House of Gucci, in theaters this week, is ostensibly a drama about the family behind the Italian fashion house, but it is soon clear what the movie is really about: accents. It’s a showcase for stars like Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, and Al Pacino to test-drive their Italian and Italian-accented English, and critical reactions have been mixed, to say the least: Lady Gaga was slammed by one person connected to the movie for sounding more Russian than Italian, and Jared Leto earned comparisons to a certain cartoon plumber.
How fair is all this grousing? To get an expert’s perspective on the matter, Slate spoke to Garrett Strommen, who runs a Los Angeles company that offers language lessons and dialect coaching, among other services. Strommen has worked as an Italian dialect coach and consultant for TV, movies, commercials, video games, and more, and agreed to explain exactly what is going on with Gaga and Leto in House of Gucci. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Heather Schwedel: Can you tell me about your background with Italian?
Garrett Strommen: I was born in the Midwest. I moved to Italy when I was about 8 years old. Instead of being an Army brat, I always called myself an academia brat, because we moved around a lot for my dad’s work. I was thrown into an Italian school there, and learned both Italian and the local Roman slang. I lived in Italy for about eight years on and off, pretty formative years. I did middle school and high school all in Rome.
How did you get involved in dialect coaching?
I have an acting background. When I was living in Italy, when I was 16, I got cast in a major motion picture kind of out of the blue. I ended up flying down to Africa to shoot a film with Kim Basinger and Daniel Craig. The character was an Italian boy. I actually worked with the dialect coach on that film. After that, I continued acting for quite a while. And people would actually come to me; they knew I spoke Italian, so friends and other actors would often lean on me for help with auditions or roles. Later, when I started teaching Italian and saw that there was a big demand for that, I started advertising as a dialect coach as well and ended up getting a lot more work that way.
OK, House of Gucci. How would you summarize what you thought of the accents?
I would say it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I would say that everybody for the most part brought positive things to their performances, but overall, there were a lot of inconsistencies.
Let’s go through star by star. How do you think Lady Gaga did?
First of all, I’ll say this, that her lines that she had in Italian were actually the best of any of the other actors. She really nailed the lines that were in spoken Italian. That kind of sways me to believe that there was a little more intention with her accent, because I see that she has a command of the language itself and that she understands the mechanics and definitely put some effort and time into it. A lot of the time she really gets the vowel sounds correct. You have to kind of slow down and pronounce each one the way they’re pronounced in Italian.
For example, when she said, [using an accent] “I get bored”: The vowels were all executed perfectly. The other thing in that line are the Rs. If you can’t roll or trill your Rs in Italian, you’re going to sound American no matter what. She did a very good job of trilling, I would say almost all of, her Rs. For reference, Rs in Italian are made the way you pronounce the letter D in English. Your tongue just kind of lightly taps the gumline above your front teeth, whereas with Rs in English, it’s more guttural, in the back of your mouth.
Another thing she did well is when she pronounces her th- sounds. Italians really struggle with that because they don’t have that aspirated th- sound. She says that more like a D. The downside with that, though, was that it was inconsistent, and she at times would slip out of those perfect vowel sounds and say things like kill instead of keel. She also had a very American-sounding H sound, which is another sound Italians don’t usually use. For example, in Italian, hotel is pronounced OH-tehl, like you don’t even hear the H. But she would often say the H words with a very natural American accent. It’s pretty tricky not to slip into those American sounds when you’re so accustomed to saying those words a certain way, especially when those vowel sounds are kind of hidden, tacked onto consonants that we use all the time in English.
Another thing that came up was the fact that Italians, when they speak, they really love to use their hands and gesticulate. Going into it, I thought I would see a lot of people gesticulate the wrong way, because it’s almost like sign language. Italians literally have 40, 50 different hand gestures that all mean something very unique, very specific. If you use it the wrong way, it’s super-obvious to an Italian. But what I saw was that basically nobody gesticulated, including her—there just wasn’t any gesticulation.
Overall, her accent conveyed an Italian spirit to me, if that makes sense? Despite the inconsistency.
