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Grading American Accents

Posted by Matthew Gilbert  November 11, 2008 06:23 AM

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Television is swarming with overseas actors playing American characters, from Linus Roache on "Law & Order" and Anthony LaPaglia on "Without a Trace" to Anna Friel on "Pushing Daisies" and Rachel Griffiths on "Brothers & Sisters." Maybe they're good actors. But some do the American thing much better than others (cough, Anna Torv, cough). Here's a selected report card:

Simon Baker, Australia
Patrick Jane on "The Mentalist"
He has created a charismatic American, although his Aussie swagger does seep in now and then.

Hugh Laurie, Britain
Gregory House on "House"
He does East Coast acerbic better than real East Coast acerbics.

Anna Torv, Australia
Olivia Dunham on "Fringe"
She seems American enough until she opens her mouth and her IrishBritishAussieWhatever hybrid issues forth.

Jonny Lee Miller, Britain
Eli on "Eli Stone"
He passes for a fast-talking American lawyer, but you can't listen too closely.

Natascha McElhone, Britain
Karen on "Californication"
Her bright presence and unusually angled face distract from occasional vocal lapses.

Charlie Hunnam, Britain
Jax on "Sons of Anarchy"
He's so good, you want to forget the fact that his accent comes and goes like the wind.

Ed Westwick, Britain
Chuck Bass on "Gossip Girl"
He doesn't come across as a Brit or an American. His Chuck sounds more like a universal hissing snake.

Anna Paquin, New Zealand
Sookie Stackhouse on "True Blood"
She invents a fake Southern accent that is endearing and campily funny in its fakeness.

Damian Lewis, Britain
Charlie Crews on "Life"
Most of his performance takes place in his wry eyes, but he has the accent down pat, too.

Rufus Sewell, Britain
Jacob Hood on "Eleventh Hour"
You can feel words getting caught in his mouth as he works to shape them.

Jason Clarke, Australia
Tommy Caffee on "Brotherhood"
He tries too hard to sound like a Kennedy, but his tense performance is diverting.

Jason Isaacs, Britain
Michael Caffee on "Brotherhood"
His De Niro is on the money.

Jason O'Mara, Ireland
Sam Tyler on "Life on Mars"
He's dynamic, but -- poor guy! -- his New York pales next to costars Michael Imperioli and arvey Keitel.

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42 comments so far...
  1. I think Anna Friel does the best job, which is made even more remarkable given the intricacies of those Pushing Daisies scripts!

    Hugh Laurie's situation fascinates me - he actually doesn't do a great US accent, his vowels are often all over the place. He does what Rachel Griffiths does (and what Matthew Rhys has picked up from her), front loads on the consonants with B-movie hardboiled focus in the hopes that no one notices their o's and a's are out of whack. The brilliance of Laurie is that he's turned his limitation into another aspect of his characterization. Of course House talks crabby in a way no other American talks crabby - that's totally in line with his contrarian self.

    I think Ed Westwick's working off of Laurie's playbook, in that respect - of course Chuck Bass would create a snobby accent for him and him alone.

    Posted by clio November 11, 08 08:12 AM
  1. No grade for Anna Friel?

    Posted by Jon B. November 11, 08 08:44 AM
  1. re: Jason O'Mara

    ummh the last name gives it away, he's from Ireland and not Britain

    Posted by Garrett November 11, 08 09:07 AM
  1. Thanks for the correction, Garrett.

    Posted by Matthew Gilbert November 11, 08 09:15 AM
  1. Mayor Quimby, Boston

    Posted by Dennis Doble November 11, 08 09:32 AM
  1. Anthony LaPaglia isn't American? I really had no idea.

    Posted by Seil November 11, 08 09:35 AM
  1. Ya- I have to agree with the absence of Anna Friel- very convincing...and I have to go with Damian Lewis off the list- spot on LA via the midwest. His Major Winters is briliant, too...

    Posted by gern November 11, 08 09:40 AM
  1. Poppy Montgomery on Without A Trace gets a "C" from me- almost every week her inner Aussie slips out.

    Posted by Harvey Lemmings November 11, 08 09:42 AM
  1. Indeed, it really bugs me when they cast someone whose American pronunciation is atrocious. I really don't think the younger actors are trying to improve either.

    Posted by jgodsey November 11, 08 09:45 AM
  1. Damian Lewis also nailed it as Eric Winters in Band of Brothers. I had no idea he was a Brit! Another crazy change in accent that should be noted (though not American, so understandably omitted) is Naveen Andrews as Sayid on LOST - I was shocked the first time I heard him speak in an interview.

    Posted by Lisa November 11, 08 09:46 AM
  1. I think the actress who plays Sarah on Chuck has the best American accent, if you saw last night's episode and where she got to use her real Aussie accent you are more impressed.

