S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: That fear that if I’m working on an accent, I will never be able to act again and I can either sound accurate or I can be an actor. It is my job as a coach. It is part of my job to hold their hand through that. Those two goals on the opposite side of the field become closer and closer and closer until they integrate. You just have to shut down your brain from worrying.
S1: Welcome to Working, I’m your host, June Thomas,
S3: and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler,
S1: and the voice you heard at the top of the episode belongs to Samaa Abay Isaac, who is Samarrah. And why did you want to talk to her for working Samarrah?
S3: Bey is a dialect coach for TV and film, and I really wanted to talk to her for all sorts of reasons. I guess on some level, you know, I just find the human voice and all the things it can do. Totally fascinating. But, you know, I was also curious because I feel like there’s a lot more attention paid to dialect now, particularly because there’s this kind of new British invasion over the last 10 years of actors from the U.K. coming to the United States and starring in TV and film. And so we have a lot more actors performing with accents that are radically different from the ones they use in their everyday life. And I just wanted to know, like, how do you do that?
S1: Yes, I agree. It’s totally fascinating. And I also think that dialect coach is one of the toughest jobs in show business, like do such an infinite variety of target accents and presenting accents. So you’re never teaching the same thing twice. And nobody well, you one rarely notices or praises a successful accent, but there will be no end of commentary if it doesn’t sound quite right, at least according to the armchair experts watching and listening at home. It’s just impossible, right?
S3: Yeah, absolutely. Although one that is successful that Slate’s own Sam Adams, of course, wrote a great piece about that our listeners should check out is Kate Winslet, Philadelphia accent in Mayor of Easton.
S2: I investigate the burglaries and the overdoses, all the really bad crap that goes on around here.
S3: But, yeah, it’s very hard in part because there is actually no such thing as a standard accent. No one speaks a textbook perfect example of their regional racial class, specific dialect. Everyone’s a little bit different and people code switch all the time. Right. So and if you actually tried to capture that in all of its complexity, I think people would think you were doing the accent wrong. So it’s a very weird, sweet spot to have to hit. I will say just have to get this out there that I do think American viewers, and particularly critics, are maybe a little too forgiving of English actors, American accents. There is this idea we have that English actors are all really great at American accents when actually they kind of just all sound like this. And we have a little bit of a cultural inferiority about our acting and we shouldn’t. We are also good at what we do.
S1: I so agree. Australian actors, on the other hand, can do just about any accent. It appears that
S3: yes, I agree. I agree.
S1: And in fact, I feel like I’m one of those people who can do any accent, but I cannot speak with an American accent. I once went to a dialect coach myself for a Slate video back in the day. And the person, Amy Stoller, a great dialect coach, I was her worst customer ever. And she tried to teach me that famous Philadelphia phrase, I’d like a little bottle of water, please. And I just did not sound like anything but an English person whose British accent is pretty weird, doing a pretty weird American accent.
S3: Amazing. You know, it’s sort of like I remember one moment in when I was a kid seeing the movie clear and present danger. And there’s a part where they have a voice recording of the mysterious villain. They don’t know who he is, but they they have a recording of his voice and they’re like, oh, yes, we’ve broken down the voice. And he’s from Colombia, but English educated and all. And I just love that you could just, like, take all those markers of someone’s voice and know everything about them.
S1: You have worked as a theater director. Isaac, did you spend a lot of time worrying about the accents your actors were using? I mean, obviously it very would vary depending on the play.
S3: Actually, a lot of the work that I’ve directed is new American plays, living playwrights. They knew the actors who would be involved. There was less of that. But I will tell you, when I was a professional actor, as a kid, I was in a play in which I had to have like a north eastern rural Maine accent. And we got a tape from it was like a professionally made tape that you could buy at at at a theatrical bookstore. And it was like a guy who would teach you via this tape how to speak in that accent. He had dozens of tapes of various different accents. And I remember listening to it, my own attempt at it was, I’m sure, terrible. But I probably got away with it because I was 14.
S1: Now, I believe members of the Slate Plus Nation will get to hear a little bit more from Somerby. Can you tell us what that will be?
S3: Yes. What is up? Slate Plus Nation. You get to hear Samarrah talk about a film she’s particularly proud of having worked on Loving, which tells the true story of Loving v. Virginia, the landmark case that ruled the miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. But the film stars an Australian and an Irish woman as two Americans from the South. And so it was quite the challenge. We talk about how she did it.
S1: Amazing. That is something everyone needs to hear. And it’s easy to gain access to this exclusive material. All you have to do is subscribe to Slate. Plus, you’ll get members only content zero odds on any Slate podcast, full access to Slate dotcom bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn. My God, so many benefits. And what’s more, you’ll also be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only a dollar for the first month to sign up. Go to sleep. Dotcom slash working plus. All right, I will stop providing very confusing material for the dialect coaches of the world. Let’s listen to Isaac’s conversation with dialect coach Somerby.