What about Adam Driver?
Adam’s accent was far less consistent than Gaga’s. Just generally speaking, especially his vowel sounds—we call those vowel shifts, when you have to change the vowel sounds—remained very American. For example, at one point he basically said, “I didn’t know” where didn’t should have been more of a deedn’t. His H sounds also came off as kind of effortlessly American, instead of sounding like somebody that was struggling to make an H sound—it should have kind of an awkwardness to it for Italian. He said hello a few times. The most notable issue for him was that he didn’t really trill his Rs. He says “very beautiful.” The R should be a tap on the tongue rather than being back in the middle of your mouth, you know?
My biggest complaint with his performance, and I think it kind of encapsulates it, is twice in the film he said grazie, Italian for “thank you.” The thing is he said the version that when I meet someone who doesn’t speak any Italian, they’ll say grat-zee to me, where they drop that Italian E off the end. There’s basically an -eh sound at the end of that: grat-zee-eh. If you were somebody coming to me to just learn some basic conversational Italian, that’s something we would pretty much cover in the first lesson.
He was, for an Italian, just extremely stiff with the gesticulation. But there was one moment where he put his hands together in the prayer formation. And that was very Italian. That was the only time he really did it, but it really worked. That’s a tricky thing, because people don’t really think of that as a dialect coach, but it’s an intrinsic part of the language. So I feel like someone could, to make it easier for them, suggest specific things. Especially when they’re getting angry at each other or yelling at each other, there’s so many ways to tell somebody to, you know, “beep off” with your hands.
With him, I’m looking at it on a level of consistency, and his accent wasn’t really consistently Italian or American. It’s not like he picked a level and stuck to it. I noticed this with him too: When he was with certain actors, it almost seemed like he nailed the accent better, partly because you have that kind of parroting effect with people when you’re acting. In certain scenes, for example, with the Italian actors, his accent was much stronger.
On to Jared Leto.
I’m almost upset about this one because he did so much right, but then really kind of messed it up with one thing that he kept doing. With how he hit his consonants, kind of hard and heavy, that was very Italian. Italian is a language that requires you to really use your mouth and tongue. If you don’t speak Italian normally and you’re speaking it properly, your mouth should get tired in about five minutes. He was maybe the the best at some things with that. His vowel sounds were remarkable, honestly. At one point, I even wondered if he was Italian, because at first I didn’t really even recognize him in his makeup. Also, part of what was so convincing was how much he used his hands and gesticulated. I thought that was really convincing and authentic.
The big problem with him was another issue you run into with what Americans perceive Italian as being. In Italian, you have a thing called the tonic accent, which is that most words have the accent on the second-to-last syllable. We all know that kind of caricature of an Italian, like “Mahhr-ee-oh” [Mario], or the New Jersey kind of “ ’ey! I’m Italian!” It’s the overemphasis of the tonic accent to sound quote-unquote Italian. He even went so far sometimes to just add extra syllables to things. Like he said, “no spring chicken-uh” at one point. He also overdid that in his spoken Italian. He had some Italian lines that were pretty good. I would have just recommended he tone it down because Italian is actually one of the most fluid and smooth languages. It just kind of flows like water rather than going up and down and up and down.
What about Al Pacino?
I can’t recall which films he’s spoken Italian in before, but I remember never being too impressed with Al Pacino’s Italian. I think he did his homework for this one, because his accented Italian was pretty good. He correctly pronounced th- sounds the way Italians do repeatedly. His consonants were nice and strong—his cadence was good, and his tonic accent was good. It wasn’t over the top like Jared’s.
He also incorporated that kind of Italian soul with the hand gestures. I would have liked to see more of that. It seemed like his natural accent and style slipped several times. For example, when he said “Come to my birthday party,” he said it with a very soft T that sounded like a D, like “par-dee,” whereas in Italian that would have been “par-tee” with the trill. He didn’t do a lot of trilling with his Rs.
Was there anyone else who stood out to you in the movie?
