Having come from an acting background himself, dialect coach Erik Singer understands the integral role accent and speech play in the credibility of an onscreen character.
Singer specializes in working with actors to help them achieve the most convincing and authentic delivery for an accent or language that isn’t native to them. He’s recently made a bit of a name for himself by doing two videos with Wired—one on movie accents in which he tears apart Nicolas Cage’s Southern accent in Con Air, and another that breaks down fictional languages like Star Trek‘s Klingon and Harry Potter‘s Parseltongue. Together, the videos have racked up more than 4.6 million views and given Singer a platform to advocate for the importance of attention to dialect and pronunciation, which he considers to be undervalued by directors and producers alike.
We picked his brain on accent’s relationship with a character’s identity, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s O. J. Simpson performance, and why it’s crucial to start working with a dialect coach as early as possible in a production. Here are some lessons based on our conversation.
1. Accents aren’t just about sounds—they’re physical too.
Ko Ricker, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What are some of the various teaching strategies you use in training actors to learn new accents or the correct pronunciations for languages they don’t speak?
Erik Singer (ES): There are as many different approaches to acting as there are actors. I think that it’s fundamentally important for dialect coaches to have a really deep understanding of actors, of acting, as well as being flexible enough and perceptive enough to understand how to support each individual actor’s acting process.
In terms of the accent itself, a lot of people have pretty good ears and really just need to hear sounds a few times over and keep getting notes and then absorb it that way. But most people, even if they have pretty good ears, benefit from at least some description of the actual physicality of what’s happening. The international phonetic alphabet provides a one-to-one description of the physical actions [for each sound]. I think we forget about this, but speech is a physical action. The sounds are just a byproduct of what we’re doing physically, which can be really precisely described, and with a little bit of work on being aware of what’s going on inside our mouths, it can be felt. That tends to be more reliable than just working by ear, especially if you are encountering blocks or struggles. It’s giving them another pathway, another thread to strengthen that connection.
Visual learners really can benefit a lot from watching native speakers of the target accent. You can see what some of those physical actions are, and we also have these abilities as human beings to feel a thing that we’re watching. When we watch another human being throw a baseball or shoot a basketball, you can kind of feel it in your own body. The same thing with speech—if you watch somebody speaking, you can kind of listen with your mouth, listen with your vocal tract, you can start to feel those shapes and the way they move from one place to another.
2. Hire a dialect coach as early in the process as possible.
MM: Is there a common teaching challenge that you find yourself dealing with over and over again?
ES: People have to put in the work, which I think is surprising to some. People who haven’t done it before don’t realize just how much work goes into this if it’s going to be at the level it needs to be. It takes time and consistent work. I think the industry as a whole actually doesn’t do a great job of recognizing this. A lot of times, coaches are brought in fairly late in the process—after it begins, or even in post-production, in ADR. We’ve all had to do that quite a lot. It really needs to come in early; it is such a crucial component of the whole. My friend and colleague Pamela Vanderway, the brilliant dialect coach, says, “Accent is a layer of storytelling,” and I think that’s so pithy and absolutely dead-on. We’ve all had the experience of a not-so-great accent performance really taking us out of being engaged in the story. On the flip side, really solid accent work that’s deeply taken in, consistent and authentic—it helps tell the story, it’s one of the first things we listen to and make judgments about when we meet another human being.
Because accent is so crucial to how people perceive a character, I think coaches should be brought on and hired when [production] designers are, and ideally, would participate in the casting process so that they can provide MP3s and descriptions of a target accent. That way, actors can be prepared and go into an audition with something that’s in line, but also coaches can help with casting and figure out what the native accent ability of a given actor or what their affinity for the target accent might be.
3. Skype coaching is a great low-budget option.
MM: Are there cost-effective options for productions that need a dialect coach?
ES: For pre-production coaching, these days, the vast majority is done by Skype, so it’s really cheap and it’s convenient for everybody, so there’s really no reason not to do that. It’s always best to have a coach on the set as well, even if the actor’s relatively stable. Obviously that’s more expensive so when there’s a budget, pre-production probably is the best time to get that going. But, ideally, get a coach on set as well, and then you don’t need to do the ADR, because that gets pretty expensive.
4. Don’t let actors run lines without the accent.
MM: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see actors themselves making when preparing for a role?
ES: People make the mistake of thinking that an accent is a thing that you can kind of layer on top. There is something that a lot of experienced actors I’ve worked with don’t tend to do, but a lot of less experienced actors do—and that’s learn lines or memorize lines without the accent first. You often see this in theater: They’ll start before rehearsals or even at the beginning of rehearsals, learning the lines and getting their character, their intentions, and things in place. Then they think they can add the accent later. But because accent is such a fundamental aspect of who we are, that doesn’t yield good results.