S3: Samarrah, thank you so much for joining us here on working today.
S2: My pleasure. Hello.
S3: So let’s just start with the basics. What do you do?
S2: I do a few things at this point, but my main job is that I’m a dialect coach for actors in Hollywood. So that takes two forms. Usually one is I’m on set for a long 12 hours a day, warming up my actors in the morning in their trailers, often connecting with them about what they’re recording, what they’re shooting, I should say, that day and being with them on set. The other thing I do is one on one private sessions for an hour or two hours in preparation for things like that, or actors who have big auditions coming up.
S3: And a lot of that’s training people to speak in specific accents. Right?
S2: That is what it is for sure. It is a combination of introducing vowels and consonants and musicality into people’s mouths that is foreign to them with inevitably some actual text work on the actual lines that they’re working on, written by, you know, usually other people and integrating what I like to call good dialect work with good acting, because it doesn’t really work to just be like, here’s some funny sounds.
S3: Bii right. Because they still have to be invested with meaning.
S2: They have to be humans. Yeah. Yeah. Which is honestly this is the part that where my heart and soul is because dialect work, you know, everyone wants to talk about accents. It’s like, oh my God, my uncle had this funny accent or you know, oh my God, I worked for years to lose this weird thing that I had from where I grew up. Accents are there’s so much to talk about there. But you know what every one of those conversations is actually about is what the human being is behind the accent and how that’s affected their life is fascinating.
S3: It’s funny because I think about, you know, obviously there’s a defensive reason to want to get the accent right. Right. Because otherwise, someone from the area you’re talking about is going to be like they’re going to flame that movie on Twitter or something. But it’s also part of the artist’s job. Right. You know, there’s a there’s a positive part of wanting to get the dialect right.
S2: Well, look, the opposite of the fear based version is I’m trying to honor what the story is that I have signed on to do. And so, you know what I dialect coaching within the larger production world of Hollywood is it’s relatively new. That didn’t even exist as a job until, I don’t know, 80s, 90s. It’s not on IMDB. I am. I am on IMDB, but I’m on IMDB under miscellaneous crew. Ladies and gentlemen, I probably will remain miscellaneous. But but but more to the point, it is, I think, in its best moments, in its most collaborative moments with I mean, collaboratively with the creative team, with the writers, with the producers, with the actors. It is a design element. So in the same way that, you know, productions hire a costume designer who doesn’t just say, like, this is a fun outfit, but says like, what is the outfit that best represents the story we’re trying to tell for who this human is in this moment that we’re seeing them on camera? It’s exactly the same. What is the sound coming out of their mouth and what does it reveal about who this person has been until this moment? It is right now.
S3: So how do you train to do that?
S2: No one knows. It’s it’s every single one of us has a winding journey because needless to say, this is not one of those jobs that people grow up thinking, I know when I grow up, I want to be like, there’s so little exposure to it. No one knows another dialect coach. I know the rest of the dialect coaches because we’ve all you know, there’s a lovely sense of solidarity now. There’s so few of us, though, and there’s less than 20 of us total on both coasts.
S3: You know, you think about like the old days in the early days of talkies. Right. Like the Voice coaches job was to give everyone a mid-Atlantic accent. You’re right. So they are the kind of like, hey, buddy, why don’t we do
S2: there is a real there’s a real lineage to the, as you say, the mid-Atlantic accent, the some some some less appealing terms for it is elocution. Right. And an even less appealing term, quite honestly, if we’re going to get real, real is the vocal arm of white supremacy. There is a right way to speak. And we are in America where, you know, social mobility is a thing. And how do you get up there? Well, you speak better. And boy, oh, boy, there are remnants of that all over the
S3: place, right? I mean, we think about proper diction or proper speech on camera or on stage. And I feel like it’s only been been recently that the people have been really invested in unpacking what we mean by proper and who gets to set what that is.
S2: I mean, I even I’ve clients who are not trying to be mean to themselves, who use words like, I don’t speak correctly there. There’s a standard there’s a standard American. It exists. It is an accent. It’s a made up accent. It’s fun. It’s good to learn. I learned it. I’ve got an MFA in acting. I did a three year conservatory acting program to answer your question on how I sort of got here and all of us who go through that sort of training in order to. You know, whatever Shakespeare in the park Broadway level, actors learn standard American, but it’s a made up accent. It’s just the most open, pure, energized, quote unquote version of every vowel and consonant sound. It’s not it’s not actually an accent anyone has. And to add a moral element to it is deeply problematic. I mean, that’s where this the people’s use of words like proper or correct, you know, and accidentally comes out in schooling, you know, when somebody who has a regional accent or who has, you know, to get linguistic here for a second, to have an accent with markers of class or race that are further and further away from the straight white male model, there is an experience that happens in the classroom of you don’t sound right. Mm hmm. And, you know, the part of dialect work that feels like it intersects with social justice work is where my heart and soul lies. And and I actually pitched a book at the beginning of the pandemic, and I’m working on it right now. That’s really this much larger question of what it is to speak up with the voice we actually have and still have power.