    Posted by Kate November 11, 08 09:53 AM
  1. Ryan Kwanten on "True Blood" is Australian and does am impeccably accurate Southern accent. Also, Anna Paquin spent parts of her life in Canada as well as New Zealand, so doing American was never a problem for her I imagine. And people are right about Anna Torv, those Australianisms are very evident in her performances...

    Posted by Jason November 11, 08 10:06 AM
  1. "Brotherhood" is a tremendous show, but the Rhode Island accents are HORRIBLE. They're shooting the series there... you think they'd pick up a thing or two!!!!!
    My vote for best American accent is Domenic West on the late, but great, HBO series "the Wire." He played Detective Jimmy McNulty .... and he's Australlian.

    Posted by Frank57 November 11, 08 10:16 AM
  1. I thought Charlie Hunnam was American. I think he does a great accent.

    Posted by GSP November 11, 08 10:18 AM
  1. Interesting that the focus in the post and the discussion is entirely on actors whose first language is English. What about actors who speak English as a second language? Which of them does the best job at passing themselves off as American (or British, Irish, Australian, etc.)

    Posted by Joe McVeigh November 11, 08 10:20 AM
  1. How about Anthony Lapaglia on Without a Trace, he is an Aussie and does a great NYC accent!

    Posted by cavagirl November 11, 08 10:47 AM
  1. Its odd that some shows have clusters of foreign actors playing americans. But without a trace does a good job. Anthony Lapaglia has been around a long time and it was shocking when I heard him speak with an australian accent. Simon Baker is good but he has a tendency to talk softly so no one can hear his fake american accent. Hugh and Chuck Bass have scratchy voices which seems to be the common technique for east coast accents. I think some British actors have an easier time creating a southern

    Posted by chase November 11, 08 10:48 AM
  1. Wentworth Miller and Domenic Purcell both from the UK

    Posted by brian November 11, 08 10:50 AM
  1. How about Dominic West on "The Wire"?

    Fantastic in my opinion

    Posted by DRC November 11, 08 10:51 AM
  1. Marianne Jean-Baptiste from Without a Trace has the worst American accent. It just sounds like she has a hard time with it too.

    Posted by Steven November 11, 08 11:12 AM
  1. Amanda Tapping on Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis

    Posted by Dave November 11, 08 11:13 AM
  1. (GASP!) Lisa! Damian Lewis' character on BOB was DICK Winters! How could you make a mistake like that, on today of all days!!??? (just kidding)

    He did do a great job on that show, as did Dexter Fletcher (British) as Sgt. John Martin, Rick Warden (British, and he was also in HBO's "Rome") as Lt. Harry Welsh, and Ross McCall (Scottish, and engaged to Jennifer Love Hewitt, the lucky $#%!) as Joe Liebgott.

    Posted by Toeknee November 11, 08 11:32 AM
  1. DRC - I respectfully disagree about Dominic West. Most of the time he did pretty well but every now and then his British accent would slip through.

    Posted by Toeknee November 11, 08 11:36 AM
  1. Hugh Laurie is British?

    Posted by fake identity November 11, 08 11:46 AM
  1. Idris Elba of Britain was fabulous as the charismatic hood Stringer Bell on "The Wire." His gangsta accent was excellent. But I agree that Hugh Laurie takes the prize for his impeccable Gregory House. His linguistic performance is astounding for its complexity and his ability to juggle confounding medical jargon, compelling pathos, and dropdead comedic turns all in a single scene. Laurie delivers with steadiness, stamina, and amazing ease.

    Posted by Anonymous Rex November 11, 08 12:23 PM
  1. Jamie Bamber on Battlestar Galactica does a good American accent, and he is British.

    Posted by Caren November 11, 08 01:33 PM
  1. Wow I didn't realise Hugh Laurie is British - I've been watching the show for 5 yrs.

    Posted by Annabel November 11, 08 01:58 PM
  1. I completely agree with Clio ...Hugh Laurie's American accent is horrible. I find it so annoying that I can't watch the show. When I have, I'm always wondering, "Where in the U.S. is he supposed to be from?!" She's right about Rachel Griffiths, too. I actually think that Matthew Rhys does a better job than she does. I think that she sounded more American on 'Six Feet Under'! I do think it is really difficult for anyone, even a trained actor, to change their accent. I think Damien Lewis does the best job.

    Posted by Ginny November 11, 08 02:37 PM
  1. Matthew Rhys on "Brothers & Sisters" and "Sarah" on "Chuck" are excellent and overlooked here. Matthew Rhys has a VERY strong Welsh accent in person that almost disappears in the ABC show.

    Posted by Lisa November 11, 08 03:39 PM
  1. What about Rachel Griffiths and Matthew Rhys from "Brothers & Sisters"

    She's Australian and he's Welsh and both do a very good American accent.

