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British actors colonise American TV
December 28, 2012 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Front Row (BBC Radio 4), 28/12/12 – 30mins. British stars of big American series like Homeland & House discuss why US TV and movies are so keen to employ UK actors right now. Answer seems to boil down to (a) proper theatre training (b) greater willingness to play unsympathetic characters and (c) botox-free faces still able to move in reaction shots. Damian Lewis, Hugh Laurie, Thandie Newton, Adrian Lester, Clive Owen, Ashley Jensen and Stephen Frears all take part. It’s an interesting discussion, though perhaps a little smug in its assumption of British superiority. I’d be interested to hear what American listeners make of it.
posted by Paul Slade (80 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I can't seem to listen to it. It says, "This episode will be available soon."
posted by peripathetic at 12:35 PM on December 28, 2012


I'm getting the available soon message too.
posted by shelleycat at 12:39 PM on December 28, 2012


Works just fine in my little North American corner of the Commonwealth. I look forward to listening to it.
posted by figurant at 12:41 PM on December 28, 2012


Working fine in Los Angeles
posted by Bwithh at 12:43 PM on December 28, 2012


Always funny when you see folks off of Eastenders as "Terrorists".
posted by Artw at 12:54 PM on December 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


(a) proper theatre training

I wonder how long that'll be the case when great old theatres like my local (Bristol Old Vic) are struggling to maintain a rep company - heartbreaking.
posted by gallus at 12:57 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've been a huge fan of Clive Warren and Rebecca De Mornay ever since having seen them in Pilkington's seminal film.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 12:59 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


No. Fuck off Mark Fucking Lawson Fuck.
posted by Grangousier at 1:07 PM on December 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Works here, very interesting.
posted by OwlBoy at 1:11 PM on December 28, 2012


No Jason Statham? He's probably responsible for more worldwide box office dollars than most of this lot put together.
posted by jontyjago at 1:11 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is it generally easier for British actors to affect an American English "accent", than it is for American actors to affect a convincing, non-stereotype-cockney accent? Because, well, most of the Americans I've seen try really fail badly.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:11 PM on December 28, 2012


Won't play on an iPad.
posted by ericb at 1:15 PM on December 28, 2012


He's probably responsible for more worldwide box office dollars than most of this lot put together.

Objection! Relevance?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:16 PM on December 28, 2012


Objection! Relevance?

Haha, just messing with ya! I've spend a lot of time on South American buses and have seen a LOT of Jason Statham films. On a bus, there's nothing better than Transporter 3. Except possibly Fast & Furious 5. Now there's a bus film.
posted by jontyjago at 1:18 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


What, no Crank?
posted by Artw at 1:21 PM on December 28, 2012


Because, well, most of the Americans I've seen try really fail badly.

I believe they all studied with the same voice coach that trained Dick Van Dyke for his work on Mary Poppins.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:22 PM on December 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think Americans just don't pay too much attention to accents and anything passible as a general American TV accent will go by without notice. Whereas the British seem to be hypersensitive (oh look, Mark Lawson again) to the subtleties of UK regional accents, and anything less than flawless mimicry will sound awful.

I'm pretty sure that when they took down all the road signs to confuse the Germans in the event of Operation Sea Lion going ahead, the plan was for defending troops to navigate entirely by accent.
posted by figurant at 1:26 PM on December 28, 2012 [8 favorites]


As for Brits doing US tv...Watch Jamie Bamber in Battlestar Gallactica and then Law and Order/UK. The difference is so extreme as to be hard to believe it's the same guy. Or even the same planet. Pretty amazing.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:27 PM on December 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


figurant, some of that accentual sensitivity may have remained in New England, at least. Everyone I know from here has at least one movie they can't watch because the attempted Boston accents are so bad. I'll bet it's mostly Californians and people from Omaha who don't flinch when their local accents are done poorly, because theirs are taken as standards.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:33 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Clive Owen's a nice bit of rough. He didn't have to do much in Croupier and Children of Men but look sad or distant. I suspect he's popular here (to the extent that he's popular) less for his "Britishness" or British acting skills and more for his looks and general Bond-like charisma. No complaints from me, though.