S3: So it sounds like in some ways part of your job is like undoing all the stuff we’ve learned about how we’re supposed to talk when we’re on camera or whatever in order to insert like a humanity. I love
S2: that. Yeah, I mean, the reality is on a job by job basis, I don’t have an agenda like that. I mean, of course, I bring my my values to the table. But my agenda on a specific job is to tell the story that the creative team wants to tell. And being a lifelong theatre person like that level of collaboration is dreamy, dreamy.
S3: Just to talk about the private coaching thing for a bit. So there’s, you know, some actors who you regularly work with on auditions and on text to just kind of figure that out. You know, if I’m like, oh, gosh, I just got cast is this thing I have to speak in an English accent or whatever, you know, like, can I call you up like like what are the steps by which you’re kind of OK,
S2: here’s the super basic. I pull a sample usually from YouTube and I find a sample for my actor of somebody who a has an accent that’s pretty consistent with themself. Not all of us are consistent with ourselves. That’s fine, but it makes it harder to learn the accent. The sounds shift in different weird ways based on, you know, maybe it’s a hybrid accent and that person spent only part of their life in that place. So I try to find somebody that isn’t that that has a really, really clean, easy to learn accent. And I break down what the sounds are. So by that I mean, I use this lovely device called the international phonetic alphabet. It’s what everybody sees when they look in a dictionary and they see these, you know, an Upside-Down lowercase E, for example.
S3: And so when you’re working on a set, are your early meetings with the director to kind of, you know, like a designer to kind of figure out what these accents need to be or, you know, at what point in the process of making a movie do you usually come on board?
S2: It’s really different for different projects and it has a lot to do with budget, but also with how much experience the creative people you just described have with the coach and with understanding what a coach like me actually does or can do if they if they want to give me that responsibility. You know, sometimes, honestly, it happens the night before. And my agent lovingly and with a huge wink, will call and say dialect emergency. And, you know, a dialect emergency is like, oh, shit, we hired a British actor. We forgot that they’re British and they start tomorrow and they’re supposed to sound American. It’s doable. I’m like a big fan of, like, being unprejudiced enough about this, that with one hour I can fix the dialect emergency. But in an ideal scenario, you know, I’m brought on weeks in advance. And yes, I have a phone date with the director. They download to me what they want, the spirit of this accent to be how not only how thick they want it to sound, but like what they want it to feel like, because we all know whether we talk about it or not, that we all have ingrained biases or, you know, whatever. The less bad way of putting it is we make meaning from what we hear. So what is the meaning that we want people we creatives want people to get from this character?
S3: Interesting. And also, I guess I mean, whatever the platonic ideal of a dialect is, is not something that people actually speak really well. It’s an
S2: interesting question. Exactly. Exactly. You know, there’s this there’s this fancy linguistic term, idiolect, IDEO, idiolect and an idiolect is a way of saying that every single one of us sounds different from everyone else. I like to add because of our life experience. So, of course, it’s the obvious things where we grew up, what our parents sounded like if we were immigrants, you know, but then it’s very quickly what our friends sounded like, who we idolized, who we wanted to sound like when we were in formative years, who we dated, where we went to school and, you know, where else we lived. And then this much more nebulous. But, of course, I think. Endlessly fascinating aspect of how each of us speaks, which is what we did or have done or continue to do in rooms of power in order to get by. And that’s where we get a lot of feminine markers of using a quote unquote, like too much or upspeak or vocal fry the use of, you know, these sorts of things. It’s I think all of it is beautiful, but all of it is fair game. This is like, what is the idiolect of us? Why what about our life made us come out the way we sell now. And, you know, the other side of that is nobody sounds like anyone else. So they’re yes, they’re wrong. They’re wrong ways to do a dialect. Like if you’re not telling the story in a way that the audience is going to get the story that needs to get understood, that’s wrong. That’s actually like sort of, you know, I’m not doing my job, but there’s a lot of. Right.
S3: It’s interesting because it sort of reminds me of all of the paradoxes of realistic acting in general. Right. Like it’s like if a character spoke is fully contextualized. As we really speak in our daily life, you’d be like this character has no consistency. You know, you would watch it. You’d be like they’re talking and all these different ways. What the hell is going on? You know, if we actually spoke realistically, it wouldn’t look anything like what dialogue actually looks like in a TV show. Well, you don’t
S2: have to writers. I feel like they’re trying to capture the authenticity you’re speaking of. But, yes, you’re right. We we we expect a certain consistency when we’re watching something.
S3: Yeah. Yeah. And so it’s interesting that you come at those paradoxes from this other other angle. Right. It’s like part of what you’re talking about, just to give an example, is that lots of actors make really detailed character biographies to try to figure out who their person is. And you sort of you do some of the same stuff in trying to figure out how they talk.