Accents are not just a technical thing—there are certainly technical aspects to exactly what the articulators are doing to form various sounds—but if it’s just that, that won’t work. It has to be so deeply taken in that it’s a fundamental part of the identity of the individual character and how they go about communicating and getting what they want. Our voices and our accents have a lot to do with who we are, who we feel ourselves to be, who we want other people to see us as, what group we feel like we belong to, so that’s part of the work as well.
5. Sometimes perfecting an accent isn’t necessary to getting a character “right.”
MM: In your video on movie accents, you praised Philip Seymour Hoffman’s dead-on portrayal of Truman Capote in Capote. Do you think nailing an accent is key to playing a specific figure?
ES: If you’re doing a very well-known person, you’ve got a standard there that you’re really going to have to meet, because people are going to be very quick to say, “Well, that didn’t sound like that person.” It can be really impressive when you pull it off, but there are a couple of approaches to doing that. I think The People v. O. J. Simpson was really interesting—broadly speaking, the actors were taking three different approaches to the idiolects [the speech characteristics of a particular individual]: There’s the sort of uncanny dead-on accuracy, there’s the taking one or two features from the actual speaker and just bumping them up to achieve some kind of storytelling effect, and then there’s deciding, “No, I’m not doing that at all. I’m doing something else with this.” Cuba Gooding Jr. playing O. J., as far as I can tell, I don’t think was really trying to do O. J. He was trying to evoke O. J. in his speech—and that’s a legitimate choice. You’re still playing that character as written, trying to get at some truth about the real person, but you can do that with everything else—character work, the intention. I thought in the case of this particular project all those choices ended up serving the overall story.
6. Having a dialect coach on set is more important than having a native speaker.
MM: Why is it better to have a dialect coach on set versus a native speaker of the target language or dialect?
ES: You have to have a dialect coach. Native speakers are experts in speaking with their native accent or language, but they have absolutely no training or expertise whatsoever in communicating that. It’s almost the worst choice. A native speaker always needs to be the source—when I work with teaching actors to sound like they speak languages that they don’t speak, I always have a native speaker informant for pronunciation, or sometimes even for translation, to help rewrite something if necessary. But dialect coaches have a deep expertise in phonetics, articulatory phonetics. What are the actual, physical actions? How are they done? Where are they done? What are the exact subtleties? Finally, a native speaker isn’t necessarily going to have the understanding of acting or storytelling, or how actors work, or how to support them, let alone how to stay out of the way on set and not interfere with the process in ways that slow it down or cost money.
7. Creating a fictional language is not for the faint of heart.
MM: Have you ever coached for a constructed language, or “conlang,” like Klingon or Elvish?
ES: No, I haven’t! I would love to. I’ve played around with making conlangs myself, and there’s so much that goes into a full conlang. You’ve got to figure out what the grammar is, how verbs inflect, are there articles, all those things. What’s the word order? All of this is usually beyond the scope of a dialect coach, but really fun to do. I have another friend and colleague, Jan Haydn Rowles, a brilliant dialect coach, who does Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones. I am so jealous of her. I think she does a fantastic job but of course those languages were created by a linguist who does a lot of conlangs and so she has to work closely with him. So, I haven’t yet, but hopefully one day.
8. There’s creativity in working with historical accents, too.
MM: Are there any favorite projects that you’ve worked on in the past?
ES: One of my favorite projects was a pilot that never saw the light of day that I think really deserved to. It was a Jenji Kohan-Gus Van Sant pilot for HBO, set just before the Salem witch trials. It was called The Devil You Know and it was so good. It was beautifully shot by the cinematographer Darius Khondji. The interiors looked like Dutch still lifes come to life. Beautifully acted, and a great script. Working with Gus Van Sant and Jenji Kohan was amazing.
I actually worked with Jan Haydn Rowles on this because she had been working with Eddie Izzard, who was playing one of the main characters. They’d started off coming up with the outline of something that wouldn’t exactly feel recognizable as any contemporary accent, and would feel slightly period without being alienating—so just a little bit of weirdness. Then I took over coaching and prepping all the other actors besides Eddie, and it ended up being a cast of 40-plus actors that I was working with. Jan and I sort of continued to tweak and refine the accent and add little weirdnesses here and there, which we were taking from real places. The large majority of the puritans in Salem and Massachusetts came from East Anglia, from the easternmost six counties of England. So we borrowed a couple of interesting vowel sounds from there, and put it together with little bits of American, little bits of English. Half the cast was American, half the cast was English, so we wanted them to have a consistent sound, of course, but didn’t want it to be either American or English. It was so much fun and we came up with a couple different social class-based versions of the accent. In addition, I got to work with a Native American language, an Algonquian language called Passamaquoddy. We had a skilled speaker of the language, [John Bear Mitchell], and he did the translations and I worked very closely with him. He was on set all the time, but I was teaching it to the actors and checking back in with John Bear, and back with the actors. It was such an interesting language, totally unlike any kind of familiar Indo-European language, so it was really fun to encounter that and to work with that. MM
Photograph of Erik Singer by Ricardo Birnbaum.