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The Bale Scale: Non-American Actors Who Have You Fooled!

March 17, 2011

He's English for corn's sake. Don't get it twisted. He's got an Oscar now and has demonstrated he's not afraid to get live.

Oscar-winners Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett have set the standard for American accent authenticity. Not only are they able to do a “generic” American accent, they are also adept at mimicking specific regional dialects (check out Blanchett’s accent in Bandits) without ever seeming false or distracting. And good for them. But they aren’t the only ones fooling you. Americans, it seems, are a wildly xenophobic bunch! They like their actors to look and for the most part sound “American”. Despite being no shortage of homegrown talent waiting tables and hanging around Starbucks in Brentwood in hopes of being “discovered”, casting directors routinely find quality actors from abroad and make them talk “American”. Sometimes whole casts are created in this manner. After noticing that one of my frequently searched blog items was,”Where is Christian Bale from originally” (I can hear the italics in their query) I decided to compile a list of folks you probably don’t realize aren’t American and size them on the “Bale Scale™”

The international cast of NY cops on Without a Trace

The Cast of Without a Trace

A show about FBI agents set in New York with leads from Australia and the UK? Hell yeah! Everyone’s favorite gruff FBI agent played by the incomparable Anthony LaPaglia turns out not to be the poor man’s Joe Montegna. Oh no. He’s Australia’s Answer to Joe Montegna! The blond and perpetually coral lip glossed Poppy Montgomery – also an Aussie. And Miss Marianne Jean-Baptiste pulled an Idris on us: she’s from England.

Brief snippet of Jean-Baptiste as Redford assistant in Spy Game

There are those who suggest that LaPaglia and Jean-Baptiste have accent slippage, but I find that only to be true when their characters are asked to shout something. Shouting in an accent that is not your own tends to be a rather difficult thing that even Bale hasn’t yet mastered. I see you, Laurel Canyon and The Dark Knight. If anything, Montgomery tend to be the shakiest of the three. In any event, Jean-Baptiste suffers from what I call, “The Idris Elba Effect” which happens exclusively to non-white actors. Their accents are often treated with suspicion in ways that don’t occur for white folks of similar national origins; therefore often times their accents are judged more critically. Folks didn’t start questioning Idris’ Baltimore dialect until they found out he was from England.

Montgomery and LaPaglia in a scene from Without a Trace

Bale Scale Rating: LaPaglia, 7/10, Montgomery 6/10, Jean-Baptiste (8.5/10 she has to tackle a very distinct dialect)

Rose Byrne and Anastasia Griffith of Damages

Rose Byrne and Anastasia Griffith on Damages

British born Griffith had me fooled for years with her Kudrowesque pattern of speech, with a charming tendency for sentences to get soggy at the ends. As an actor, Griffith is adept – even more so than Byrne – to completely infuse her characters with so much dialectal authenticity that she can even scream convincingly!

I am very good at detecting fake accents so even great ones sound fake to me. It’s what made watching Without a Trace so much fun. But even I was fooled by Griffith and Byrne. Byrne is far and away my favorite faker because she has found a way to make that annoying “emo girl” accent less annoying and kind of an interesting way to affect her general sense of “out of her elementness”. The way she forms her mouth – a better tell than yelling to determine accent slippage and fakery – is absolutely flawless. Each of them excels as the kind of subtlety of speech patterns that makes their command of accents even more impressive. Like Blanchett and Bale, Byrne and Griffith seem to find a specific person possessing the necessary accent to mimic rather than a composite of the traits associated with a particular dialect or accent. Americans doing British, Southern or Boston accents usually opt for the latter and it’s usually what leads to audiences groaning each time Renee Z. voice over’d everything she wrote in Bridget Jones’ Diary. (For the record, Renee was surprisingly good with her Brit fakery. I detected little trace of her Texan accent)

Bale Scale Rating: Byrne, 9/10, Griffith, 9.5/10

Honorable Mentions: Kim Cattrall (British born, raised in British Columbia), Jonathan LaPaglia (yep, Tony’s younger brother)

Any actors whose ability to fake accents have surprised you?

