For actors moving to Hollywood from other countries and regional areas of America, it is vital to perfect a flawless standard American accent. There are a variety of American accents: the Northern states (almost sounds Canadian), the East Coast (Boston, Jersey, Philly, New York), the Mid-West (Chicago, Michigan), and Southern accents (Texan, Georgian, Tennessee). All of these accents are different and very specific. The neutral Californian accent spoken by most characters on TV is referred to as a ‘standard American’ accent.
One in three hundred roles here might require a foreign accent or regional US dialect, and that’s probably being generous. Producers are not going to change an entire storyline to explain why the cop with two lines in CSI has a South African accent. Therefore, if you cannot do the accent, it is unlikely you will book work.
An excellent Australian actor who is a friend of mine moved to LA and his American accent (which he had worked on) was terrible. After missing out on several parts, he resorted to speaking in a standard American dialect in everyday life. As the months went by he picked up the nuances and speech patterns. One day I realized his accent had become flawless. It had taken him a year of work. He has since booked several roles, including a lead in a television series, and the rest is history.
Having a standard American accent is more important to you for getting work in LA than those acting classes you’re probably taking right now. A bad actor can pass for a good actor to say two lines in a TV show and get away with it. A great actor with a bad accent can rarely pass for an American, even just to say one or two lines.
If your standard American accent is not flawless, you need to fix it now. You think it’s okay? It’s probably not. Go to a dialect coach and get an assessment. You may need coaching or an accent CD (try Bob and Claire Corff or Bruce Shapiro) to understand the fundamental sounds and mouth movements required to perfect the accent.
One way to learn an accent is to watch a movie in which the main character speaks with an accent from that region. Pause the DVD after each line of dialogue then replicate it exactly. Make sure the character is of your gender or else you may mimic the wrong pitch accidentally.
Once you think you’ve got it nailed, grab a book or magazine and read it out loud, twisting your mouth around words that you otherwise may not think to speak. A widely used elocution exercise is to put a cork between your teeth (holding one end outside your mouth so you don’t swallow it) and talk in the accent around the cork. This overworks the muscles and makes it much easier to use the accent after you remove the cork.
If you really want to get crazy with it (because there’s nothing weird about the cork thing), speak in standard American when you’re out shopping or in a bar. It will force you to maintain the accent during conversations and allow you to work through the little problems.
A standard American accent is hard to perfect, but once you’ve got it, you will have much more confidence when auditioning in Hollywood.
By Kym Jackson
An Extract From: The Hollywood Survival Guide For Actors
She has played lead and supporting roles in over thirty feature films & TV shows. Her book ‘The Hollywood Survival Guide – For Aussie Actors’ is on sale in almost a hundred bookstores and is recommended reading in over forty acting schools Australia-wide, including NIDA and QUT.