King Richard, the new biopic in which Will Smith plays Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams, has made Smith the widespread favorite to win this year’s Oscar for Best Actor, with critics and audiences alike praising his “towering performance.” However, one aspect of Smith’s performance that has earned more mixed reviews is Smith’s attempt at Richard Williams’ Shreveport, Louisiana, accent. Smith is notoriously iffy when it comes to accents, as he himself has acknowledged, and while some believe he “nailed” it, others have compared his most recent outing to everything from “a Jimmy Stewart impression” to a voice that “lands somewhere between Bagger Vance–lite and Uncle Ruckus.”
With Academy Award nominations due to be announced this week—and to try to find out who’s right—I reached out to dialect and acting coach Francine Segal. Segal, a New Orleans native and an actress who’s worked as a dialect coach on projects such as The Paperboy (with Zac Efron and Matthew McConaughey), Deepwater Horizon (with Mark Wahlberg), and American Horror Story: Coven (with Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, and Kathy Bates), explained the thing everyone gets wrong about Southern accents, what makes Williams’ accent distinctive, and how Smith’s performance measures up. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nadira Goffe: Can you tell me a little about your background with Southern dialects?
Francine Segal: I’m from New Orleans, but I’ve been all over. I cultivated dialects because I was good at it. I had a good ear, and as an actor I started getting cast because I could do the dialects.
How did you get into dialect coaching?
I was acting in the film Monster’s Ball. It was really a wonderful process, and Heath Ledger had a dialect coach, and it just wasn’t working out. They knew that I was a professor also at the time, in acting and theater at Tulane. So they asked me, “Do you think you could teach him the dialect?” So we worked together on the film. I mean, it was midway through. It wasn’t a perfect accent, but under the circumstances, it came out OK, and I enjoyed it. After that, the phone just started ringing and ringing, and I’ve been working like crazy ever since.
You mentioned that you possibly have a different approach compared to some other dialect coaches.
Well, I believe that a dialect is not something you stick on top of the acting. It’s not a Band-Aid. As an actor, everything is connected, to your intention, your action, what you’re playing. The voice is not here [in the throat]. The voice is part of the body.
Tell me more about Louisiana dialects.
Louisiana, and specifically New Orleans, has more vernaculars than any city in the United States. I have to tell you that New Orleans is not Louisiana. New Orleans has its specific accent, which phonetically sounds very much like Brooklyn, New York. It is the most difficult accent to teach. When they call me and they say, “We need to have 9th Ward New Orleans ‘where y’at?’ accents,” I tell the director, “I need four months before you go into production at least. I’d like to have a year.” It’s exciting to me because they never get the New Orleans dialects correct. When they do their budget, they never think in terms of dialect until the last minute.
What’s the background for the real Richard Williams’ accent?
Richard Williams is from Shreveport. Shreveport is a really thick accent. It almost sounds like East Texas. When you get closer to Texas, we sound more like East Texas, and then New Orleans is its own vernacular. It’s a gumbo of a million vernaculars.
Wait—does the real Richard have a standard Shreveport accent, then?
No. He really has a dialect that was indicative of the Black subculture. And it’s that of his age—in other words, it’s dying out now. Also, there is a lot of thickness from Shreveport from being born in Shreveport. And he kept it throughout his life. Every once in a while, he pronounced a word totally correctly because he wanted to emphasize it. It’s a rural Black South accent, which has some Shreveport underbelly sounds in it mixed in.
How does all of this tie in to King Richard and Richard Williams’ accent?
The original Richard, his voice and his placement and his body language, is very much connected to his voice. They go together. When you look at the original Richard, he dips from the hips and his head juts forward. That has a lot to do with how you breathe. It has a lot to do with your intention. The voice, the sound, the resonance came from the back of the throat. He has an underbite which is indicative of somebody who has an urgency to communicate. He pursed his lips a lot, too.
The original Richard, the shoulders are hunched forward and the arms are beefed up. [It can be] very indicative of someone who has had abuse in the background. It’s like your armor. And the original Richard had a lot of abuse. He grew up really hard. That affects your breath. The posture affects the voice. He’s very forward. His life is to convince, to sell, to push, to pry, to poke. That’s his actions. That’s what Smith is playing.