S2: And it’s not really abstract. I mean, it sounds abstract now because obviously I’m just sort of talking generally. But when we have a script in front of us, in front of us, we get to decide the actor in me get to decide, are you going to drop your G at the end of that I endured or not. And it’s not a decision. I don’t mean to imply that I’m controlling them from off camera. And it’s a decision that we’re making days before they hit set. But what I am saying is you’ve options. And what are those two different things going to feel like? Well, if you say running and jump in, it’s going to feel different than running and jumping. Something else that you just said that I want to pull out is we humans in our real moments of real communication and the theater world, we call the urge to communicate, you know, when we’re actually having like a I want to say something. We 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, you know, when we’re really in ourself and really need something. We use so much vocal dynamics. And then when we’re playing a character, whether we’re an actor, honestly or not, or we’re just on a podium and we are playing the character of ourself and talking in front of other people, we often tend to minimize and try to not sound, you know, weird quote unquote. And especially we’re doing dialect work. We are perhaps worried about getting it right. And I have to I have to be there to remind them like but also you’re a you’re a character. You’re 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.
S1: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Samantha Bee after this. So, hey, listeners, a couple of things real quick. First, if you’re enjoying this podcast, please take a moment to subscribe to our feed wherever you get your podcast so you will never miss a second of working. And if you happen to be listening on overcast, please recommend the episode by hitting the star icon. Also, do you have questions about the creative process, big or small? You can drop us a line at working at Slate dot com or give us an old fashioned phone call at three or four nine three three work. That’s three or four nine three three nine six seven five. We love phone calls. Give us a ring. OK, let’s rejoin Isaac’s conversation with dialect coach Samarrah.
S3: When you’re on set, are you I mean, you talked about keeping the actors warm, you know, having them sort of keep them in the space to think about the the dialogue work. Are you also kind of touching up the accent as it goes away on takes?
S2: And here’s what that life looks like. Yeah. So for anybody who’s not been on set, the director usually sits away from the actors, definitely out of eye contact mode, often in a different space, entirely staring at monitors, usually two to three monitors, depending on how many cameras are actually shooting simultaneously. So that is called Video Village, that little away from the action monitor space. And there’s a few directors 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 papers trying to figure out like continuity and make 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 producer and me. So what a fun and weird and lucky perk of dialect work that when I’m on set for those 12 hours, I’m actually really kind of in the creative hub. And obviously different directors work differently and some are more collaborative than others. But in the greatest scenarios, they actually are interacting with me all the time. You know, that either that that bit sounded odd or they’re a little low volume. Do you think it’s because they’re not feeling comfortable with the accent you want to go in or you know, we’re actually kind of discussing how best to interact with the actor during this really sacred, strange time when they’re on set with the cameras on them. And they’re the camera’s not rolling, but it’s it’s in this, you know, sort of suspended space between takes. And part of being a good dialect coach is knowing when it’s about dialect and when it’s not and knowing when how much the actor can take in terms of notes from me in between takes and touchups is a great way to put it, because often when I come in is when the hair and makeup people come in, which is between takes. So they’ll do it. We’ll do a take of the scene all the way through and then the director really will cut and then the hair and makeup people will go in because, you know, oops, the actor teared up in that scene and now we have to fix the makeup underneath. So to look the same for continuity, it’ll look the same for the next take. And I slide in, too. And depending on who my actor is and what I know they need, I will either give them just eye contact and the thumbs up. If they did a brilliant job and I know they need a little 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 if I just give them a little, you know, it’s the and they’ll be like, oh, yeah.
S3: Because if you over note them, if you over note an actor, they can get it could just sort of short
S2: circuit, but you can correct. And you can imagine because actors, beautiful artists, that they are range pretty dramatically in what their abilities are. And some of them would get really anxious getting a note mid mid scene and some would get really anxious, not getting a note. And so, you know, you read your people.
S3: And so when you’re in the ADR process, right. Which is, you know, as you said, when you’re going back in and dubbing over or inserting new dialogue or dialogue with the microphone, maybe didn’t pick up or in some cases rewriting a movie in post using it, what is your job like that?
S2: Sometimes it’s just as simple as consistency. It’s usually ADR happens six months later because, you know, there was a whole editing post-production process. So I’m helping my actor jump back into a character that they haven’t played for a long time. Sometimes, especially if it’s a TV show, the director is not there anymore because TV show directors are sort of journeymen droning women and they have moved on. So there isn’t anybody in the space who can talk to them about keeping their performance. They’re the voice matching the performance as well as the accent. And I’m happy to slide into that because otherwise the actors just get kind of wide eyed. And like, I don’t just keep using level that the audio people use the word level to mean sound louder. And it’s like that’s such a great example to me of how much like the audio people in that space are brilliant what they do. But that’s not the same as helping an actor. Right act. So, yeah, I mean, I kind of slide in in any kind of like support, creative capacity out there. But often it really is just like, remember that accent we did. So it’s this sound not.
S3: That’s right. Right. Because they might not have even thought about it in a very long time.