I wonder if post-empire America is starting to see a slight shift in its media, something similar to what happened in the UK, where television shows and movies started to be a bit more subtle and well-written, which in turn requires more subtle acting from its participants. A lot of UK actors can come in with that skill set, ready to go.

Also, UK actors are better at faking American accents, than vice versa, which opens up more acting jobs. I can't think of many demonstrations of American actors who can manage a convincing, non-Cockney riff, other than maybe Kevin Kline's RP in A Fish Called Wanda.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:34 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The truth is a bit more complex that this (fascinating! Thanks!) show makes clear. Every year, in my capacity as Artistic Director of a small, classical theatre company in NYC, I work with gifted trained American actors who are losing parts to Brits. They are understandably a bit disgruntled.

The thing is, they are also losing parts to Americans. They are seeing untrained stars get parts they'd play better. Which is why they work with me, a director who can't pay them a living wage.

My wife has an MFA in acting. She's been acting steadily since she was 13, which she played Ophelia (in a rare bit of age-appropriate casting). In recent years, she's played leads in many Shakespeare plays, as well as in Chekhov, ancient Greek drama, Ibsen, and a bunch of modern plays, and she always gets rave reviews -- in little NYC papers and obscure websites. Her competition is Ashley Jenson (who resembles her a bit) and Glen Close.

What Hollywood wants is a proven entity. I am not blaming them for that. It's good business. I'm not blaming anyone. I'm just explaining.

There are American actors I work with could play Damian Lewis's part on "Homeland" (though Lewis does a great job), but HBO won't cast them because they are unknowns. Lewis wasn't known in America, but he had a body of work in England, and it was available for American producers to watch.

Added to this, casting is a who-you-know business. This is true on every level, even mine. I work with the same people over and over (because I know they're reliable), and when I can't cast from that pool, I start asking them for recommendations. No one is Hollywood is going to recommend any of my out-of-work, talented, classically-trained actors. The last think I or anyone wants to do is hold an open audition!

So there are actors who are just as good as -- or maybe better than -- mine who aren't getting cast in my shows because I don't know they exist and make no effort to know about.

Also, the folks I work with would happily play villains. The people who are leery of doing that are movie stars. Tom Cruise doesn't want to play the bad guy, and from a business point-of-view, that may be a wise decision (though from an artistic one, it stuns me).

So, yes, when they need a classically-trained actor to play a terrorist, they are going to look at Brits, because (a) they want someone willing to do it, (b) they want someone who can do it, and (c) they want someone who is a known entity. (And (d) they want someone who won't demand a Tom-Cruise-esque paycheck. I'd like to see how much Claire Danes and Damian Lewis make, respectively.)

The problem, for competing American actors, is that it's very hard to become a known entity.
posted by grumblebee at 1:35 PM on December 28, 2012 [28 favorites]


It's interesting that they discussed a greater variety of roles being available for black actors in the US; I had assumed it was the reverse, what with Hustle, Luther, and the Shadow Line all having black lead actors, and I can't think of a comparable show in the US that's similarly cast. (Conversely, we seem to cast more Hispanic actors in general than the Brits, but I would guess some of that is demographics.)
posted by tautological at 1:37 PM on December 28, 2012


Renee Zellweger and Gwyneth Paltrow both managed decent English accents.

Don Cheadle.. Not so much.

The funny thing about Homeland is that it has three English actors in leading roles. I'm sometimes surprised they don't break the fourth wall and offer me a cuppa.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:38 PM on December 28, 2012


It's weird that Australian actor Chris Hemsworth does a flawless American accent but his British (if that is what his Thor accent is meant to be) is vague and forced. Particularly considering that half the people I know in Australia (mostly academic types) have an accent that's way closer to British RP than the stereotyped Strine.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:38 PM on December 28, 2012


Damian Lewis didn't just have British acting roles under his belt - he had the lead in the pretty popular (and rerun frequently) series Band of Brothers, and two seasons of Life, which was a really fun American tv show sadly killed off by the writer's strike. His character in Life has a few interesting parallels to his character in Homeland, although judging by what I've seen of Homeland (only the first season), he may have gotten to play more of an emotional range in Life. (This may be a tiny bit exaggerated. But I really loved that show.)
posted by PussKillian at 1:45 PM on December 28, 2012 [11 favorites]


It's not uncommon for Americans to mistake my (pretty neutral, both in region and class) British accent for Australian, which I just don't get.
posted by Devonian at 1:46 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I get Australian a lot, one time Irish, which I found hilarious.

