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Talking the talk

Where'd I get the Praahvidence accent? From my dialect coach on ‘Brotherhood.’

Let's talk about Providence.

Or, if you're from Boston, perhaps we should tawwwk about Prawwwvidence.

Unless you're from Rhode Island and want to tawwwk about Praahvidence.

In any case, the particulars are important. If you're doing a TV series about Rhode Island's capital city, filming on location, striving for authenticity, you'd best get the accents right. And since a bad New England accent can turn drama into camp -- ``The Perfect Storm," ahem -- you'd better be prepared for some serious work.

Especially if your lead actors hail from Ireland, England, and Australia.

Nailing the accents was a serious, taxing, surprisingly physical challenge behind the filming of ``Brotherhood," the Showtime series that premieres next Sunday. The show tells a familiar story of two working-class brothers from a close-knit neighborhood, operating largely on opposite sides of the law. Jason Clarke , who hails from a town outside Queensland, Australia, plays rising politician Tommy Caffee . Jason Isaacs , bred in Liverpool, plays rising mobster Michael Caffee .

And that both sound more like guys who grew up slightly north of Cranston is largely the work of Thom Jones, a dialect coach at Providence's Trinity Repertory Company and Brown University.

For six weeks before the ``Brotherhood" pilot started filming in September 2004, Jones put the lead actors through a sort of dialect boot camp, starting with sound drills and culminating with forays into intensely local territory. Jones took Fionnula Flanagan -- the Irish actress who plays the Caffees' politically savvy mother, Rose -- to Providence Place Mall, where they drank ``caw-fee" and talked about life. He took Clarke out for wieners at the Olneyville New York System, a famed Rhode Island hot dog joint, and for poached eggs at local diners. (``There were a couple of embarrassing moments in the beginning where this woman would look at me and think, `Where the hell are you from?' " Clarke recalls, in his Australian lilt.)

The goal was to nail the Providence specifics, heeding the subtle New England differences that Midwesterners might not notice. Rhode Islanders pronounce their short o's as New Yorkers would; they call their mothers ``mahm," while Bostonians have ``mawms." Rhode Islanders drink ``mah-garitas," the first syllable lodged in the back of the mouth, while Bostonians sip ``maah-garitas," starting the word more brightly, mouth extended on either side. Rhode Islanders speak more slowly, if slightly so; Bostonians rush.

``Rhode Island stretches the sound a bit more than they do in Boston," Jones says. ``Boston is like a little dog that thinks it's big."

For ``Brotherhood," Jones also had to distinguish between different Rhode Island sounds: the Italian-influenced dialect of Federal Hill -- a tad slower, with more space between the words -- and the faster-paced, Irish-influenced speech the Caffees would have.

Parsing the subtle differences is a matter of serious listening and constant practice, of understanding the shape of the lips and the placement of the tongue. When you pronounce a consonant in a standard American accent, Jones says, your tongue rests where the teeth meet the gums. Rhode Islanders rest their tongues against their teeth, he explains: ``You can hear what's sorta happening to my consonants, they're getting sorta moah dull."

Rhode Islandese is a learned skill for Jones, who grew up in Florida and studied acting at New York's Purchase College, where teachers encouraged him to capitalize on a natural ability with accents. He moved to Providence four years ago to coach speech at the Trinity Repertory Company and teach diction to acting students at the Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium. Still, he says, his own local education isn't done; he's constantly mimicking locals to pick up more.

``People must think I'm crazy when I'm driving down the highway because I'm repeating what people have said to me," Jones says. ``Or I'll mutter it myself in front of the person. I'm scientifically trying to break it down: What's the rhythm, what are the sound changes."

Jones says he's fluent in about 30 accents; he has coached actors in Shakespearean speak and classical Greek and helped newscasters drop their regionalisms. He found his way to ``Brotherhood" via the costume designer, who had worked with him on ``A Christmas Carol" in Boston and ``The Ruby Sunrise" at Trinity and New York's Public Theater. For Jones's job interview, pilot director Philip Noyce played him audio tapes of Rhode Islanders' speech. Jones could tell, by listening, which of them had Italian last names and which of them were Irish.

The ``Brotherhood" characters would have a range of accents, too, due to both convenience and design. Some actors -- notably Kevin Chapman, who plays mob kingpin Freddie Cork -- had Boston accents to begin with; producers decided to let them stand. Some Rhode Island-born actors, who played politicians, kept their Italian-tinged dialect. Producers decided that Flanagan's character, Rose, had emigrated from Ireland at 13, so Flanagan kept her Irish brogue, overlaid with Rhode Island tones.

But Tommy Caffee had to sound authentically Rhode Island Irish, so Jason Clarke had to work. The native Australian, best known for his role in the 2002 Noyce-directed film ``Rabbit Proof Fence," had studied accents in school and done some generalized American speech: ``You just roll your r's and a few other sounds. It's easy." But when Noyce sent him a tape of Rhode Islanders, he was far more intimidated.

The training, it turned out, was grueling. Before filming began, Clarke studied with Jones for six hours a day for more than a month, studying vowels, then diphthongs -- two vowels blended together to make a single sound -- then consonants, then cadence, slowing down his speech to sound more like the locals. (Jones prepped all of the lead actors before the shooting and coached them for the filming of the pilot; Wendy Overly and Alex Davis took over the dialect coaching for the rest of the season.)

Clarke also did some drilling on his own. He found two Rhode Island natives -- a crew member and a guy who ran a gym -- and asked them to read his dialogue into his iPod. He annotated scripts, spelling out words the way they sounded to him: ``Roe-die-land."

``It's like getting ready for a boxing fight," Clarke says.

Clarke had the stiffest challenge of the actors, Jones says; Isaacs already had command of a solid New York accent that just needed some alterations. But for series creator Blake Masters , the extra investment was worthwhile; he liked the idea of an Australian in the part. American actors tend to be ``overgrown boys," he said. ``Australian men come across as men. . . . They come across as this sort of adult version of masculinity."

And if Clarke brought a he-man air to the role, he also came ready to deal with pain. Think of how much it hurts to smile for too many snapshots. Then imagine twisting your mouth muscles into unfamiliar shapes for hours at a time. Clarke had to build up stamina; he could talk like a Rhode Islander for a half-hour straight, then two hours, then longer, dropping in and out of the accent between takes.

Eventually, he worked his way up to 16-hour days, with a few notable lapses. The hardest words to nail were the throwaway ones, such as ``been" in ``How have you been?" It kept coming out as ``bean," Australia-style, Clarke says. The director would shout, ``Bin! Bin!"

But in a sense, the drilling helped, Clarke says. After a while, speaking like a Rhode Islander makes you feel like a Rhode Islander. ``It really helped inform the character," he says. ``It was like finding the right suit."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

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