If you’ve seen any of the videos or interviews with Austin Butler at the recent Golden Globes you may have noticed he still sounds a bit like Elvis. In fact, many people have noted that despite being from California, he still sounds like he’s from the Deep South.
For actors, learning a new accent is incredibly demanding. Accent assimilation is a rigorous process that often requires listening deeply to archive material, documentaries, movies and interviews and observing linguistic details.
Austin Butler in his role as Elvis shows how an actor must be acutely responsive to the specifics of an accent, role, script style and demands of the film.
The actor works with a dialect coach, starting months or years before filming. The coach provides source recordings (a real person, for example, Elvis) and an accent breakdown. The actor will listen to the sound samples at every opportunity for total immersion.
Significant practice and repetition are needed to integrate a new accent. Coaching includes layering all the elements to give an accent a solid foundation, slowly building from words to sentences, with the dialect coach providing continuous feedback until the actor is speaking in accent easily and consistently.
A little less conversation a little more action
In cases where an actor is portraying an iconic figure, such as Elvis, there is huge responsibility to be convincing in the role. This can lead to actors staying in-accent for many months or years.
Examples of performers in this situation include Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, Meryl Streep as Julia Child, and Ben Kingsley as Gandhi.
British actor Idris Elba told the Guardian it took moving to New York and three years of practising to get his American accent believable for his role in The Wire.
Australian actor Nicole Kidman when rehearsing for Nine Perfect Strangers would stay in accent all day, including at home with her family. Over five months the actors she was working with did not hear her Australian accent until the day filming ended.
US actor Forest Whitaker, when faced with the challenge of Idi Amin’s accent in The Last King of Scotland, admitted he practised even when he wasn’t on set in an effort to stay immersed in the character.
There was one time into rehearsals that I dropped it because I had to go down and meet all the dignitaries, and it took me days to get it back. I was so frightened because I was there a month before and I was like, ‘this is not going to happen again, I am not going to lose this character’.
What is role spill?
Actors who live the part of a role, integrating accent, body, imagination and feelings may, post production, experience role spill. This is known in the acting community as boundary blurring: when the actor is finding it difficult to separate themselves from the character they’re playing and blurring the lines between professional and private roles.
Your voice is a direct expression of who you are and your experiences. The fusing of personal identity with characters is crucial to the craft of an actor. However, some actors can lose their ‘idiolect’ (their individual way of speaking) and can retain features of accents they may have used for their character.
An actor that completely loses himself in a role is Gary Oldman. Originally from South London, but having spent many years living in America, he has had to relearn his English accent for a film character in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Margot Robbie told Grazia magazine that during filming I, Tonya, she ‘genuinely thought’ a conversation she was having with fellow actor Sebastian Stan who played Tonya’s abusive husband, was real. The feelings and emotions can become so intensive they felt like the actor’s own.
The term de-roling refers to a technique which is thought to have originated within dramatherapy and psychodrama to assist the actor in ‘disrobing’ or letting go of certain physical character traits that are not their own once they finish performing.
It’s a process that can help actors shed intense emotions or characters, and it’s crucial to the health of an artist. This can be done by shaking out the body and doing physical activities such as jumping and running on the spot to shake off the character. In addition to this, it can include taking deep breaths and vocal exercises including humming to release vocal fold tension and let go of negative emotions. In theatre, the ensemble or cast can agree to de-role together before leaving the theatre.
It can be difficult to de-role for an actor who has invested significant commitment to a successful transformation of accent, body and character. It can take months for an actor to feel they have let the character go, especially if they felt a strong synergy and connection with the character.
Speaking about her role as Mare Sheehan in the crime series Mare of Easttown, Kate Winslet explained ‘it was the hardest thing to let go of’ and ‘she got under my skin…’
Once an actor moves on to a new project or spends time with close friends and family they may revert back to how they sounded before – or maybe not. Varying your speech sounds is not likely to affect an actor’s work opportunities in the future – arguably the more fluid you sound the better.