Isn't most of the cast of Fringe Australian or Canadian?
posted by Artw at 1:50 PM on December 28, 2012


(b) greater willingness to play unsympathetic characters and (c) botox-free faces still able to move in reaction shots.

This suggestion that British performers are prepared to be more natural and are less fearful of their image and place in the star pecking order rings a strong bell. Just compare the original Band Aid/"Do They Know It's Christmas" with the American response USA for Africa/"We Are The World". Just night and day.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:52 PM on December 28, 2012


I was hugely amused recently by the comments to a video of Stephen Graham talking about playing Al Capone on Boardwalk Empire being all 'OMG! He's English!'

I never know if it's just me having had years of him in Blackadder / Fry and Laurie with his normal accent but Hugh Laurie in House always sounded terrible.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:59 PM on December 28, 2012


I've not been a House watcher, but whenever I catch it his accent seems HORRIBLE.

You know what's fun? Spotting Idris Elba occasionally slip up in The Wire. Not often, but it's there.
posted by Artw at 2:06 PM on December 28, 2012


London and NYC are the two dominant centres for theatre acting in the English-speaking world but NYC's space for independent/non-commercially-driven creativity in its theatre scene has generally been contracting in relative terms since the 1990s, whereas London's has expanded (this expansion now being undermined by the UK's austerity though) at the same time that demand for high quality theatre-experienced acting in the US soared due to the rise of sophisticated popular cable drama (and cable-like drama on networks) in the US since the 1990s. British actors have long been a key import into Hollywood, but these trends can help explain the prominence of the recent wave.
posted by Bwithh at 2:11 PM on December 28, 2012


London and NYC are the two dominant centres for theatre acting in the English-speaking world but NYC's space for independent/non-commercially-driven creativity in its theatre scene has generally been contracting in relative terms since the 1990s, whereas London's has expanded (this expansion now being undermined by the UK's austerity though) at the same time that demand for high quality theatre-experienced acting in the US soared due to the rise of sophisticated popular cable drama (and cable-like drama on networks) in the US since the 1990s. British actors have long been a key import into Hollywood, but these trends can help explain the prominence of the recent wave.

Not only that, but London is not just the UK's dominant centre for theatrical acting, it's also where most British television is filmed and where the (relatively small) British film industry is based. That means that it is much easier for London based theatrical actors to pick up British television work (even if it's only the occasional small part) and build up the kind of body of work that they can shop around to land a breakthrough part in either British or American television. How many NYC based theatrical actors are able to also do television work (apart from Law & Order)?
posted by atrazine at 2:33 PM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Isn't most of the cast of Fringe Australian or Canadian?

I think a lot of the casts of Vancouver-filmed series are local. For example, when I was having my Battlestar Galactica binge a couple of months ago, I noticed that basically it was Adama and Roslin who were American - the rest were Canadian with a smattering of English and antipodean.
posted by Grangousier at 2:42 PM on December 28, 2012


...it's also where most British television is filmed...
A lot of English television drama isn't filmed in London. That said, England is so small that actors can easily travel anywhere.
posted by Jehan at 2:50 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's a Law and Order/UK?!? Oh man. This could get mucky.
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 2:56 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


PussKillian, so you're the other person who liked "Life." The LAPD detective show killed off by the writer's strike AND perhaps the fact that the series title seemed tailor-made to sink without a trace in Google searches...

Damien Lewis is one of the few actors whose presence means I'll at least give something a try. And his american accent is so convincing that I had no idea he was a Brit until I heard him in interviews.

A really dated reference, but House star Hugh Laurie was in those great "Jeeves and Wooster" programs in the early '90s. Great except that the actors who did the American characters (Bertie Wooster spent a lot of time in NY) all sounded like cornballs. In fairness, they may have been meant to be somewhat of a caricature...

The relatively small number of British actors leads to this frequently if you like to watch BBC and the like.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:57 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I didn't know Hugh Laurie had any acting training. He went to Eton and Cambridge. The usual thing is to go to drama school after that if you want to be an actor, but he seemed to skip that part.
posted by tel3path at 2:59 PM on December 28, 2012


There's a Law and Order/UK?!? Oh man. This could get mucky.

