The moment Kate Winslet’s character in HBO’s Mare of Easttown says the word overdose, dragging out the O’s so the word is closer to five syllables than three, you know exactly where the small-town murder mystery takes place—at least, that is, if you’ve ever heard a Philadelphia accent before. Unless you’ve spent time in the region, there’s a strong possibility you haven’t. The characters in Rocky don’t talk like they’re from Philadelphia. Neither do the ones in Silver Linings Playbook or The Irishman. For all the stories that have been set in and around the city, there’s a pronounced lack of authenticity when it comes to speaking the way the locals do—not a matter of failed attempts, but a failure to attempt it at all.
Writing in the New York Times in 2014, Daniel Nester called the Philadelphia accent “arguably the most distinctive, and least imitable, accent in North America,” but on screen, that distinctiveness seems to work against it. You’re more likely to hear fictional characters talking like they come from Pittsburgh or Baltimore than from the pockets of the city—mostly old-school Irish and Italian neighborhoods—where people drink “wooder” by the glass. That makes Mare of Easttown, set in neighboring Delaware County, not only distinctive but practically a unicorn. From the moment the first trailer dropped, locals seemed almost flabbergasted that Winslet was even attempting the accent, and even more so that she and the rest of the cast seemed to be pulling it off.
If you’ve encountered the Philadelphia accent recently, there’s a good chance Christine Nangle had something to do with it. A writer and performer on Kroll Show’s “Pawnsylvania” sketches, she went viral last year in a video where she played an employee at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, wearily explaining to a Trump staffer that they’re not in the habit of doing campaign events. With a similarly over-it attitude, she returned in February to play the secretary of Michael van der Veen, the Trump impeachment attorney whose reference to his office in “Phillydelphia” prompted the Senate to erupt in laughter. (To be clear, that’s not a Philadelphia accent thing, but dropping half the consonants from the word didn’t is.) Like many Philadelphia natives, Nangle has tamped down her dialect along the way, due in part to what she calls “accent dysphoria.” “When I got to college,” she recalls, “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, everyone can tell I’m an idiot.’ ”
There’s so little representation of the Philadelphia accent in popular culture that to outside ears, it can sound wrong when people get it right. “It just doesn’t sound real, I think,” Nangle says. “It’s like South African, where you hear it and you’re like, ‘That is not how any person ever talks.’ ” When he set The Fighter among white working-class Bostonians, David O. Russell had his entire cast adopt thick Southie accents so they all sound like Mark Wahlberg. But in Silver Linings Playbook, set among Italian American Eagles fanatics, there’s no regional accent to be found. Bradley Cooper, who grew up in neighboring Montgomery County, can break out the accent for local TV, but in the movie itself, there’s barely a whisper of it anywhere. Even M. Night Shyamalan, who is famously insistent on shooting and setting most of his movies in the city, rarely has his actors attempt it, with the notable exception of Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense. “At least she tried,” Nangle says.
Even in the Philadelphia area, the accent is dying out. (The culprit: millennials, of course.) Head to a diner in South Philadelphia or call someone to fix your furnace, and you’re likely to hear it. Walk through downtown or a college campus, and the odds go way down. And outside the area, few people are even aware enough of the accent to miss its presence. So over the years it’s become customary to sub in the vague New Yorkese that Hollywood uses as a universal signifier for white working class. (Think: the cops who are already on the scene when Law & Order’s detectives show up.) Susan Hegarty, who worked as Winslet’s dialect coach on Mare of Easttown, recalls talking to a veteran colleague from the Philadelphia area, who told her, “I’ve been working in this business for 25 years, and I have never been able to coach my own accent—not once.” When she tried to pitch producers on accuracy, she was told, “Nobody cares. Nobody knows what this accent is. We’re just going to do New York.” Given that being overshadowed by New York is inherent to the Philadelphian condition, residents seem to take it in stride—Rocky may not sound like he’s from Philly, but he’s been wholly assimilated into the city’s identity—and the rest of the world goes on none the wiser. Why even attempt the accent, when the reward for getting it right is that you sound horrible?
Mare of Easttown creator Brad Ingelsby grew up in Delaware County, where the fictional Easttown is located, and had been trying to set a project in the area for some time. (His script for 2020’s The Way Back was also set in eastern Pennsylvania, but the setting was moved to California so that star Ben Affleck could shoot near his children.) And his script for the seven-part series was peppered with phonetic spellings to help set the scene. But he says it wasn’t until Winslet decided to go all-in on the accent that the production was able to commit to it across the board. “I think it was really important to Kate,” he says. “She said, ‘If this is about this part of the country, about this community, if we’re trying to have the community as a character in the show, then it has to be real.’ ”
Winslet has said in numerous interviews that the “Delco accent”—short for Delaware County, and a close cousin to the Philadelphia accent proper—was one of only two accents that were so hard they made her “throw things.” (The other was Joanna Hoffman’s Armenia-by-way-of-Buffalo accent in Steve Jobs.) Craig Zobel, who directed Mare of Easttown, remembers her showing up on the set with a script covered in markings, and Hegarty pulls up one of many lists she made to help Winslet with certain vowel sounds. (The “O List” for the first episode begins, naturally, with “overdose.”) Hegarty says that while they were concerned with accuracy, it was also important to keep in mind the “taste aversion” some people might have to the accent in its strongest form. “We just had to come up with a subtle version that was honest, but it wasn’t going to turn people away.” Even so, Rolling Stone critic—and University of Pennsylvania grad—Alan Sepinwall wrote of the show that “Every long ‘o’ will make you question the life choices that brought you to hearing it.”
Although Ingelsby doesn’t speak with the accent, his wife, a Delco native, does, so Winslet’s first model was audio recordings of his family—his wife, her parents, their children—talking to one another in the car. Later, Hegarty and Winslet settled on a woman whose accent was strong enough for Winslet to grasp, but pliable enough that she could adopt it and still have room to act. Zobel noticed that she was comfortable slipping in and out of it, “turning into Kate Winslet” between takes, while some of the other actors would cling to their accents like life rafts. “Even at the craft services table, they would still be trying the accent out, because they just felt like, ‘I got it—I don’t want to lose it.’ ”
There’s more to Mare of Easttown than the accent, of course, but it’s a vital part of the story. Winslet’s character, Mare, is a high school basketball star who has settled into a desperately unremarkable life in the small town she grew up in, and the way she talks tells you that she’s not going anywhere. Her daughter, meanwhile, plays in a band and hangs out at the college radio station, and sounds like she could fit in anywhere. But if that daughter does make it out, she’d better be careful when she returns. “One of my aunts moved to California,” Nangle recalls, “and when she came back, she said ‘water’ ”—punching the T in that last word. “We just destroyed her.”