All-American But Not American
Nashville’s exes and other stars keep fooling us by talking like us.
Meryl Streep is Hollywood’s unofficial accent queen. She’s earned a quarter of her 21 Oscar nominations and two of her three wins by convincing us she wasn’t born in the U.S.A. Among the New Jersey-bred actress’s foreigner turns: a Polish U.S. immigrant and Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice (Oscar number two), a Kiwi mother accused of murdering her baby in A Cry in the Dark, and the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in The Iron Lady (Oscar number three).
Streep raised Hollywood’s bar for the art of accents. Many TV stars have since cleared it — in both directions — from Daniel Davis, who played the fussy British butler Niles on The Nanny (the actor is from Little Rock, Arkansas) to Frasier’s late great John Mahoney, who spent his first 18 years in his native England.
We still haven’t reached the point where actors are required to tackle foreign tongues when playing characters in far-flung lands (as Streep did by mastering Polish for Sophie’s Choice)… thank God. Imagine Game of Thrones in the languages of Westeros and Essos with English subtitles!
But gone are the primetime days when Fallon on Dynasty could be played by both an American talking like one (Pamela Sue Martin) and an English-sounding Brit (Emma Samms). When a casting call goes out for an all-American character, non-Americans have a shot at nabbing the role only if they can talk the talk.
Josh Bowman made such a handsome New York playboy for four seasons on Revenge, yet many viewers probably have no idea he was born in Berkshire, England, the southeast county that also gave the world Ricky Gervais. Even when his onscreen girlfriend was Ashley Davenport, a Brit played by a Brit (Ashley Madekwe), Bowman never slipped out of American character.
The tradition of actors swapping nationalities continues on current TV shows like How to Get Away with Murder and Nashville, which returns on June 7 for the last handful of episodes of its sixth and final season.
Here are a few who are helping dialect coaches make a killing in Hollywood and killing it at the same time.
Clare Bowen as Scarlett O’Connor on Nashville
A performer from New South Wales, Australia, plays the country-singing waif from Natchez, Mississippi, but you’d never guess she comes from the land down under by listening to her on TV. Bowen not only gets the twang right, but she’s also mastered the character’s soft Southern style.
Hers is the best Southern accent by an Aussie since True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten. As Jason Stackhouse, he offered what was arguably the HBO series’ most authentic-sounding country boy in Bon Temps, Louisiana, and that show was loaded with foreigners talking Southern, with widely varying degrees of success.
Sam Palladio as Gunnar Scott on Nashville
Kudos to the Nashville team for realizing that all Southern accents aren’t created equal. Palladio feels so thoroughly Texan as Gunnar (without ever lapsing into cowboy stereotyping) that it’s not hard to imagine some viewers traveling to Aurora, Texas, hoping to find a guy just like him. Sorry, ladies (and gentlemen), Palladio, who did a less regional U.S. accent on the Showtime series Episodes, is from Cornwall, England.
As with Bowen, Palladio’s singing even sounds like pure country, not just an outsider’s approximation of it.
Alfred Enoch as Wes Gibbins on How to Get Away with Murder
A series regular during the show’s first three seasons, Alfred Enoch now only sporadically pops up as his deceased character in flashbacks. Anyone who isn’t a fan of the Harry Potter movie series (in which Enoch played Gryffindor classmate Dean Thomas) and knows him solely from his work as a Philly law student on HTGAWM might be shocked to find out that he’s actually from somewhere in England… London, to be exact.
He’s one of a number of black actors from the British Isles — including 12 Years a Slave’s Chiwetel Ejiofor, Selma’s David Oyelowo, Loving’s Ruth Negga, Moonlight’s Naomie Harris, and Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya — who in recent years have won raves, and occasionally Oscar nods, playing African-Americans.
Half the cast of the dearly departed and thoroughly missed Episodes
If you were too distracted by Matthew Perry’s The Odd Couple and Matt LeBlanc’s Man with the Plan to notice this concurrent LeBlanc Showtime series in which the former Friends star played himself, what are you waiting for? The fifth and final season aired last year, but it’s not too late to catch up.
Pivotal as LeBlanc may have been to the action, the comedy was actually more about a married British writing duo whose hit UK TV show gets picked up by an American studio, bringing them stateside to cope with culture shock and L.A.’s abundant sunshine.
They were the only regular British characters in a sea of American ones, but the big twist was how many of the Yankees on the side, including one portrayed by the aforementioned Sam Palladio, were played by actors from across the Atlantic.
I wouldn’t mind watching a spin-off featuring British-Canadian Joseph May and Brit Daisy Haggard, in character as Andy Button and Myra Licht, respectively, playing a two-person Greek chorus for Trump’s America.