Someone doesn't get BBC-America. Lenny doesn't translate very well, though they actually try.

so you're the other person who liked "Life."
Hey...I loved Life, too! Pissed me off when it disappeared.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:59 PM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I didn't know Hugh Laurie had any acting training. He went to Eton and Cambridge. The usual thing is to go to drama school after that if you want to be an actor, but he seemed to skip that part.
posted by tel3path at 2:59 PM on December 28 [+] [!]


Cambridge University is full of luvvies (i.e. thespians or would-be thespians) and comedians (i.e. those who want to be professional comedians, not just class clowns). It's long been seen as a route into British theatre and TV comedy. Although there is no drama arts degree or equivalent at Cambridge, many of budding luvvies/comedians don't study too much on their formal degrees and instead spend most of their time as part of the small but influential and well-connected drama/comedy world in Cambridge.
posted by Bwithh at 3:03 PM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Damien Lewis is one of the few actors whose presence means I'll at least give something a try. And his american accent is so convincing that I had no idea he was a Brit until I heard him in interviews.
I seem to recall that his accent in Band of Brothers (and his acting as well) was excellent. Even though I knew he was English before I watched the series, it was still impossible to pick him out next to the actual US actors.
posted by Jehan at 3:08 PM on December 28, 2012


Wait - Damian Lewis is British ?!?!?
posted by desjardins at 3:08 PM on December 28, 2012


Wait - Damian Lewis is British ?!?!?
posted by desjardins at 3:08 PM on December 28 [+] [!]

yes, and like The Wire's Dominic West and also Hugh Laurie, Damian attended Eton (the poshest & swankiest of posh and traditional British private schools)
posted by Bwithh at 3:20 PM on December 28, 2012


yes, and like The Wire's Dominic West and also Hugh Laurie, Damian attended Eton (the poshest & swankiest of posh and traditional British private schools)

Eton has a notable drama department... and it's predicted that with funding for the arts currently being gutted in the UK and excised from the non-fee paying school syllabi they'll be a lot more of the poshos in the acting profession (and all the other arts) in the furture.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:29 PM on December 28, 2012


I've not been a House watcher, but whenever I catch it his accent seems HORRIBLE.

Not to me. My jaw dropped when I found out he was actually english and heard his native accent.
posted by empath at 3:30 PM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


The problem, for competing American actors, is that it's very hard to become a known entity.

Bullshit. A well timed sex tape or panty-less crotch shot (for the lady actors, natch) is quite simple and very quickly leads to becoming a known entity.
posted by spicynuts at 3:32 PM on December 28, 2012


I've not been a House watcher, but whenever I catch it his accent seems HORRIBLE.

Not to me. My jaw dropped when I found out he was actually english and heard his native accent.


Yeah, I find it hard to believe an American not knowing that Hugh Laurie is British would find his accent to be horrible. I can imagine knowing Laurie's work and finding his accent off, but I just subconsciously dismissed anything out of the ordinary in his American accent as a personal or actorly affectation. Nobody's speech is completely standard, of course; I meet people everyday in my suburban mid-Atlantic area who speak in a less American way than Dr. House.
posted by skewed at 4:07 PM on December 28, 2012


Counterpoint to Americans-can't-do-British-accents: Alexis Denisof and James Marsters. I'm sure their accents aren't perfect but I've heard multiple Brits be surprised that they're actually Americans.
posted by kmz at 4:16 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Really? I think of James Marsters as the quintisential annoying fake Brit.
posted by Artw at 4:53 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Also, UK actors are better at faking American accents, than vice versa..."

Not always, obviously. The dodgy accent of a CIA femme fatale in "Spooks" (aka "MI5") had me convinced she was a mole, especially after it was suggested that she believed the USA had had a "President Franklin".
posted by bcarter3 at 5:06 PM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sometimes I get it wrong too - from the first fee times I saw Mark Shephard I would have sworn he was an Annoying Fake Brit. I suspect a particular kind of role has a lot to do with it.
posted by Artw at 5:13 PM on December 28, 2012


I was so sure that Alexis Denisof was actually British that I found his American accent in Dollhouse just terrible. Joke's on me.
posted by not that girl at 5:13 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bwitth, I know that, but all the luvvies I knew were also pretty intense about going on to drama school. Those who didn't go (one of them couldn't bear to ask her parents to pay for it) gave up acting.

