Props, costumes, production sets, and CGI can only do so much to transport audiences to a different time and place; the rest of the work lies in the actor’s ability to truly inhabit a narrative, and invite the audience to believe their character and their milieu. Adopting a specific accent is one of those abilities that allows an actor to create a believable character, and while it may seem like a common enough challenge for an actor, excelling accents can be tough. Given the underestimated skill it takes to convincingly pull it off, it’s only fair to give credit where it’s due, so here’s a list of actors with the best fake accents in films:
Throughout her illustrious career, Streep has taken up more accents than the average person could recognize. However, her Polish accent in Sophie’s Choice was one of perfection. Being Meryl Streep, practicing lines with a dialect coach was not enough, so she took it upon herself to learn Polish (and German in the last few weeks before shooting!) for the role.
Not only did Streep manage to speak Polish in the film, she also flipped between English and German with a Polish accent.
“I thought if I learned to speak Polish, then the diphthongs and the sounds of that language would be in my mouth,” she said in an interview with Entertainment Tonight.
Another noteworthy Streep accent we just couldn’t leave out of the discussion was her Australian dialect for Lindy Chamberlain in A Cry in the Dark, the true story of a mother who lost her baby to a dingo (yep, the line “a dingo ate my baby” is, in fact, about a tragic true story).
The general consensus when it comes to mimicking the Australian accent is that it’s bloody hard (see what we did there?), and non-Australian actors who’ve tried it are almost always criticized for it. Streep, however, managed to take it up a notch. Not only did she study the Australian accent with a fine-toothed comb, but she also mimicked the New Zealand-born Chamberlain’s idiosyncratic enunciations -– a result she admits she “sweat bullets” trying to achieve.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
In the biographical film Capote, based on the life of Truman Capote, the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman shined in his portrayal of the famous journalist, winning him the Oscar for Best Actor.
Capote’s unique vocal inflection was incredibly difficult to impersonate without it becoming a parody, and according to dialect coach Erik Singer, Hoffman pulled it off exquisitely: “The accent is dead-on perfect, and it’s totally integrated. It’s integral to the character and what the actor is doing as the character.”
Not one to shy away from adopting accents in films, the Los Angeles native has adopted accents from all over the United States through several eras for his films, from a Brooklyn native in The Wolf of Wall Street or a mid-19th century Irish-Catholic in Gangs of New York.
What really impressed a vast majority of audiences, however, was DiCaprio’s flawless accent in Blood Diamond, where he portrayed a man from Rhodesia, or modern-day Zimbabwe.
As a South African critic put it for Vanity Fair, “Leo is unbelievable … I could believe that he was a South African (as Zimbabwe borders South Africa, the accents can be very similar). Leo gets every word right.”
If you were shocked that Hugh Laurie is actually an Oxford-born Englishman, you can join the estimated 81 million viewers of House who watched him play a gifted, foul-mouthed American doctor for eight seasons and were none the wiser. Moreover, prior to being informed on Hugh Laurie’s nationality, House’s executive producer Bryan Singer was incredibly relieved to have finally found what he believed was an American actor, after auditioning so many foreigners who just didn’t sound right.
“When you’ve got this volume of dialogue and this kind of complexity of writing, you really want to find an American actor,” he told The Paley Center for Media before admitting his shock when told by the casting directors that Laurie was, in fact, British.
Laurie’s American accent was so flawless, Google manages to churn out an overwhelming amount of blog posts and discussion forums dedicated to variations of the words “Hugh Laurie,” “accents,” “American,” and “British.”
The London-born actor, who in real life has a distinctive Hackney accent, has wowed critics and audiences with two particular accents worthy of a mention; first, when playing drug kingpin Stringer Bell from Baltimore in The Wire, and second, as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
To perfect his Baltimore accent, Elba admits to spending lots of time in a barbershop to familiarize himself with the slang and particular nuances exclusive to Baltimoreans. The result was virtually spot-on.
Perfecting the accent for Mandela, however, came with a little more intense, technical training, as Elba had to embody the specific vocal qualities of Mandela along with a South African accent.
His dialogue coach on the set of the film told The Telegraph that his accent “is one of the closest to the original I have heard. This, coupled with his great technical acting skill and considerable emotional resource, makes for a compelling and brilliant performance.”
Though an Australian herself, Blanchett is renowned for her chameleon-like performances, accruing such a long list of accents you’d be forgiven for not knowing her true national origin without double-checking an interview. Even then some may be confused, as her own Australian accent has morphed; Her ability to instinctively pick up the accents she’s surrounded by in real life has become so habitual for the actress that she admits it’s “politically incorrect” and embarrasses her children much of the time.
Blanchett’s many memorable character accents range from 16th century British to Brooklyn-American, Southern-American, Irish, French, German, Ukrainian, and even Elvish — but from her long list of impressive vocal accomplishments, her remarkable impersonation of Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator deserves an honorable mention.
Director Martin Scorsese had been impressed by Blanchett’s precision and boldness since Elizabeth, and knew if anyone could take on such an iconic character it’d be her. As the New York Times described, “Hepburn’s distinctive voice, loud, clipped and with a pronounced upper-class New England accent … became crucial to her performance.”
Blanchett pulled it off so well, it won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
What are your favorite performances where an actor pulled off an impressive accent? Let us know in the comments below! Learn more about Acting for Film at the New York Film Academy.