In today’s competitive film and TV industry, actors need to sound authentic. Enter the dialect coach.
Unfortunately, when actors pull off a great accent, it often goes unnoticed — along with the dialect coach who made that accent happen.
Liz Himelstein began working as a Hollywood dialect coach in 1990. She was part of the theater department at Carnegie Mellon when she got a call from John Waters, who wanted her to teach Baltimore accents to the cast of his movie, "Cry-Baby." She hasn’t looked back since.
Last year alone Himelstein worked on 10 movies, schooling actors such as Ewan McGregor, Emma Stone, Margot Robbie and Sam Rockwell.
When John Horn spoke with Himelstein recently, they started by talking about her process for teaching the nuances of an accent.
On using source material to teach an authentic accent:
Primary source material is so important to an actor. So I would go and do the research. And I'd find a person who was from that area — whether it be audio that was already in the world, or I'd go and interview people. I worked with Andrew Garfield on "Hacksaw Ridge." He played the real person, Desmond Doss. Also, I found this wonderful man in the mountains in Virginia. And I taped him for several hours. We found the sound through him, actually, and a combination of Desmond Doss. After we've chosen a few people that the actor likes, I break down all of the sounds — every single vowel, every single diphthong, consonants, everything — so that we can drill the sounds. It's like being at the piano and doing your scales. And then, once they get it, we put it all back together. And then of course we want it to be effortless.
On researching the "Fargo" accent:
Joel and Ethan [Coen] wrote the film in the dialect. It was like we had a musical score.
John Horn: You mean like phonetically spelled out?
LH: Not phonetically, but if you said [in a Minnesotan accent], Oh, hi! How are ya?, it's pretty easy to get to that place. Well, at the beginning, it wasn't for everybody. What I wanted was for everybody to really commit to these accents, because it had so much to do with their characters. And so we went through every single sound and we drilled and, at one point, [William H.] Macy said to me, "Thank you so much, this has been fantastic. I'm just going to do a subtle version, and that's how I see it." And I said, "That's fine with me." We were all living together in a hotel and we all went down for lunch after rehearsal. We're in the elevator and a woman comes in and [says in a Minnesotan accent], Oh hi ! Oh it's so cold out! You know, it's so nice here! How are ya, oh? And she just started doing it. And everybody just listened and when we walked out, [Macy] said, "I'm in." And he got it so brilliantly.
On teaching Australian actress, Margot Robbie, to portray Tonya Harding:
Hours and hours and hours of listening and watching Miss Tonya Harding. We listened and listened and listened and watched the way her mouth moved, watched the way her jaw moved. It was also a visual exploration into Tonya. And, of course breaking down all of the sounds. The sounds that are very different from the way Margot speaks. And then, for Margot, finding a rhythm that also brought herself into it. And we were so lucky because we also had so many interviews of Tonya. And actually I just heard that Tonya's very happy with the way Margot sounds. So that made us feel good.
On whether there are certain parts of the world where American accents are exceptionally hard to pull off:
So, English speaking actors, it's much easier for them to go into accents. If you're from other countries where you don't speak English, there are a lot of changes that have to be worked on. And it's very difficult to get there. I want to question where we are in the future and [ask], Why can't people be from other places? I might be out of many jobs by saying it, but I do believe that's where we need to head in the future — that we can be an international community telling the story.