So yes, I fully understand that it's a route to an acting career, but it's a way of doing it without formal training. The idea that Laurie is getting picked over Americans because, as a Brit, he must have been properly trained... well, as far as I know, he wasn't.
posted by tel3path at 5:17 PM on December 28, 2012


I wonder if most viewers of Louisiana-based "True Blood" realize that Sookie, Jason, and Bill are all played by actors from the Commonwealth. Or that Eric and his maker Godric are, respectively, Swedish and Danish. The script occasionally contains meta jokes about this, as when one character asks another "Don't you recognize a Mississippi accent when you hear one?"
posted by bcarter3 at 5:19 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


British actors aren't necessarily better at American accents than their counterparts. There is a degree of accent training that happens in England that doesn't here, because British people are highly attuned to accents, but, that being said, the results tend to be "stage" versions of regional accents, like all the caricatured west country accents in "Cold Comfort Farm."

The difference is that many Americans cannot tell precise regional differences between accents, and America is so huge, and there are so many accents, that until we learn otherwise, if we hear something that sounds Americanish, we tend to assume it is some sort of American accent. But God help you if you are any actor attempting a specific regional American accent and your listeners are from that region -- especially the south, where everybody seems to presume nobody could possibly do their accent right, and so mock any attempt, even sometimes criticizing somebody's southern accent when that person is actually from the south and doing their own accent.

You'll note that Australian and (some) English actors tend to keep their American accents when being interviewed. This is no accent. It's been discovered that the moment you hear somebody do their own accent, any other accent they attempt will sound flawed, whereas it sounded perfectly natural beforehand. And so there are American accents that do extremely good, very specific English accents, but nobody from England will admit it, and there are English accents that do completely embarrassing American accents, and nobody notices because they never drop the accent.

By the way, here is Hugh Laurie talking about the multitude of problems he has with an American accent, admitting that there are words that he absolutely won't say, and stumbles over r's all the times. In the meanwhile, Terry Gross is so familiar with his American accent, and so accepting of it, that his English accent sounds weird to her.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:50 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fringe: Anna Torv and John Noble are Australian.Joshua Jackson, Jasika Nicole, Lance Reddick and Blair Brown are American.
posted by ltracey at 7:00 PM on December 28, 2012


So all the characters that can actually act from Fringe are from Australia or The Wire.
posted by Artw at 7:05 PM on December 28, 2012


By the way, here is Hugh Laurie talking about the multitude of problems he has with an American accent, admitting that there are words that he absolutely won't say, and stumbles over r's all the times. In the meanwhile, Terry Gross is so familiar with his American accent, and so accepting of it, that his English accent sounds weird to her.

She mentions something that I've noticed, when non-Americans do American accents, the pitch of their voice is often lower than when they speak with their native accent/language.
posted by mardybum at 7:16 PM on December 28, 2012


On to the other point, there is something to be said both for the work ethic and actorly toolkit, if you will, that comes out of a program like RADA. There are an awful lot of American actors whose education is limited to, say, a glorified communication degree or a certificate program, and they don't have much stage experience to mention, or any skill at textural criticism.

The truth is, for a lot of shows, that probably doesn't matter. The way American film and television is made is different from the way you make a play (and, from the sound of things, the way film and television is made in Great Britain). It's often done with minimal -- or no -- rehearsal. Dialogue changes are made so often that there is no point memorizing it until the day of the shoot, and because it is filmed in chunks, you really only need learn your specific chunk right before it is filmed. American actors are taught to be present and emotionally responsive. The modern character actor is somebody who looks like, say, a doctor and sounds like a doctor when he talks; if they are looking for quirky performances, casting agents tend to look at sketch comedy performers or stand-up comics. So American actors tend to develop a different toolkit that English actors, and frequently wind up with a more limited toolkit as a result -- the style of acting that is preferred on television dramas, which involves doing almost nothing at all, doesn't necessarily translate to other mediums, which is where English actors, whose training allows them to explore a wider range of performance styles and character roles, have an advantage.