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Citizen Taqueau permalink
    March 17, 2011 9:37 am

    Portia de Rossi fooled me on Ally McBeal until I realized that she’d been in Sirens!

  2. March 17, 2011 10:58 am

    Portia is tricky though, because her everyday accent is more of an Australian affectation, not super strong. (Still love her though!)

    I totally forgot about Anastasia Griffiths too!! You’re right, she’s just a hair better than Byrne – as indicated by the fact that I keep forgetting, I guess.

  3. March 17, 2011 10:59 am

    I forget about Anthony La Paglia all the time, too. LOVE Marianne Jean-Baptiste though, because of the Mike Leigh’s movie Secrets & Lies, and even though I don’t watch that show, I’m happy she has work!

  4. March 17, 2011 11:35 am

    Russell Crowe came as a surprise to me.

  5. eieioj permalink
    March 17, 2011 12:18 pm

    I had a friend who didn’t know Daniel Day-Lewis was a got-danged ferr’ner until I told him. I usually forget that Bale in English, then I see him in interviews and have total facepalm moments.

  6. hsofia permalink
    March 17, 2011 1:38 pm

    Charlize Theron, but then … she has openly admitted that she gave up her South African accent when she came to America and doesn’t ever use it anymore.

    The dad from Frasier.

    Bale has always seemed accent-y to me in part because of his funny mouth movements, and also maybe because he is always doing SOME accent. Apparently he has only used his own, actual accent, in one movie?

    ITA about Byrne’s accent. She was so convincing in Damages that, even though I recognized her from I Capture the Castle, I actually just thought she was someone else who looked an awful lot like the character she played in I Capture the Castle! I don’t think I’ve ever heard her actual accent.

  7. March 17, 2011 4:35 pm

    Sometimes British singers trip me up because they don’t seem to have an accent while singing. i think only like Phil Collins or Paul Weller have a detectable accent while singing.

  8. March 17, 2011 4:57 pm

    The accent while singing thing always intrigues me! I can’t remember where I heard it, but there was an interesting interview with Shirley Manson where she talked about the choice to switch accents for singing…

  9. Hsofia permalink
    March 17, 2011 6:24 pm

    When I listen to Irish singers singing traditional music they have Irish accents, which makes me wonder if the singers don’t in some way mimic the artists who influenced them in whatever tradition they are following.

  10. March 17, 2011 7:06 pm

    I think it might also be related to vocal training – I learned to sing in church choirs in the South, going to summer camp, singing on tours, etc., and people with the thickest southern accent would sing with perfectly formed, proper english vowels, that have the faintest hint of a British affectation (which might also be why singers like Madonna or Natalie Merchant seem to get their brit on). I think singers in English on both sides of the pond have been trained this way for decades, and so that’s why Americans and British often sound the same while singing (unless the vocal stylings are intentionally changed, like traditional songs).

  11. March 17, 2011 8:02 pm

    Liz Fraiser from the Cocteau Twins sings in Gaelic, yet it doesn’t sound like an accent.

  12. hsofia permalink
    March 17, 2011 8:29 pm

    raymondj – Good point about the training. It also makes me wonder if it’s singing in general that might be an issue. I don’t know much about music, but I know when I sing, sounds get stretched out. That’s got to interfere with certain types of accents. I was so shocked to hear the singer Adele talking in an interview – her accent is very clipped and whole letters are missing from her pronunciation. But of course in her style of singing, you hear most words articulated beautifully – and the phrasing is completely different, of course. I can’t even imagine how she could sing those songs and retain the accent she has. Of course, being born and raised in an American English/Spanish speaking household, I don’t have the ear for English accents, so it could be that she is singing with some accent remaining in her voice, that are not different enough from what I’m used to hearing to pick up on.

