The Key to Doing a Killer Accent
Sometimes, when I’m just bone-tired and need a break, I like to sack out with my cat, Moose, and watch The Walking Dead on Netflix. Okay, it’s gross, fair enough, but it’s got zombies, heroism, the breakdown of society, and a lot of “normal” people who find themselves in a pretty bizarre situation. It can be exactly what I need when I’ve had a tough day.
Andrew Lincoln plays Rick Grimes, a sheriff from Georgia who finds himself leading his people as they battle to save the world from zombies and from other people. Lincoln is actually British, and he does, in my view, a pretty good Southern accent. Actors being only human, there may exist blooper footage in which he accidentally drops his drawl right at a key moment and says, “Bugger!”, but if he ever has, that remains a secret.
It brings up a good question, though, one that I’m often asked by new actors: what is the best way to learn a new accent?
My first suggestion is that you get over any inhibitions or fears you may have about sounding weird. The fact is that unless you have a true genius for accents, you’re going to go through a time when you don’t sound anything like the native you’re trying to imitate. I remember that when I attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in LA, one of my favorite classes was one where I learned the Irish accent. I was really jazzed up for this and was ready to get my idioms and, yes, a few insults, right. The guy who was our professor had spent a lot of time in Ireland and really had the accent down. He did a great job of teaching us about the placement of the tongue for certain sounds, how to move the mouth, etc. When it came time for us to practice with each other on a little dialogue, I enthusiastically opened my mouth and let it rip just as the professor stopped to listen. No, he didn’t laugh at me, thankfully, but the muscles in his face twitched. I wasn’t quite there yet, and really, neither was anyone else. Over time, though, my peers and I got better. We just had to not worry about how foolish we sounded.
It’s also important that you flood your ear with the accent. By the time I got to the AADA, I was eighteen and had the American accent deeply ingrained in me. To override it and switch over to the Irish accent, I had to listen to it as much as I possibly could. YouTube became my best friend, where I listened all semester to videos of Irish men and women talking. I focused on the rhythm, the cadence, the lilt, how certain words raised up here and dropped there, and the speed.
Then you’ve just got to practice. In my case, my mouth felt stiff and awkward at first, but I focused on loosening up the muscles in my face so that they could do things that didn’t happen in American English. I talked to anyone and everyone with my new brogue, and a few people who didn’t know me actually thought that I was Irish. Everyone else humored me and said, “Yeah, yeah, Ben, good job,” and went back to whatever they were doing.
I’ve heard it said that reading a book out loud is a good way to practice, and I agree. Find a quiet corner in a park, maybe, and read a book or even poetry that has a lot of emotion. Keep your accent strong but try to bring out the feelings in what you’re reading. When you can do that naturally, you know you’ve really made the accent part of who you are.
In the end, learning an accent is exciting. It actually unlocks a different aspect of your personality and allows you to express yourself in a completely new way. Have fun with it, and never forget your sense of humor. You’re ultimately exploring a whole new culture, and that is just as thrilling as actually visiting it.