    Posted by bobby November 11, 08 03:40 PM
  1. Damian Lewis seems the most natural and relaxed with the words in his mouth. It is almost tougher to make something sound naturally wry and funny while using an accent, since you're thinking so much about shaping the words more than everything else you have to put into it. One of the biggest compliments I heard about Mr. Lewis' work in Band Of Brothers was that most of the actors working with him were shocked to find out he was British. Nice compliment!

    I think Jamie Bamber does a great American accent, but he has an advantage since his father is American. No fair!

    Posted by Leslie M-D November 11, 08 04:12 PM
  1. Amanda Tapping? All she has to do is remember not to say "aboot" and she is good to go. :)

    Posted by Larry November 11, 08 08:02 PM
  1. Dominic West on The Wire- A-... I didn't even know he was Australian until I saw an interview with him. But, when I went back and re-watched (as most Wire fans do), I heard it once or twice... but, usually just a word. That's it.

    Jamie Bamber on Battlestar- A-... Excellent. But, I did hear him slip once or twice as well.

    Posted by Oliver November 12, 08 04:20 AM
  1. I think Damian Lewis has the all-time best "Brit doing an American Accent" on TV and that his portrayal of Charlie Crews on Life is the best performance on US television - irregardless of nationalities and accents!

    Posted by KV November 12, 08 02:38 PM
  1. Kevin McKidd on Grey's -- Scottish -- has he had enough lines yet for us to grade?

    Posted by Kathy November 12, 08 09:50 PM
  1. Dominic West is NOT Australian, he's English.

    Wentworth Miller may have been born in the UK, as a result of his father being a Rhodes Scholar, but he grew up in the US (East Coast). So there's no faking there.

    Also, when I hear or read comments like the ones that clio and ginny put forth about how terrible an American accent is, I often wonder if they really truly recognize their own accents (if they are Yanks). Clearly they don't have an ear for accents at all. Hugh Laurie's American accent is spot on.

    I totally agree when it comes to Anna Torv's accent. The first time that I watched her perform on Fringe (in fact it was my first introduction to the actress), I found myself immediately asking where she was from. I knew right away that she wasn't an American. It was and still is that obvious. Her Aussie accent comes through often.

    Anthony LaPaglia had lived in New York City for a little over 20 years before relocating to L.A. for Without a Trace. He adapted well. ;)

    Kevin McKidd's American accent has gotten much better. He appears to be more comfortable when using it.

    Finally, I agree with KV's comment. Plus Damian Lewis gets an A+ from me, not an A-.

    Posted by TS November 15, 08 04:05 PM
  1. Anna Friel does a fantastic job, one of the best. And I think Damian Lewis does a much better job than Hugh Laurie! The first commenter has it right...Laurie's consonants are way too hard. Lewis sounds much more natural.

    Posted by Em November 16, 08 01:03 PM
  1. Damian Lewis, hands down! Big fan of "House" but Hugh Laurie has a sarcastic style which allows him to spit out his words with a lot of emphasis, taking your eye off his accent a bit. It's an idiosyncratic, not an entirely natural style.
    Damian Lewis' delievery is smooth, completely natural - regardless of what emotional state he might be in. Formidable talent, Mr.Lewis.

    Posted by Jemimakahn November 16, 08 11:16 PM
  1. I think Hugh Laurie has gotten better. When the show first started, he couldn't do the American accent. His accent annoyed me so much that I quit watching the show.

    Another foreigner is the guy from Nip/Tuck who plays Christain. He's from Australia; however, he doesn't have the accent outside of acting.

    If floors me when directors or whoever pick foreigners for American roles. Shouldn't we select from own first?

    Posted by Sally December 11, 08 04:49 PM
  1. Being born in England to an English dad and an American mum (although she died when I was a baby) and now living in the US with an Irish boyfriend and several Australian friends, I was completely ashamed not to have realized the nationalities of many of these actors, even in shows I watch religiously. I knew about Hugh Laurie (from Fry & Laurie and 101 Dalmations)

    I totally agree that Johnny Lee Miller and Anna Friel are amazing!

    Posted by Allie December 12, 08 11:01 PM
  1. The best by far is Ian McShane in Deadwood. It is hard to believe that we used to watch him as Lovejoy the dodgy antiques trader, until you see the Deadwood DVD extras and hear him speaking in his actual accent. Superb.

    BTW I agree with the chap who wrote that Hugh Laurie's accent was so bad that it stopped him watching House. Drove me nuts and I still can't sit through an episode.

    Posted by Peter Wheeler January 5, 09 07:48 PM
  1. Yeah, Hugh Laurie has definitely improved since he first started. He wasn't always as good as he is now. In fact, I distinctly remember an episode in the first season where he said "diapers" with a complete British accent. But it still is weird hearing him talk in his native accent. Especially because he often refuses to do the American accent when "not getting paid for it".

    Posted by Gordon P. Hemsley January 7, 09 02:41 PM

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