Also, English actors have a distinct advantage when playing historical characters, even American ones, because many American actors cannot do the sort of mid-Atlantic accent and theatrically-styled performance we associate with the past, thanks to so many actors from the 30s and 40s coming from training that closer resembles what would be required for the stage.

I wish studios still offered courses like they did in the 30s, but that was a product of the contract system. If you weren't in a film, you were expected to be teaching yourself, and there was real incentive to learn sword-fighting and horse back riding and elocution and the like.

Oh, there's another advantage many British actors have over American actors -- proper vocal training. Especially when you want an actor who is going to seem commanding, you want somebody who has a powerful, expressive voice, and those sort of performances will fry the vocal chords of most American actors. I mean, I'm trained in theater from a four-year college, and I got no vocal training at all; the only actors I know in this country who have either minored in music or went to an acting conservatory.

We may not see English actors have this advantage for long, though. Ian McKellen was just lamenting the loss of English repertory theater, where he learned his craft, and has said he fears the result will be that there will be no more great British actors.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:46 PM on December 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


I wonder if there are a lot of people who have no idea that Andrew Lincoln (real last name Clutterbuck) in the role of Rick Grimes in the Walking Dead is English. When I was told that Egg from This Life was in an American show I decided to have a look see as I admired his work. I have no idea if his Southern accent is accurate.

It does seem to me that there is a significant cultural difference in the film/television industry in England and the States, though of course independent and cable shows in the U.S. in recent years have equaled some of the productions from England. I'm sure we usually see the best that England has to offer and there is a lot of nonsense as well. Doctor Who seems to be very network American television quality, like a sci-fi/horror Gilmore Girls so the English don't always do it well.
posted by juiceCake at 8:38 PM on December 28, 2012


Fringe: Anna Torv and John Noble are Australian

WHHHAAATT.
posted by desjardins at 8:44 PM on December 28, 2012


I wonder if there are a lot of people who have no idea that Andrew Lincoln (real last name Clutterbuck) in the role of Rick Grimes in the Walking Dead is English.

So is Maggie, although she was born in the US.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:54 PM on December 28, 2012


Fringe: Anna Torv and John Noble are Australian.

When I first started watching Fringe I straight away assumed Torv was not American, and I will admit I never took the time to look it up because I would not have thought she was Australian. Her accent is much better now but she tends to have weird inflections on some words.
I've noticed that Jude Law doesn't particularly care to keep a decent American accent going.
posted by P.o.B. at 10:43 PM on December 28, 2012


I wonder if there are a lot of people who have no idea that Andrew Lincoln (real last name Clutterbuck) in the role of Rick Grimes in the Walking Dead is English.

He's from Teachers. Also a dead ringer for my brother.
posted by Artw at 10:45 PM on December 28, 2012


Many Australian actors doing American accents sound like they're trying to talk around a mouth full of rocks to me (an American) but I wonder if I'm more attuned to it because I had a New Zealander roommate in law school so maybe my ear picks up remnants of a Down Under accent. Whenever I go, "Gah! His speech is so garbled!" and look up the actor, it's an Aussie.

OTOH, British actors speaking RP barely register as "foreign" or "English" because Americans hear such a lot of it, particularly if they like British TV or movies; it's the regional and/or lower class accents that more strongly mark foreignness. You get used to hearing the RP and start forgetting it marks the speaker as foreign or as having A Strange Accent because it's one you hear all the time.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:39 AM on December 29, 2012


Sorry, but Joshua Jackson is Canadian. He was born in Vancouver, though he lived in California as a kid.
posted by likorish at 2:34 AM on December 29, 2012


NZ and Oz accents sound completely different to us peripheral types way down here at the end of the world. Impossible for either of us to mistake one for the other.
posted by Wolof at 2:50 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a vague suspicion that it's also made easier for brits to do US accents than vice versa because of media production and export ratios - a person growing up in the UK will in the course of their life hear a lot more hours of American speech than someone growing up in America will hear British.
posted by anonymisc at 6:55 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's a scene in episode 1x06 of House where Hugh Laurie has to play an American doing a fake British accent. I always got a kick out of that scene. After reading this thread I no longer have any trust in my ability to judge accents, but it always sounded to me like he was doing an exaggerated caricature of an accent and not a real accent in order to make it seem like it really was an American struggling.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:10 AM on December 29, 2012


