Keep your nationality but perfect (incidentally, where did you put the stress on the word “perfect” in your mind just then?)… perfect your English in different dialects to open to as many markets as possible”. So even if as a German actor you might not end up doing perfect Glaswegian it could be worth knowing the features of your own accent and maybe from there you might want to experiment with some “foreign” accents that are closer to your own background (Spanish? French?). In any case this means: get well acquainted with your articulators, it might (literally) pay off in the long run… and do it while you have the time because one thing seems to be more or less the rule: on an actual project more often than not there just won’t be enough prep!
It’s about working toward a neutral sound scape you can create confidently – unless there is a specific task, which could be: what is the background of the character
what did the casting director say
what does the director want
what clues are in the script…. If your character has a line that says “I’ve never been to America… maybe your American accent is not entirely the one to use….