What are some specific sounds we could find in Southern accents and in Richard’s?
Substituting the d for th, so that becomes dat, there becomes dare. Dropping the D and T at the end of words, like “I tol’ you’’ instead of “I told you.” “We don’t belong here” [becomes] “we don’ belong here.” Then the R’s. And people really misunderstand the Southern R. That’s my biggest complaint when I watch Southern accents. They think that Southern people do not say a hard R. A hard R is said in New Orleans, especially in southern Louisiana, and [Williams] says hard R’s, OK? That’s called a rhotic, when [it’s a hard R]. But then most of them are soft, or sometimes dropped. So form becomes fohm. Minor becomes minuh, which substitutes an uh sound for an R. The ih sounds become an ee. So the word film becomes feelm.
And let me tell you the reason for all this—and this is my theory, I haven’t read this anywhere—the South is so hot and humid. It’s just too hot and humid to speak. In other words, the East Coast, New York, is more strident. You know, it’s cold. The people are in a rush. It’s part of that culture. And so they say the ends of their words, because they very much have to get things done. The South, darling, it’s so hot. My mother used to sit on the front porch, and she’d say to my father, he’d talk to her, and she’d say, “Oh, it’s too humid to talk.” And so what happens is when you have this humidity, saying vowels is easier to say with a loose jaw. The first thing I do when I’m working with people with a Southern accent is I have them drop their jaw and have them speak with a soft jaw and just hitting on the vowels. And then what happens is the vowels become diphthongs: two sounds in one syllable. You’re halfway there if you can get that.
What happens is there becomes thair. You understand? But not the way they do it in most films where they go thay-yuh.
In addition to the overaccentuated R’s, what are some other common mistakes people make when attempting a Southern accent?
Let me tell you, I cannot stand these fake Southern accents. I think that it came from Gone With the Wind or something. Honey, that film, those plantations, that culture is gone with the wind now in the 21st century.
They tend to take the vowels and elongate them. Whereas there’s a sound change in the vowel, but you got to jump on and jump off real fast. You don’t elongate it and linger on it. And that’s my problem. Like the word fast, it becomes fahst not fa-ahst. It’s quick. In other words, they take the sound change and they elongate them. Another big sound change is that the ih sound becomes ah. Like the word five becomes fahve. Not fi-ive but fahve.
A lot of people can’t get the O sound, like ohn for on. That’s very indigenous to Louisiana, not the rest of the South. “I’m ohn it.”
So, given all of this, how did Will Smith do?
Will Smith did great because, well, first of all, Will as an actor is rooted in his body. There’s a difference between impersonation and characterization. This Will got. He morphed him from the inside out. I suspect that Will Smith is an actor who works from the inside out as well as the outside in. Also the placement, I talked about the placement of his body. There was a lot of pursing when he was very frustrated, that jaw came up, and that gives you the gravel in his voice, and I noticed that the gravel that was in Richard’s voice was very pronounced as he got older. Will Smith picked it up, that gravel. It’s right here in the back of the throat.
He took on his body language. The sounds that came out of his mouth were the right sounds. The ones I’ve been going through. He got the ohn. I don’t know if it was written, but the grammar, the dropping of the R’s in the right places, he did it as much as the original Richard did it. He didn’t go overboard with it. He hit it exactly right. One of my favorite lines in the film is “Say hi to the peoples that’s gone.”
And what I like, let me tell you, there’s a difference between the way somebody really speaks and performing it. Some of it would not be understandable. He had to, at times, enunciate more than Richard would’ve enunciated, but that’s necessary for the art and the craft of acting in film and television. Will understands that. Sometimes when a word was an operative word—the most important word in the sentence—he would take the artistic license and not drop the consonant as much as Richard did, because it was important to what he was saying and the audience has to understand it.
Were there moments in the film where you thought the accent could have been better?
Yes. There were some times where the dialect slipped, where the R was too hard or when he said film instead of feelm, things like that. But his acting was so strong. The essence of who [Richard] was was so strong that it matters not a whit. So, for the little few times here and there, when Will didn’t capture Richard exactly right, do I care? By this time the audience has already bought it! I feel that the dialect coach did a really good job, and I think one of the reasons is because Will Smith did his homework.