S2: Sometimes I get it. Sometimes they they grant me an hour of prep before ADR to sort of slide back into it. You know, sometimes not or we’re actually in ADR. I mean, you know, to be totally frank, sometimes we’re in ADR to fix accent moments. So if, you know, especially for an English language actor doing English in a different accent, for example, British actor doing American. And it’s pretty obvious to everyone when they’re not quite there, right, and maybe with a heightened dramatic scene and I made the choice on set to go in after the first take, but not to go in after that because I was going to throw them. Maybe they maybe they had their greatest take a take number twenty three. It made everybody in the all 50 crew members gasp or hold their breath because something real happened. I’m not going to go in there to say you’re hours was a little off, but in ADR. What a great opportunity.
S3: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. No, that that makes a lot of sense. I imagine that there may be instances in your job where you meet with a little resistance to what you do, either the director is kind of unfamiliar with the job and it’s like, hey, I’m the one who works with the actors or you have an actor who maybe it even raises emotional stuff for them or they’re worried about being spontaneous and keeping the truth or whatever. How do you kind of navigate those bumpier parts of the collaborative relationship?
S2: Isaac is you just you put it all. You put it all into words. Yes. Yes. The resistance is both of those things. The creative team obviously worries that I’m going to fuck up their actor. I’ve had a I’ve had a director say we got a note from the studio that we need 50 percent less accent, but don’t get in the way of her comedy. If you if you make her less funny because she’s now obsessed with her accent, that’s on you. But you didn’t say it like that. But that was very much about how he was feeling. And I was like, oh, that’s great. We’re going to fix that with the actors. It’s really interesting. I mean, that fear that if I’m working on an accent I will never be able to act again is present for literally everybody. And it is my job as a coach. It is part of my job to hold their hand through that and say that feeling you have right now of I’m not an integrated human, I’m either doing technical stuff over on this side or I’m doing emotional connection stuff over on this side and I’m running back and forth. But they feel like they’re on opposite sides of a field. And I can either sound accurate or I can be an actor. That feeling I get to reflect back to them is the most normal thing in the world. Every single person, including every movie star I’ve ever worked with, has felt it. And that those two those two goals on the opposite side of the field become closer and closer and closer until they integrate in the middle. And that process can happen within a single hour. You just have to shut down your brain from worrying. And as I love to tell people, you know, there’s no way around that through. And so when you’re in it, when you’re in the through, I get to just be there like you’re doing it. You’re doing it in that part of you that worries that you’re a robot and you’re never be able to act again. Congratulations. You’re a human trying to integrate.
S3: Well, I will try to remember this as we move into the practical demo part of this episode, because we have a special treat for our listeners. We thought it would be fun as a way of demonstrating what you do to have you attempt to help me. Mediocre actor that I am, deliver some text in an accent other than my own. So where do we begin with that? You’re in charge now. It’s now your episode. You can do anything.
S2: I’m drunk on power. Thank you. Finally, I got what I wanted. So first of all, I had a little audio clip for you, Isaac. Okay, great. Isaac and I discussed ahead of time briefly, and he requested an Irish accent. So my goal was, of course, to find an excellent sample for you. In an ideal world, somebody who is your type, quote unquote. I chose one of the gentlemen from the boyband One Direction. Oh, good, good. You know his name? I believe the way he pronounces his name is Niall Horan. And I picked him because his accent is gorgeous and clean and really by clean. I don’t I don’t mean the opposite is dirty. I mean the opposite is messier and harder to sort of grab a hold of. And I’m going to play it for you right now
S4: it’s basically to kind of like tell someone to like it, say something sarcastic. They’d go, really? I want to cut it. And that’s how you would use it. I’m only messing with it.
S2: So right away we’re hearing some of the some of the sounds. Right. So to tell someone a lie, you can just try this out. Just try this out. I like to call this the big, loud, bad version.
S3: Great. OK, big love it. OK, well, you say it and then also tell tell
S2: someone someone
S3: so someone
S2: aligned a lie. Most importantly are the vowels for Irish and that is that someone the words someone, despite being written with O’s is in both of those syllables and cup sound some one and that a big, big, big role for Irish. That up goes to a as in good. So that means one goes to one. And so someone is both of those. Someone might tell someone a line and
S3: tell someone a lie.
S2: It’s so good. Come on everybody.
S3: So now we see how much flattery is part of your process.
S2: Well, yes, but I would call it cheerleading. And it is very distinct from flattery in that. And this is important to me. I don’t actually lie about this. I have to be very honest. The final sound that you’re hearing in that lie for anybody listening is that I sound, which is a diphthong. Diphthong is the fancy name for a vowel that smashes into a second vowel. So in this case I is R into e in American English I e 90 percent that first one and then a little tail of that second one, I switches to a heads in the direction of but not all the way to or oh. What we would think of as oh why not all the way to extreme but somewhere in between. So I becomes I, I then tell someone a lie to
S3: do it and smile to tell someone a
S2: lie. I would argue you can’t not do it and smile. It’s joyful. So you lie in that same little clip that a section I didn’t play. He says, well first of all he says his name and says so. He says the word I’m as in I’m my name is. He says, Oh, I’m so you could say, I’m Isaac.
