When Actors Can’t Do an American Accent….But They Try and Try

Poppy Montgomery

Poppy Montgomery

I have been watching a new program called Unforgettable.  It’s a cop show, but it is interesting, and it has decent storylines, so I keep watching.  Something, however, is making it more and more difficult to return; Poppy Montgomery’s American accent.  That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, she’s Australian, and her true accent permeates through lots of times.  Sometimes I think she’s got a Southern American accent and is trying to hide it, but then a distinctly Australian word will escape and I know (take my word on it, I work with a lot of Australians) that she’s not an American girl.  This phenomenon is not limited to Poppy and, in all fairness, she’s a pretty good actress on the series.  Her suppressed Australian accent, however, makes her slightly less believable.

I’ve titled this blog to target actors who can’t do American accents, but I’m really annoyed by actors who try to do ANY accent and fail (I call it the Kevin Costner Syndrome, because of his notoriously bad (mostly absent) British accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).  There have been some who do an American accent very well; Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Hugh Laurie in House and Yvonne Strahovsky in Chuck and Dexter.  For 2 British guys and an Aussie lady, you would think they were American to the bone!  But, for every Yvonne Strahovsky, there’s an Ed Westwick (Chuck on Gossip Girl) who so obviously should not be trying to convince people that he’s American.  His British drawl constantly popped out while he was trying to maintain the posh, upper East Side speech that he needed for the role.  Also, Steven Moyer and Ryan Kwanten of True Blood, both come from other countries (Steven from the UK and Ryan from Australia), but they have varying success with the Louisiana drawl they need to put on for the show.  Ryan is definitely the better of the two, but his Aussie twang radiates time and time again.  Sam Neill tried his American accent in Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park 3, only to make Dr. Grant sound like a masquerading Kiwi.  It’s not limited to the men either, Anna Torv (Olivia in Fringe) might as well be living in a different dimension because her Australian comes out more than her fake American.  And, I know  I’m not going to make any new friends with this, Hugh Jackman makes Wolverine sound Australian…which is a travesty to the genre and to the graphic novel (yet people love him).

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

Don’t get me wrong, Americans are just as bad when they try to do the accents of other English-speaking (or even non-English speaking) countries; Leonardo Di Caprio as a white Zimbabwean in Blood Diamond, Mel Gibson trying on his Scottish in Braveheart and Robin Williams as an old Scottish woman in Mrs. Doubtfire.  These Americans embarrassed themselves trying to make themselves sound like they were from somewhere else for their role.  But, there are some in this category that pull it off to high acclaim.  Meryl Streep sounded exactly like Julia Child (accent and all) in Julie and Julia, and you would believe Robert Downey Jr was Sherlock Holmes because his British accent is very good.  Also, the entire cast of This is Spinal Tap were American, but you would think they were all from the London suburbs (special props to Harry Shearer)!

The bottom line is this.  If you’re making a film, and considering hiring any actor who needs to put on an accent for a role, make sure they can do the accent.  Don’t try them out for 30 seconds and give them the part.  Make them live a day in that accent.  Follow them and see if people believe they are from where they say they are.  This will make the film or television program so much better and so much more believable.  Plus, it will make actors work harder on perfecting their accents.  It’s a win-win-win situation.  Now if we can only get Arnold Schwartzenegger to try it out…..

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2 Comments

  1. Your post is interesting, but really does it matter? Do you get pulled into the storyline or does it irk you and distract your from the story if the actor’s accent is bad? In real life, people who immigrate to different countries will retain some words and inflections from their old country and pick up new words. It is a mish mash but it is still who they are. I notice Europeans will speak English in accents determined by the accent of their English teacher. So weird hearing a native Norwegian speak english with a scottish accent or an Italian speak English with an Irish accent!! And Mel Gibson, although born in America, grew up in Australia. So I wonder if you notice any annoying accents in his earlier movies?

    • You’re actually right about Mel Gibson in his earlier movies. I did notice the slight taint of an Australian accent. I have to say that it DOES sometimes detract from the story if an actor does a poor accent, especially if the background of the role encompasses the accent as part of the story. Sometimes, it just annoys me, but other times it actually takes away from the story. I also have experienced people for whom English is not their first language speaking with the accent of their teacher. It’s very strange to hear some of my Chinese friends with a British accent!

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