Brits and their mates put us on with American TV accents  
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Nov. 1, 2007

Joanne Weintraub
Hugh Laurie wields a mean electric guitar, has one of prime time's best scowls and plays an American doctor with enough artistry to have picked up a pair of Emmy nominations, a couple of Golden Globes and a Screen Actors Guild Award.

It wasn't so long ago that someone like the Oxford-born, Cambridge-educated Laurie, if he appeared on a series like Fox's "House" at all, would play, well, an Englishman. Perhaps not the supremely silly upper-class twit he embodied so memorably in "Jeeves & Wooster," the vintage British series, but at least some sort of Brit.

No more. As Canadians from William Shatner to Sandra Oh have done for years, scores of English, Scottish and Welsh actors - along with dozens of their Irish, Australian and New Zealand mates - now walk among us undetected.

Three of the four dramas that premiered on NBC this fall - "Bionic Woman," "Journeyman" and "Life" - have a British actor playing an American lead character. The fourth, "Chuck," co-stars an Australian, Yvonne Strahovski, as the reluctant title character's American mentor in the fine art of espionage.

CBS' "Moonlight" stars another Aussie, Alex O'Loughlin, as a love-struck American vampire, with Englishwoman Sophia Myles as the object of his affections.

"Viva Laughlin," which the network quickly canceled, had Englishman Lloyd Owen and Australian Hugh Jackman front and center as rival Nevada casino builders.

On ABC, another English performer, Anna Friel, plays the all-American girl next door and love interest to the hero of "Pushing Daisies," a fairy-tale-flavored comedy drama narrated by still another of her countrymen, Jim Dale.

British actors have "become all the rage in the last couple of years," "Bionic Woman" executive producer David Eick told TV critics this past summer in Los Angeles. "You know, everyone is looking for new faces," said Eick, who hired English TV star Michelle Ryan ("EastEnders," "Jekyll") for the role played 30 years ago by Lindsay Wagner.

"Every pilot I have made has had a U.K. casting director funneling tapes and so forth back from London.

"The development of the accent has really advanced over the last few years. I think British performers have really nailed the craft of an American accent - they are sounding effortlessly American."

If Brits and others are devoting more energy to the business of sounding like Yanks, the motives are both economic and artistic.

Where a "House" can keep actors like Laurie and Aussie castmate Jesse Spencer profitably employed for years, some of the most prestigious British series have much shorter runs, with as few as six episodes per season. Recent cutbacks at the BBC, with an announcement this month of more to come, make American networks look even more inviting.

In terms of quality, where American TV once lagged conspicuously behind the best of the British output, series like "The Sopranos," "The Simpsons," "Lost" and "Heroes" are widely admired throughout the English-speaking world. Classically trained actors like Laurie, Ashley Jensen ("Ugly Betty") and Damian Lewis ("Life") aren't seen to be slumming any more than Vivien Leigh was in the 30s when she went to Hollywood to do "Gone With the Wind."

"We don't really have a (film) industry in England anymore," said "Moonlight's" Myles, whose previous experience with the undead includes a role in a recent BBC "Dracula."

"And American television, especially in the last few years, is on a par with, if not better than, a lot of movies that are out there the moment."

Just how hard is it to sound like an American if you're from Manchester, Melbourne or Cork? It depends on whom you ask.

To London native Minnie Driver, who earned an Emmy nomination this year for playing good old Louisiana gal Dahlia Molloy in FX's "The Riches," it was a piece of cake, or perhaps a beignet.

"If you love accents," it's not difficult, Driver told TV critics at a session this year to promote the series, which has been renewed for a second season. "I worked a couple of days with a (dialect) coach just to sort of lock it in, but we filmed in New Orleans and, you know, you listen and you can't help but start speaking that way."

But Eddie Izzard, the English actor who plays Dahlia's husband, Wayne, confessed that he still hasn't mastered the dialect. Although he's been seen in "Ocean's Thirteen" and other movies, he's best known as a stand-up comic and doesn't have Driver's theatrical training.

Classically trained Brits, Aussies and Kiwis are coached in "received pronunciation," or "RP," the English spoken by a typical BBC news presenter. For some, that practically amounts to a second language.

"My indigenous accent is completely impenetrable - (even) I don't understand it anymore," joked Kevin McKidd, a native of the Scottish Highlands who plays a San Francisco reporter in "Journeyman."

When McKidd starred in HBO's "Rome" as the centurion Vorenus, he brought out his most polished RP. Talking to critics, he used what has become his normal speech pattern, "essentially a middle-class, kind of neutral Scottish accent," he said.

"To step into the American dialect is a hard one, but it just takes work and perseverance. ... It's deeply satisfying when you get it right."

Tyne Turner, a longtime Milwaukee actress and teacher, has had years of experience as a dialect coach. Some actors pick up accents more readily than others, she said in an interview, "but dialect is a skill just like any other, (something) you acquire through training and practice."

About six years ago, she was called to Minneapolis by the Guthrie Theater to work with Patrick Stewart on the role of George, one of the warring spouses in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," Edward Albee's landmark American play. Formidable actor though he was, the Yorkshire native had a bit of trouble with his "intrusive R," according to Turner.

That misplaced consonant, more common in the U.K. than the U.S., is an R inserted between a word ending in a vowel and one starting with a vowel, as in "just the idea(r) of it." Stewart worked to suppress this telltale remnant of his native dialect so that George wouldn't sound like a part-time Brit, Turner said.

Increasingly, casting directors are looking toward Britain not just for actors who look like Stewart but for those of Asian and African descent, too.

Both Naveen Andrews, who plays the Iraqi Sayid on "Lost," and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the series' late Mr. Eko, a Nigerian, were born in London.

Indira Varma, an English native of Indian and Swiss background, played Vorenus' wife in "Rome" and will be seen later this year in the CBS miniseries "Comanche Moon."

Ten years ago, after scoring an Oscar nomination as the dark-skinned daughter of a white mother in "Secrets & Lies," London-born Marianne Jean-Baptiste complained that she couldn't get a job in her native country.

"Britain is no longer totally a white place where people ride horses, wear long frocks and drink tea," she told the U.K.'s Guardian daily. "The national dish is no longer fish and chips, it's curry."

For the last five years, Jean-Baptiste has played an FBI agent on "Without a Trace," alongside Aussies Anthony LaPaglia and Poppy Montgomery.

Before her current gig, Montgomery had the distinction of playing not just a Yank but a bona-fide American icon, Marilyn Monroe, in the 2001 TV movie "Blonde."

Her American-ese was virtually flawless, as was the twang of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the Irishman who four years later impersonated another American superstar in the miniseries "Elvis."

Of course, U.S. television still welcomes a few native English speakers - including Simon Cowell, Craig Ferguson and various and sundry nannies - who sound distinctly foreign.

HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" gets some of its off-kilter comedy from the odd New Zealand vowels of stars Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, or, as they call themselves, "Jimaine" and "Brit."

And CBS talk-show host Ferguson, a proud Scot, acknowledged during a recent appearance at Milwaukee's Pabst Theater that, after deploying "the worst English accent ever on TV" as Nigel Wick in the old "Drew Carey Show," he now does a perfectly frightful American accent, too.