The Americanization of Brits, Aussies and others

English-speaking actors find a niche - not to mention employment - adopting Yankee accents

November 01, 2007|By Joanne Weintraub | Joanne Weintraub,McClatchy-Tribune

Hugh Laurie wields a mean electric guitar, has one of prime time's best scowls and plays an American doctor with enough artistry to have picked up a pair of Emmy nominations, a couple of Golden Globes and a Screen Actors Guild Award.

It wasn't so long ago that someone like the Oxford-born, Cambridge-educated Laurie, if he appeared on a series like Fox's House at all, would play, well, an Englishman. Perhaps not the supremely silly upper-class twit he embodied so memorably in Jeeves & Wooster, the vintage British series, but at least some sort of Brit.

No more. As Canadians from William Shatner to Sandra Oh have done for years, scores of English, Scottish and Welsh actors - along with dozens of their Irish, Australian and New Zealand mates - now walk among us undetected.

Three of the four dramas that premiered on NBC this fall - Bionic Woman, Journeyman and Life - have a British actor playing an American lead character. The fourth, Chuck, co-stars an Australian, Yvonne Strahovski, as the reluctant title character's American mentor in the fine art of espionage.

CBS' Moonlight stars another Aussie, Alex O'Loughlin, as a love-struck American vampire, with Englishwoman Sophia Myles as the object of his affections.

Viva Laughlin, which the network quickly canceled, had Englishman Lloyd Owen and Australian Hugh Jackman front and center as rival Nevada casino builders.

On ABC, another English performer, Anna Friel, plays the all-American girl next door and love interest to the hero of Pushing Daisies, a fairy-tale-flavored comedy-drama narrated by still another of her countrymen, Jim Dale.

British actors have "become all the rage in the last couple of years," Bionic Woman executive producer David Eick told TV critics this past summer in Los Angeles. "You know, everyone is looking for new faces," said Eick, who hired English TV star Michelle Ryan (EastEnders, Jekyll) for the role played 30 years ago by Lindsay Wagner.

"Every pilot I have made has had a U.K. casting director funneling tapes and so forth back from London.

"The development of the accent has really advanced over the last few years. I think British performers have really nailed the craft of an American accent - they are sounding effortlessly American."

If Brits and others are devoting more energy to the business of sounding like Yanks, the motives are both economic and artistic.

Where a House can keep actors like Laurie and Aussie castmate Jesse Spencer profitably employed for years, some of the most prestigious British series have much shorter runs, with as few as six episodes per season. Recent cutbacks at the BBC, with an announcement this month of more to come, make U.S. networks look even more inviting.

In terms of quality, where American TV once lagged conspicuously behind the best of the British output, series like The Sopranos, The Simpsons, Lost and Heroes are widely admired throughout the English-speaking world. Classically trained actors like Laurie, Ashley Jensen (Ugly Betty) and Damian Lewis (Life) aren't seen to be slumming any more than Vivien Leigh was in the 1930s when she went to Hollywood to do Gone With the Wind.

"We don't really have a [film] industry in England anymore," said Moonlight's Myles, whose previous experience with the undead includes a role in a recent BBC Dracula.

"And American television, especially in the last few years, is on a par with, if not better than, a lot of movies that are out there."

Just how hard is it to sound like an American if you're from Manchester, Melbourne or Cork? It depends on whom you ask.

To London native Minnie Driver, who earned an Emmy nomination this year for playing good ol' Louisiana gal Dahlia Molloy in FX's The Riches, it was a piece of cake, or perhaps a beignet.

"If you love accents," it's not difficult, Driver told TV critics at a session this year to promote the series, which has been renewed for a second season. "I worked a couple of days with a [dialect] coach just to sort of lock it in, but we filmed in New Orleans and, you know, you listen and you can't help but start speaking that way."

But Eddie Izzard, the English actor who plays Dahlia's husband, Wayne, confessed that he still hasn't mastered the dialect. Although he's been seen in Ocean's Thirteen and other movies, he's best known as a stand-up comic and doesn't have Driver's theatrical training.

Classically trained Brits, Aussies and Kiwis are coached in "received pronunciation," or "RP," the English spoken by a typical BBC news presenter. For some, that practically amounts to a second language.

"My indigenous accent is completely impenetrable - [even] I don't understand it anymore," Kevin McKidd, a native of the Scottish Highlands who plays a San Francisco reporter in Journeyman, said jokingly.

When McKidd starred in HBO's Rome as the centurion Vorenus, he brought out his most polished RP. Talking to critics, he used what has become his normal speech pattern, "essentially a middle-class, kind of neutral Scottish accent," he said.

"To step into the American dialect is a hard one, but it just takes work and perseverance. ... It's deeply satisfying when you get it right."

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