Television

How Alison Wright Found the Perfect Accent for Her Snowpiercer Character

Plus, what Method acting means to her.

White woman with a big smile.
Alison Wright.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for WarnerMedia.

On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with actress Alison Wright, who is probably best known for her first TV role, as Martha Hanson on The Americans. They spoke about Wright’s latest role as Ruth on TNT’s TV version of Snowpiercer, how she found Ruth’s accent, and why she was drawn to the Method system of acting. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

June Thomas: The new TV version of Snowpiercer is based on the 2013 Bong Joon-ho movie, but there are quite a few differences. Tell me about your character, Ruth.

Alison Wright: There are no characters that are directly lifted from the film or the graphic novels. It’s very much within the same world, of course, but there are no direct transplants from either version of the story into ours. Ruth has a lot for similarities with Minister Mason, the character Tilda Swinton played in the movie, but she is very much her own person. She works in the hospitality department and she’s primarily responsible for taking care of passengers and making sure everything runs smoothly, whatever that entails. She’s sanctimonious by nature; she believes in following the rules and the need for order.

I know from having spoken with you when you did The Americans and when you were on Broadway that you really enjoy the preparation for a role. How did you find Ruth’s personality?

When Graeme Manson, our showrunner, first pitched the character to me, he described her as being insecure, easily flustered, sanctimonious, but funny. Because I had all those descriptors, it was a different sort of experience to flesh out. I had a really great idea from the get-go in a way that I’ve never had before. Most of the time, as an actor, you have the information about what you say and what you do, but not about what your character deeply believes inside and what their opinions are. You often have to garner that from the information that you have and try and put it together, but because he gave me who she was on a platter, it was an entirely different experience.

Ruth has a Northern English accent—at one point, Ruth says she once ran a B&B in Kendal, in the Lake District. How did you find Ruth’s accent—it’s not quite your “natural” accent.

I grew up in the Lake District. My mum and all that side of my family was born and bred there. Graeme wanted Ruth to be funny, and I think there’s a great warmth and something naturally funny in the music of the language there. At first I thought she should be Australian, because there’s a lot of natural humor in that language, too. You can say something innocuous, but it just sounds funny because of the rhythm of the speech. But Graeme told me that he had written a character called the Last Australian, so that idea was out the window!

I was taping some of my aunties in Kendal and listening to them, and it’s just too much. It wouldn’t work for television—they hit all the notes on the stave when they’re talking, you know? I wanted to soften it a little bit and make it more accessible. I was thinking Westmorland, Cumberland, Lancashire, around that area. She does say that she had a B&B in Kendal, but she’s lived all over the place. And depending on who she’s talking to, she tries to speak with a bit less of an accent, or if she’s upset, it comes out a bit more.

Alison Wright compares Ruth's accent to her own.

I believe you came to America to become a better actor. That’s pretty unusual given like the perceived quality of British acting training. How did that come about?

I did musical theater at Newcastle College of Performing Arts, but there wasn’t any opportunity up there in the North. But then I learned about Stanislavski, and through him, Lee Strasberg and that there were two schools to learn the Method. I felt very shut out from the South of England. I felt held back and less-than and not good enough. And I happened to be going to New York with a friend for a few days, so I went and had an audition, got a place, and went there, bypassing England.

What does the Method mean to you?  

You hear a lot of conflicting, far-fetched theories about what the Method is, and it’s sometimes used to excuse ridiculous behavior. The best way I can explain it is that the Method is something to use when you can’t figure things out on your own. Perhaps the writing is not good, and you need to hit certain emotional states. If the writing is good, it does it for you. But if it’s not, you need to come up with a little trick to get you there. It’s all about imagination. You can lean into your own memories and attachments to whatever those things are. It could be a shoebox. You imbue that shoebox with all the memories you have associated with it. And then that’s one of the tools in your pocket to go, OK. I need to have a breakdown right here. This writing is terrible. Let’s go to the shoebox, and then you’ll be able to do it.

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