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Putting just the right accent on their roles

Published Sep. 14, 2006|Updated Sep. 14, 2006

When Anthony LaPaglia moved to the United States from his native Australia in the early '80s, he felt like a thespian trailblazer.

"There were virtually no Australian actors here," says LaPaglia, describing his early interactions with American casting directors. "I would go in with my Australian accent, and then I would read with an American accent, and they'd all say the same thing, 'Oh, I can hear the Australian accent coming through.' And I got sick of it."

LaPaglia, who plays FBI agent Jack Malone with a New York accent on Without a Trace, devised an effective strategy.

"I had an audition for something, and I went in with an American accent, and they said, 'Where you from?' I said, 'Brooklyn.' And they went, 'Okay, good, let's read,' " he says.

Two decades later, LaPaglia is in very good company. A stunning number of Australian and British actors are doing convincing American accents.

"The world has really become a casting pool for TV and films," says Los Angeles dialect coach Joel Goldes. "Because English and Australian people share our language, they're at a great advantage, more so than a German or French actor. They've already got a leg up."

By now, most people are aware of the distant roots of movie chameleons such as Catherine Zeta-Jones (Wales), Russell Crowe (New Zealand) and Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman (Australia). But people may not realize how many TV actors they watch every week who are also from Down Under or across the pond.

Some sound so genuinely homegrown that viewers don't realize the actors are natives of another land.

Even industry folks can be fooled.

David Shore, creator of Fox's hit series House, has told the story of how, after watching the audition tape of star Hugh Laurie, who was born in Oxford, England, executive producer Bryan Singer said, "See, this is what I want: an American guy."

The confusion over Laurie's nationality was played up during last year's Emmy telecast. When Laurie began speaking in his real voice, co-presenter Zach Braff said, "I didn't realize we were doing British accents."

David Alan Stern, a longtime dialect coach, has seen a big change since he left Hollywood in 1992.

"The last 10 years have been a completely different world in terms of English and Australian actors being able to do American accents," says Stern, founder and owner of Dialect Accent Specialists.

He attributes the change to advances in dialect coaching and the fact that English drama schools have put more emphasis on teaching American accents.

By the same token, the days when an actor could get by doing a generic dialect are also long gone.

"We are much more aware of accents, because of television, and the fact that we travel a lot to different countries," says Barbara Berkery, a prominent dialect and dialogue coach based in London.

Berkery's many credits include teaching Texas-born Renee Zellweger to speak like a middle class English girl in Bridget Jones' Diary and its sequel, a dialect that won the actor high grades from true Brits.

But many actors, including LaPaglia and his Trace co-star Poppy Montgomery, are self-taught.

"I have a very good ear for it," Montgomery says. "But I also grew up with American television. In Australia, I was watching all those shows like Who's the Boss? and Entertainment Tonight."

Laurie does not use a dialect coach either, and he has described his struggle to sustain Dr. Gregory House's American accent as "the hardest single thing in my day."

MATES ARE EVERYWHERE

TV is and will be awash with Brits and Aussies playing Americans:

'WITHOUT A TRACE'

Anthony LaPaglia (Jack Malone): Adelaide, Australia

Poppy Montgomery (Sam Spade): Sydney, Australia

Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Vivian Johnson): London

'HOUSE'

Hugh Laurie (Gregory House): Oxford, England

'BROTHERS & SISTERS'

Rachel Griffiths (Sarah Walker): Melbourne, Australia

'DEADWOOD'

Ian McShane (Al Swearengen): Blackburn, England

'NIP/TUCK'

Julian McMahon (Christian Troy): Sydney, Australia

Joely Richardson (Julia McNamara): London

'BROTHERHOOD'

Jason Isaacs (Michael Caffee): Liverpool, England

Jason Clarke (Tommy Caffee): Queensland, Australia

'PRISON BREAK'

Dominic Purcell (Lincoln Burrows): London

'MEDIUM'

Jake Weber (Joe Dubois): London

'SMITH'

Simon Baker (Jeff): Launceston, Australia

Jonny Lee Miller (Tom): Kingston, England

'THE WIRE'

Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty): Sheffield, England

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