Jeremy Irons sounded very English. It just seemed like he completely dropped the accent. Salma Hayek, I did pay a little attention to her performance. There was one scene where she was on the TV and I noticed her accent wasn’t very good. But then in subsequent scenes, she did a very good job. She trilled her Rs. She took her time more than anybody else did with her vowels, pronouncing each vowel slowly. I would say she had one of the better accents.
Overall, who would you say was best and worst?
Let me start with the worst. Is that OK? I would say that definitely the worst is Jeremy Irons. After him, Adam Driver. Then, maybe this isn’t what you want to hear, but I would say it’s almost like a tie between Al Pacino, Lady Gaga, and, God—I can’t believe I’m saying this—Jared Leto. I feel like he won, but he really messed it up with that tonic accent. It’s hard to get past that. And that’s why it was so frustrating for me, because of how intense he was about that, kind of playing it up. But that could be part of the character choice, just somebody who it’s a little bit of a funny guy.
Lady Gaga has talked a bit in interviews about how she wanted her character’s accent to reflect class differences and regional differences depending on who she was speaking to. How do you think she did with that?
I definitely noticed a change when she was at that party, the lunch at the ski slope with all of [Adam Driver’s character] Maurizio’s friends. It got a little elevated for sure, a little more fluid. I did notice that that shift in that scene and certainly when she’s in the scenes at home, the little she spoke, I can see how maybe she pushed the accent a little bit more. She was doing something there.
She also has talked about how she stayed in character for nine months. What do you think of that as a strategy for getting the accent down?
I believe that, especially because when she spoke Italian, her spoken Italian was quite good. I got the feeling that she’d been speaking a lot of Italian and practicing her Italian. With regard to the accented English, I think you might run into an issue if in character for nine months and you’re doing a few things incorrectly, you might just be reinforcing something that’s not quite right. But I think that, if done correctly, that could be a very good strategy. Ideally, I think anybody attempting to do an Italian-accented English should get as much of a command of the Italian language as possible.
Her accent got a lot of attention when Salma Hayek’s dialect coach from the film said she thought Lady Gaga sounded more Russian than Italian. What did you make of that?
I think that that criticism might be in part due to some of the vowels not being crystal clear. I can see where there’s something going on with some of the vowels, maybe the I sounds, where there’s a little bit of a fluctuation in the vowel sound that can give it the kind of sounds you get in Russian. But it didn’t sound like a Russian accent to me. It sounded like a unique, not exactly standard Italian accent. There was a kind of a uniqueness to it, which perhaps is based on the original Italian dialect that her character in real life spoke. I don’t think it sounded Russian per se.
If you had been the dialect coach on this movie, what would you have focused on?
The biggest issues I saw were some actors not trilling their Rs. Some people have a mental block where they think they can’t do it, but sometimes it’s just a matter of replacing the R with a D and getting them accustomed to that.
You’re bringing me back to my high school Spanish classes. I loved to read and write, but I hated speaking because I could not roll my Rs.
I can teach you to roll your Rs right now.
I don’t think you can.
I’ll trick you. It’s a trick. Let me think of an Italian word. Largo. Try saying it real quick.
Now replace the R with a D. If you say it soft enough, that’s where your tongue should be. Try lad-go.
Yeah. Now say it five times fast.
Lad-go, lad-go, lad-go, lad-go, lad-go.
You just did it. You didn’t even realize it.
Wow! That’s amazing.
You’ll listen to this over again, and you’ll hear that you in fact rolled your R.
If only they’d had you on set.
If I’d been working on this movie, ideally, we would have eliminated the American-sounding Rs. And it’s pretty simple, but just reinforcing and reading over and over again, without even acting, the lines, and as if they were like a music sheet with Italian vowels. Just practicing those vowel sounds over and over again until that’s all you see. Those were the biggest issues that they ran into with the sounds, the H sounds, the trilling of the Rs and the vowel sounds. Now, if you can then add in the extra heavy consonants where you need them, then that just really kind of brings it all together.