The dodgy accent of a CIA femme fatale in "Spooks" (aka "MI5") had me convinced she was a mole...

i was about to mention that very same example! i don't usually notice something like that, but within one sentence she could incorporate like three different american regional accents.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 8:40 AM on December 29, 2012


Another vote for Life as a sorely underrated show. It's on Netflix now if anyone wants to check it out. The Cambridge Footlights dramatic club has a host of famous alumni (including several Pythons) which may explain why a trip to RADA isn't always necessary.
posted by arcticseal at 9:21 AM on December 29, 2012


I saw David Harewood (Estes) from Homeland on the Christmas morning Gordon Ramsey thing in the UK last week and was astonished that he was English. ASTONISHED I tell you!
posted by merocet at 9:22 AM on December 29, 2012


"NZ and Oz accents sound completely different to us peripheral types way down here at the end of the world. Impossible for either of us to mistake one for the other."

Yes, after a couple years of living with my Kiwi roommate I am well aware. But there are similarities in vowel pronunciations and so on, and since other people don't complain about how terrible Australian actors doing American accents are, I wonder if it sticks out to my ears because I have more exposure than the average American to a similar accent. I'm not particularly alert to some of the British actors people have said they notice have poor American accents, but I do frequently notice Australian actors with poor American accents. I'm just hypothesizing about why it might be that I notice one but not the other.

I imagine New Zealand actors would jump out at me too if there were more of them in American television, but I can't think of too many New Zealand actors in American TV and movies off the top of my head ... Sam Neill, I guess, who always sounds like Sam Neill to me (also as I recall his family moved around a fair amount as he was growing up?); and Lucy Lawless, who does sound fairly rock-swallowy when she's doing a midwestern accent on "Parks & Rec." But I also knew it was Lucy Lawless so perhaps not a fair test.

Jesse Spencer (Australian) on Chicago Fire is my current #1 offender; I constantly want to get those marbles out of his mouth, he seriously sounds like he's choking on words. I get edgy when he delivers lines because I'm waiting for someone else in the scene to start pounding him on the back because I worry he is actually choking on something.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:19 AM on December 29, 2012


Anna Paquin from True Blood is a kiwi. So is Melanie Lynskey (Rose on Two and a Half Men). They're probably the most prominent on US TV, at least that I can think of right now, but Martin Henderson, Temuera Morrison, Cliff Curtis and Karl Urban have all worked in Hollywood.
posted by shelleycat at 11:27 AM on December 29, 2012


Martin Henderson has talked in interviews about having to keep up a US accent at all times in LA otherwise no one will take him seriously at auditions etc. This was a while back, probably before the current boom in UK talent moving over there, but it seemed back than that being a kiwi, and/or being recognised as foreign, wasn't really an assent.

The link worked for me today by the way, maybe the error message yesterday was a time zone thing? I enjoyed the show.
posted by shelleycat at 11:31 AM on December 29, 2012


Damien Lewis and Stephen Graham are one thing (because they are fantastic) but I'll never understand why a US show would cast Andrew Lincoln over native talent. When that happens you know something more than ability is coming into the equation.
posted by Summer at 11:36 AM on December 29, 2012


UK actors playing an American character have it easy: just drop the British accent and there you are.

US actors playing Brits have to add a British accent to their speech, which is much more difficult.
posted by Aquaman at 2:20 PM on December 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


I do so hope that's a joke.
posted by Grangousier at 2:43 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Shelleycat: you forgot Russel Crowe. He's a kiwi, and anyone who says otherwise is a LIAR.
posted by coriolisdave at 10:12 PM on December 29, 2012


Then there's Strike Back (Sky produced in the 1st season, Sky and Cinemax (HBO) co-produced for the following seasons), which features an Aussie (Sullivan Stapleton) playing an American and an American (Philip Winchester) playing a Brit.

When that happens you know something more than ability is coming into the equation.

Such as?
posted by juiceCake at 5:09 AM on December 30, 2012


Falcón, a British detective series, features a kiwi (Marton Csokas) playing a Spaniard who speaks with English with an English accent flecked with Spanish.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:54 AM on December 30, 2012


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