S3: I’m Isaac.
S2: Now you go. And then you know what musicality. The hardest part to teach is musicality, because it often comes from just listening and kind of getting it into your body. But remembering that the Irish in general are quite relaxed about how much pitch variation up and down they use compared to some Americans who get a little anxious and thus get a little flatter. So similarly, I’m Isaac could be very flat. I’m Isaac. Perhaps you’re in a mode. Your character is in a mode where they are hiding, how they really feel about something they’re holding back, or Isaac or
S2: assuming that you’re as free as this lovely gentleman is in this video and that we’re trying to match his spirit. I’m Isaac. Oh, I’m Isaac. I applaud your bravery. You can see. You start to figure out what the sounds are and then apply them and it’s more of a soft brain skill than a hard brain skill, although some actors really want to get hard brained about it. And then I do write international phonetic alphabet symbols over all of their big sound.
S3: They want they want to do it sort of in a really rote way.
S2: Yes. And you know what part of being a good coach or being a good teacher is being flexible with my teaching methods based on what the brain is of the human that I’m trying to, you know, sway. So I’m fine with that. But I love when they’re willing to play as you just watch so, you know, some of the other sounds just to just to run through it so that people can enjoy it if they’d like. Is a lot of those diphthongs become single sounds. So, for example. Oh, as in broken in American English are you. Oh becomes all broken.
S2: That’s just like, that’s just, that’s just one of the sounds that the OS could play at length. All right. And similarly he says basically that a f e in American English a a B becomes just that first round the F but with lank basically basically.
S3: And then I wait to get that. I think I got the tongue placement wrong on the L it’s so it’s, it’s er it’s just er
S2: for the like a short E but with length. Yeah. Basically basically I’m basically Isaach and I’m from Ireland and then of course and then of course I’m going to push you in the privacy in the safe space away from set to try out sort of crazy levels of pitch. I’m obviously using crazy with big asterisk because I don’t want anybody to feel like I’m pushing them into super clown England. But like when if not in the safe space that I have created, can you find stuff? I mean, what is beautiful and strange about dialect work is that I am the person who gets to be with the actor in the extremely nascent stages where, you know, fun fact about actors, they’re all perfectionists. I get to see them before they’re perfect. Help them become this character without agenda, without judgment and just letting them, like, actually be an artist in front of me as they figure stuff out.
S3: Well, thank you so much for coming on working and talking to us about your process and demonstrating a little bit of it with me.
S2: Isaac, thank you for being so Geva. I was so impressed with you.
S1: Isaac, what a great interview, Samarra is a force of nature, and needless to say, I absolutely loved the impromptu coaching session and of course, I really, really loved that she correctly pegged your type as being a member of One Direction. You did an amazing job. Did you ever try to change any of the markers in your own original accent?
S3: No, not in my life. I mean, due to the particularities of race and class and where I was born, I have a kind of, you know, what we think of as standard American accent, I suppose. But both of my parents are from the south and my mom’s brothers in particular have a real solid Richmond, Virginia accent, which is very difficult to imitate and does not really sound like what we think of when we think of Southern, which is, you know, talks like Foghorn Leghorn as I think when when we think of the South. Right. And so maybe it’s because of that. Or maybe it’s because D.C. actually used to have its own homegrown accent that doesn’t exist anymore. But I do find them fascinating. And I love doing accents and impressions of people and think I’m pretty good, but not great at it.
S1: Yeah, same. I also loved her distinction between cheerleading and flattering. Like you want people you’re working with feel motivated and to get positive reinforcement when they’re doing things well. But professional coaches shouldn’t lie to their clients, right?
S3: Yeah, absolutely. But I also think in that moment you got a sense of how good she is at the interpersonal part of the job. Because you look if you look at that moment, I was deflecting her compliment with self deprecation because I felt very self-conscious and embarrassed doing this thing that I didn’t really know how to do and knowing it was going to be recorded and broadcast to thousands of people. But she was able to reassure me that the compliment was genuine with like a good sense of humor and get me back on track, which is great, because as she said in the episode, so much of her job is actually getting people to stop thinking
S1: and just do. Yes, as someone who’s taught languages, that’s the secret you have to let go. You have to let go of being hung up, being uptight, being you just got to relax into it, not worry about sounding like a clown.
S3: And as everyone who knows me knows really well, relaxation is really a strong suit of mine.
S1: So good. Now, as I was listening to this, I was thinking, what did people do before the Internet? I mean, I can see that having a literal world of accents just absolutely fully accessible on YouTube has completely transformed Samarra’s work and also, you know, made accents and voices constantly accessible to actors to there’s so many versions of this. Alison Bechdel has written about the evolution of photo references for her drawings. First, she had to collect all these books full of photographs. Then she started photographing herself in various posing. Now she and everyone else can just find pretty much anything online. Is there any equivalent Internet resource that has transformed your creative work?
