On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with Samara Bay, a dialect coach for TV and movie actors, including Penélope Cruz, Rachel McAdams, and Keegan-Michael Key. They discussed her pathway to this career, the thorny history behind the classic mid-Atlantic film accent, and how she teaches the building blocks of accents to her clients. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: The platonic ideal of a dialect is not something that people actually speak. It reminds me of all of the paradoxes of realistic acting in general. If a character spoke as fully contextualized as we speak in our daily life, you’d be like, “This character has no consistency. They’re talking in all these different ways. What the hell is going on?” It wouldn’t look anything like what dialogue looks like in a TV show.
Samara Bay: Don’t tell that to writers. I feel like they’re trying to capture the authenticity you’re speaking of, but you’re right. We expect a certain consistency when we’re watching something.
It’s interesting that you come at those paradoxes from this other angle. Lots of actors make really detailed character biographies to try to figure out who their person is. You do some of the same stuff in trying to figure out how they talk.
When we have a script in front of us, the actor and I get to decide: are you going to drop your “G” at the end of that “-ing” word or not? You have options, and what are those two different things going to feel like? If you say “runnin’ and jumpin,’ ” it’s going to feel different than “running and jumping.”
We humans, in our real moments of real communication, use language so much more creatively than we give ourselves credit for. The sounds get elongated. The musicality is all over the place. We use pitch up and down. When we’re really in ourself and really need something, we use so much vocal dynamics. Then when we’re playing a character—whether we’re an actor or we’re just on a podium and we’re playing the character of ourself talking in front of other people—we often tend to minimize and try to not sound “weird.” Especially if we’re doing dialect work, we are perhaps worried about getting it right. I have to be there to remind them, you’re a character. You’re a human—as this character—who wants to use language to get what this character wants. I dare you to be as creative vocally as this character as you actually are in real life.
When you’re on set, are you also touching up the accent as it goes away on takes?
Here’s what set life looks like. The director usually sits away from the actors, often in a different space entirely, staring at usually two to three monitors, depending on how many cameras are shooting simultaneously. There’s a few director’s chairs set up. The director sits in one. The script supervisor sits in one. The script supervisor is this lovely human with this massive amount of paper trying to figure out continuity and making sure that every word is being said and every arm is in the same place for every take. Behind them is usually two chairs: a writer or a producer and me. What a fun and weird and lucky perk of dialect work that when I’m on set for those 12 hours, I’m in the creative hub.
Obviously, different directors work differently and some are more collaborative than others. In the greatest scenarios, they are interacting with me all the time. Either, That bit sounded odd, or They’re a little low-volume, do you think it’s because they’re not feeling comfortable the accent? You want to go in, or should I? We’re discussing how best to interact with the actor during this really sacred, strange time when they’re on set with the cameras on them.
The camera’s not rolling, but it’s in this suspended space between takes. Part of being a good dialect coach is knowing when it’s about dialect and when it’s not, and knowing how much the actor can take in terms of notes from me in between takes. Often when I come in is when the hair and makeup people come in between takes. We’ll do a take of the scene all the way through, and then the director will yell, “Cut!”
Then the hair and makeup people would go in, and I slide in too. Depending on who my actor is and what I know they need, I will either give them just eye contact and a thumbs up if they did a brilliant job and I know they’re feeling a little nervous, or I’ll remind them of a tiny sound that maybe slid a little bit in that take and I know that they can get it right. Actors, beautiful artists that they are, range pretty dramatically. Some of them would get really anxious getting a note mid-scene, and some would get really anxious not getting a note. You read your people.