  13. March 17, 2011 8:40 pm

    Owain Yeoman (Wayne)- Welsh
    Simon Baker (Jane)- Australian

    True Blood:
    Stephen Moyer (Bill) – English
    Ryan Kwanten (Jason) – Australian
    Alexander Saarsgaards (Eric) Norwegian
    Allan Hyde (Godric) – Danish

    Dresden Files:
    Paul Blackthorne (harry) – English
    Terrence Mann (Bob) – American

    Jamie Bamber – English

    The Wire:
    Dominic West (McNulty) – English
    Aiden Gillen (Carcetti) – Irish

  14. hsofia permalink
    March 17, 2011 9:31 pm

    Oredemniades – Ryan Kwanten being Australian was a TOTAL surprise to me. In fact, I keep forgetting it. I don’t even know if it’s the accent so much as it is his appearance, which to me seems very American. And he reminds me of George W. Hehe.

  15. eandh permalink
    March 18, 2011 10:44 am

    Skarsgard is Swedish, not Norwegian, but yeah, excellent American accent there – he made a completely believable marine in Generation Kill. True Blood’s an interesting show in that very, very few of the cast are in any way Southern. Anna Paquin’s blend of Canadian and New Zealander, Kristin Bauer who plays the drawling Pam is from Wisconsin.

  16. hsofia permalink
    March 18, 2011 1:00 pm

    Oh, another one for me – was Damien Lewis in Band of Brothers. I didn’t realize he wasn’t North American until two years ago when I saw him in The Forsyte Saga. (He was really good in that, too.)

  17. evmaroon permalink
    March 28, 2011 1:13 am

    I knew Hugh Laurie from a few different British series, so I understood he was English. I think he does a rather good job with his American accent, but I’m no Professor Higgins in articulating what his enunciations sound like.

  18. March 28, 2011 2:29 am

    I think the inconsistent accents were one of the things that turned me off of True Blood. I kept hearing the “training” and not the natural flow of the accent and it was kind of off putting.

    I think Laurie’s American accent is adequate, but not especially good. He has a lot of slippage, particularly in the latter seasons. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that at this point he barely attempts an American accent at all. That said, it’s still a lot better than most and was very good in seasons 2 and 3.

  19. March 28, 2011 9:34 am

    True Blood drives me NUTS. Most (though not all!) southern accents are just as much the musicality of the full sentence and the pacing of storytelling, as the shape of vowels and consonants.

    Have you seen the movie Notorious? I thought Angela Bassett actually did too good of a job with Voletta Wallace’s accent – first generation folks can be tricky, because they are a hybrid of tics and sounds, which can sometime come off as as moving in and out of an accent. I know a couple people whose parents are English but they were born in Ohio, so they have unexpected affectations that can sometimes almost make them sound like they’re faking.

  20. wildechild permalink
    March 29, 2011 7:04 pm

    I’m a transplant and not a born-and-bred Brit so I’m probably more easily fooled than some, but I was shocked to hear David Tennant (Scottish), John Simm (Manchester) and Billie Piper (posh-London) speak in their natural accents (as opposed to the ones they use on Doctor Who). David Tennant does a pretty good Liverpool to my ears too. Just don’t go googling his attempt at talking like an American if you value your aural integrity.

  21. April 1, 2011 10:11 pm

    I don’t know if anyone mention Anna Torv and John Noble from Fringe are both Aussies. I find her American accent flat and cold, but I enjoy Noble’s.

  22. Hannah permalink
    August 8, 2012 6:13 am

    David Tennant on Doctor Who. he is absolutely, 100% convincing as a Londoner despite his naturally heavy Scottish accent. My favorite story is that the storyline for the episode “Smith and Jones” was influenced by the writers’ desire to force Tennant to try to pronounce the double “o” sound as it is vastly different between Scottish accents and London accents. He succeeded.

  23. June 24, 2013 11:29 am

    In the scene where the guy and the woman are in the hospital….once I KNEW they were Aussie, I could hear the bits where they slipped, but yeah, good job…

    Band of Brothers…I’d say 1/3-1/2 were not Americans.

  24. August 15, 2013 10:20 am

    We Americans are so picky about Brits and Aussies and Kiwis doing American accents, yet we seem quite accepting of anybody’s Foghorn Leghorn southern twang.

  25. accentJustice permalink
    February 9, 2014 4:49 pm

    I think the word “faking” has a very negative tone. They are actors and they adapt to different accents for their roles. I hope people stop using the phrase “faking an accent” in this context, as it automatically gives others the impression that what the actor is doing is inauthentic.

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