S3: Oh, sure. I mean, there’s probably more than I can think of. But but to name one, that’s very specific to the method Google Translate, because I was occasionally consulting Russian language sources for the first third of the book and being able to feed them into Google Translate, which is actually OK on Russian. Allow me to read them and then check any quotes or ideas or plot points or whatever I want to use with a Russian speaking French. So instead of having to write my friend Jerry and be like, can you read this 100 page document and tell me what it says? Because, you know, he has like a job and a kid or stuff like that, I could actually read it on Google Translate and get a pretty good sense of what it meant. And a lot of those documents actually came from an online Russian language library of primary source Theodor texts.
S1: Amazing. It really is amazing. So this interview made me realize just how much British TV shows in particular lean on accents to denote class and regional origin. A comedy like W one A I don’t know if you’re familiar with that show, Isaac, but it’s fantastic is really six accents. As much as it’s six characters. There really isn’t much characterization beyond the accents, but maybe you don’t need much more to express a character in comedy, especially in Britain where viewers will immediately hear, oh, she’s well show he’s from the north. Oh, she speaks with an upper class accent. But she didn’t grow up talking like that. There’s less of an overreliance on accents for that kind of thing in the U.S., I think.
S3: Yeah, I would agree. And I know you’ve spoken before about how characters with Northern accents are immediately the the butt of a joke and in a lot of credibility. Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally. I mean, there are some particular accents that we can think of, right. The Boston accent, that means mousehole southern accents for white people. Usually code is racist and not very bright on film and television, but it is not the same as in the UK for sure. I had a friend who was British and emigrated to the United States when he was in his 40s and we worked together when he was in his 60s and. One thing he said to me was that he wanted to leave the UK in part because he just knew the second that he opened his mouth that everyone would know his life story in the U.K. He he was from the Fens and he kind of invented a posher sounding accent when he went to Cambridge and never said it right. And he just knew it was very self-conscious that everyone would know that whenever he spoke and he also wanted to escape, that he would know everything about everyone else whenever they talked. So, you know, we I think code class and race and other kinds of backgrounds in different ways here. That doesn’t mean those codes don’t exist. They’re just not as firmly encoded in all their micro variations in a detectable way in how we talk.
S1: Oh, I can so relate to your friend. I would say that I live for exactly the same reason. This interview really expanded my understanding of the complexity of acting in a in a really basic way. I mean, I know that an actor has to inhabit a character, just one part of which is speaking in the way it’s been decided that that’s character speaks. But I was really struck when Samarrah talked about sometimes choosing not to intervene when an actor isn’t really nailing the accent because of the parts of the performance were really clicking. And she also knew it could be addressed in post like there are so many elements in play to recording of a movie or TV show.
S3: Yeah, absolutely. And one reason why I wanted to talk to her was there is this way in which, like the dialect work is like any other component of acting and that it’s both technical and it’s creative at the same time. And you have to kind of walk a fine line there. You know, when you’re acting in a film, you usually have to hit an extremely specific mark to make sure the camera has framed the shot properly. You know, sometimes you have to I don’t know, you might be sitting at a desk and you have to place your elbow exactly. On a piece of tape on the table so that it creates the correct angle for your arm when you put your head in your hands so that it looks perfect. That’s highly artificial. And one of the skills of a great actor is being able to pull that stuff off, make it look and sound natural and be really in the moment emotionally, or at least appear to be all at once. And that, I think, is much harder than it looks. I, for example, can’t do it.
S1: No, I’m positive that I could not either. That’s it for this week, we hope you enjoyed the show if you did. Please remember to subscribe or if you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. And yes, I’m going to give you a slate plus pitch slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero odds on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only a dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to Slate Dotcom working.
S3: Plus thanks to Samarra Bay for being our guest this week. Our amazing producer, as always, is the great cantlon Drewes. He is so great, in fact, that he did next week’s interview with Reality Competition. Casting director Aaron Tomasello. Do not miss that episode until that gets back to work. Hazlet plus members, thank you so much again for supporting everything we do here on working. Here’s a little bonus tidbit from our conversation talking with Samarrah Bay about the making of the film Loving Hope. You enjoy it. To speak specifically about something that you’ve worked on, that I have a feeling many of our listeners may have seen, you did the dialect coaching for the movie loving, right? I did, yeah. Yeah. A wonderful movie with really great performances won by an Australian one. By an Irish actor.
S2: Hollywood goes Hollywood. Yeah. I’ve got a very American story having to do with the Supreme Court. Yeah. The laws of our land.
S3: So how did you approach those accents? Were you were you mostly using recordings of since they’re playing real people of the actual people or.
