Sure, we’ve seen Americans play British, and some have done it very well, thank you. But what of the British actors who had to abandon their natural clipped and precise verbiage (or nasal and muffled, depending on where they’re from) in order to carve a new career for themselves in the U.S. of A? Many have tried, many have failed, but some British thesps have a real ear for an American accent and appear to have turned this into box office gold, or to be more accurate, TV screen eye-glue.
Bring on the examples:
12 Years a Slave was blessed with a cast and crew that had grown up in the British Isles, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, and the director Steve McQueen. But for sustained immersion in the idioms, accent and behavior of an unfairly maligned class of people during the plantation years, Chiwetel takes the cake. And the BAFTA award for best actor.
Hugh, who had made a name for himself as the unparalleled provider of plummy upper-class twits in classic British comedies Blackadder and Jeeves & Wooster, suddenly displays a real gift for the American vernacular in House. And before you could say boo to a goose, he was the biggest star in American TV. He even has a safety net, in that any slips here and there have already been accounted for in Dr. House’s backstory: he’s the army brat who traveled a lot, he won’t have had time to develop an area-specific accent. In any case, as is often reported, Hugh’s accent was so convincing, even the show’s producers weren’t aware he’s British at first. Clearly not big Fry & Laurie fans.
It’s fitting that the lead role in a story of a missing American sweetheart—Amazing Amy, who may not be as perfect as she appears—should be played by an actress who isn’t even from around here. Rosamund’s portrayal of a woman with unexpectedly hidden resources is a master class in Anglo-American relations. She’s all warmth and welcome on the surface, the perfect wife and most dutiful daughter, but she’s blessed with a hidden core of what looks rather like frozen steel.
Idris Elba – note: clip audio NSFW
Without meaning to take anything away from Idris’s towering achievements in The Wire, he wasn’t the only Brit confusing a world audience as to his background in that show. You’ve got Stringer Bell, a ruthless Baltimore drug lord, squaring up to McNulty (played by Dominic West), an easily swayed cop with loyalty issues, and both the actors playing those roles are very much not from Baltimore. Given that the show was constructed as a narrative about an American city, where the locality was as much the star as the actors, you’ve got to take your hat off to both men for turning in convincing performances. It’s hard to conceive of the same level of accent hoodwinkery taking place if the same show, starring American actors, had been set in Manchester or Glasgow. Prove me wrong, actors!
Another graduate from that lofty school of clever British thespians who simply see no reason why they cannot be American, if the part calls for it. Their dedication to the art leaves an air of bullish confidence, as if their internal monologue runs, “Acting is only pretending after all, is it not? Well then, if I say I am American, and I do not make too much of a hash of things, what is there to stop me except my own insecurities? And as a British citizen, I do not have insecurities. Therefore there is no problem. If I act like I’m American, I’m American. So, ner!”
And while we’re stacking up British talents in all-American dramas, let’s take a moment to congratulate both David Harewood and Damian Lewis for disappearing so thoroughly into their respective roles on Homeland. Damian has the slightly easier job of it, being possessed of a whispery growl that modulates pretty straightforwardly from one accent to the other. There again, part of his job is to be just believable enough as a U.S. citizen, but not above suspicion as a potential traitor who has been brainwashed for months at a time by people who very much do NOT sound American. That’s certainly the excuse he’d be wise to use if anyone had a problem.
Meanwhile, Sonya had already left no one in any doubt as to her true accent, as she played the clipped and British Penny Widmore in Lost, one of her biggest hits to date. But then came FlashForward and Tell Me That You Love Me, and the chance to showcase her remarkable ear for accents, and suddenly this very upright and poised British girl from a well-to-do background transformed first into a surgeon in a science fiction dystopia and then into a housewife with sex issues. And this is on top of recurring cameos in Sleeper Cell, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and CSI: NY, among many others.
In some ways, Christian is the exception here. As anyone who has seen him play Batman can attest, he doesn’t really speak with an American accent so much as growl and burp his lines out, like a man with a sore throat and a bad case of acid reflux. However, given the opportunity to play a character who is not constantly displaying steely resolve amid escalating tension, and he makes a pretty decent fist of it.
Doctor Who fans know Karen to be a sweet, mild-mannered Scottish actress with few airs and graces and a healthy sense of her own preposterous place in the world. She’s been prepared to shave her own hair off for a part and has been self-aware enough to admit having found the experience both terrifying and exciting. So her transformation into the shallow, dim and extraordinarily vain Eliza Dooley in Selfie was impressive enough. The inches-thick valley girl accent, both acidic to the ear and as glutinous as jello, was quite the revelation.
Rick Grimes is a very complicated sort of hero, for a particularly nasty kind of new world. The old ways have fallen apart, there are vicious gangs ready to take advantage of social chaos, and packs of zombies roam the land. Andrew Lincoln’s triumph is to play both the unpleasant and heroic sides of Rick as part of a unified whole, a mixture of British steel and American grit, if you like. And naturally the voice is a key part of it.
Note: this is an updated version of an Anglophenia post from 2013.
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