S2: Yeah, it’s a it’s a gift to get to work on a biopic, a it’s such a gift. Because obviously that process of me finding somebody online and trying to sort of match them to my characters is streamlined. I get to just use whatever audio exists. In this case, there are real life couple from the late forties, early fifties, who were extremely private, but did in fact get interviewed. So, you know, the director and the actors and I all had access to these recordings and used them. I mean, the actors use them for reasons beyond my jurisdiction, in terms of the physicality and the spirit of of these how these how these characters were quite private. But I obviously translated the the oral side of it. And, yeah, it was great. It was my very first out of town on set job and I had a newborn really. My kid was four months old and I was like, all right, let’s do this. And I brought him with me and I, you know, pumped. And it was it was a real indie. And I think the other coaches didn’t want it because it wasn’t quite as much money. But I was knew enough and was waiting in the wings because I you know, I came up through acting and was doing some dialect work on the side in New York first and then in L.A. and forever for half of my thirties, I was the person who was coaching people beforehand. And then I’d pop in and ADR, which is the fancy term for when actors dub their own audio and post to fix little bits. And I’d be that person who would prep people and who’d be there at the end but would never be on set because the older, more senior fancier earned it. It’s fine. Coaches were the ones who always swoop in and do that. And, you know, it was really hard. It was really hard for me to figure out is, is this actually what I’m supposed to be doing? Because it didn’t add up for the longest time. But of course, over time, the prep I was doing in the post I was doing led to actors who got really attached to me.
S3: I wanted to give you a moment to talk about your book, because I know you brought it up briefly at the beginning. And I didn’t want to go without giving you a chance to talk about it, because I feel like it’s a way that you’ve connected your creative practice to to the kind of social justice angle of the work. And so for people who aren’t familiar with it, what what is your your book that you’re working on?
S2: Well, thank you. I yeah, there’s a podcast out there as well. And then the book came around around the same time as I was coming up with that idea. But in both cases they’re called permission to speak. And the permission side of speaking like ourselves is, I think, where my activism heart has found itself, because it’s it’s directly connected to who has power in this world, who who’s considered a leader and who allows themself to step into a leadership or power position. And I’m very interested in, as I like to say, the sound of power changing. I’m particularly interested in women and marginalised voices and people who have voice stories I’d term I just made up. But, you know, who have voice stories that are holding them back and helping us all realise that this is a collective issue. You know what we were talking about way earlier about elocution and, you know, the voice of white supremacy. It’s a collective issue who and who is and isn’t allowed to have a voice in the public sphere. And, you know, some of that’s twelve year old Greek stuff and what its legacy is now. You know, we get to we get to excise that. This is the moment. This is the moment. You know, the world is changing very quickly. And this pandemic has certainly allowed a lot of us an opportunity to reset and figure out what our values are and hopefully come out into the actual public with some with some new verve. So the book intersects with the dialect work, because what I realized over the years is that when I’m working with actors on something new coming out of their mouth. There’s actually quite a lot of similarity with anybody working on anything new, whether it sounds or it’s I’m speaking in a larger public sphere than I ever have before. And what happens to the human body when we’re doing something new is we hide, right? There’s it’s a fight or flight response. There’s adrenaline. We get monotone. We could you know, different people have different responses and people go really big. They they push. I am so excited to be here. You know, that’s a that’s a similar impulse as monotone. It’s just, you know, the opposite manifestation. And I’m just fascinated by, like, what the experience is of a human trying to be their greatest human self in front of other humans when saying something that matters. So that’s what this book is. And I got this great, huge deal this week, last year at Penguin Random House, and have been working, you know, as diligently as I can throughout the pandemic with, you know, child care drama, with Zoom kindergarten.
S3: And I’m so glad that we discovered Zoome kindergarten.
S2: I did a great my adorable five and a half year old said to me yesterday, unprompted, I might have learned more and Zoome kindergarten than I would have in the classroom. And I was like, what a delightful perspective for somebody who’s never had the whole amazing.
S3: And yeah, I mean, we should say, of course, you know, movies and TV, they’re back at work. Have you been you’ve been.
S2: Yeah, I spent two months in the fall in Atlanta with Galkayo proper pronunciation Galgut and she and I did part of Wonderwoman two together. So she asked me back on this one, which was, you know, an honor and a dream and very hard to turn down and also an opportunity to write my book away from my family. So I did two months in this insane bubble that we created. It’s a Dwayne the Rock Johnson movie, and he was very interested in being sort of the gold standard of what going back to work looks like. So we were not allowed anywhere but our hotel room or set. We had a QR code on our cars and we were timed. When leaving a hotel, when arriving at said, but you know what, we didn’t miss a single day and there was a huge amount of testing and a huge amount of obviously PPE. And it really was like, now I feel I have to say in a beautiful way. Now it feels like a relic now that we’re all heading into vaccine land. But at the time in prep in August and then on set in September, it felt like a a the solution. We were the only big budget American movie back.
S3: All right, that’s our show for this week. Make sure to tune in next week to Cameron’s conversation with Aaron Tomasello. Thanks again. Sleepless nights. So.