Paul Revere warned us about this.
Everywhere you look, or rather listen, you can hear the sound of British actors who have shed their native accents in order to portray Americans on TV, film, and stage. It’s as if the Brits are recolonizing the USA, role by role. Perhaps it’s cultural payback for all those Yanks who’ve mangled Shakespeare over the years?
The real reason is more prosaic, of course: Becoming adept at American accents is simply a good career move. Performers tend to go where the work is, so for many ambitious British actors, there comes a time to say, cheerio, Downton Abbey; hello, Hollywood. Stop trilling those “r’s,” and shorten those vowels, to travel down the path — definitely not “pahhth” — to glory.
Even the most quintessentially American figures are not off-limits. Just ask Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln”), Clive Owen (Ernest Hemingway in “Hemingway & Gellhorn”), David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Selma”), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X in “One Night in Miami”), Tom Hiddleston (Hank Williams, in “I Saw the Light”), Anthony Hopkins (the title character in “Nixon”), or Cynthia Erivo (Aretha Franklin in “Genius: Aretha”).
The first inkling many American viewers get of an actor’s Britishness occurs when he or she accepts an award, an awakening akin to the startled feeling US baby boomers had the first time they heard the Beatles speak rather than sing. Five of the 10 performers nominated in the lead actor or actress category at last month’s Academy Awards hail from Britain — and all but one played an American. (The exception was Hopkins, who won for “The Father.”) As they disappeared into their characters, so too did their British accents.
One of those Oscar nominees was British-born Riz Ahmed, who earned a nod for his performance as an American drummer battling hearing loss on “Sound of Metal.” In an interview with Ahmed before the film was released, I asked him whether the linguistic agility of his countrymen stems from rigorous training on how to use their voices at drama schools like the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Nope. The actual reason, Ahmed replied, is much more straightforward. “It’s just the dominance of American culture,” he said. “Many of the world’s children grow up listening to American accents and watching American characters and understanding American vernacular. In a way, it’s not really a choice.”
OK. But on a technical level, it’s consistently impressive.
Some Oscar viewers were surely surprised to hear Daniel Kaluuya’s British accent as he accepted the best supporting actor award for his portrayal of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Ditto for some viewers of last weekend’s season finale of “Saturday Night Live,” hosted by Anya Taylor-Joy, who made a big splash as Kentucky chess prodigy Beth Harmon in Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit.” An Argentine-British actress who was born in Miami, Taylor-Joy made note of her accent in her opening monologue.
She is a strong contender for an Emmy nomination, as is Kate Winslet for her gritty performance in HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” as an emotionally scarred detective in a small Pennsylvania town who is on the trail of a murderer. If you tune in Sunday night to the seventh and final episode, you can decide for yourself whether Winslet pulls off the accent. To my Boston ear she sounds pretty authentic, but that view is not universal; Winslet’s accent was parodied in a recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch titled “Murdur Durdur.”
(The sketch was similar to a “Late Night with Seth Meyers” sketch from a few years ago, titled “Boston Accent,” that featured Meyers making a hash of “wicked smahht” as what the narrator called a “hard-nosed detective played by a British actor who’s trying his best but doesn’t quite have it.”)
For understandable reasons, some American performers are not happy about the number of choice roles in films and TV shows that have been won by British actors. When Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” was released, in 2017, Samuel L. Jackson criticized the casting of Kaluuya, saying in a radio interview: “There are a lot of Black British actors in these movies. . . . What would a brother from America have made of that role? Some things are universal, but not everything.”
Kaluuya told the website ScreenDaily a couple of months ago that he understood taking on the role of Hampton might raise hackles, noting that “There’s a history of African-American erasure. . . . As someone coming into their country and portraying a person that fought for them and represented them, I’m open to hearing it.” But, Kaluuya emphasized, “I felt the responsibility, just in terms of what he meant as a man. . . . I didn’t lead with ‘Oh, I’m British.’ I don’t even see myself as British. So I don’t internalize that perspective on me, especially when I’m building a character.”
Neither, apparently, does Andrew Garfield, who is making a specialty of playing Americans. Born in America but raised in England, Garfield won a Tony Award as Prior Walter in the 2018 revival of “Angels in America,” having made his Broadway debut in 2012 in “Death of a Salesman” as Biff, son of that tragic captive of the American dream, Willy Loman. On film, Garfield has starred in “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012).
Matthew Rhys, who grew up in Wales and still speaks Welsh at home with his son, is currently getting ready to resume production on season 2 of HBO’s “Perry Mason,” the origin story of America’s most famous fictional defense attorney. Rhys had previously won an Emmy Award for (ahem) “The Americans,” where — wheels within wheels — he played a Russian spy masquerading as a US citizen.
Emily Blunt (“A Quiet Place” and its sequel), Idris Elba (”Concrete Cowboy”), Benedict Cumberbatch (”Doctor Strange”). . . . There’s no stopping these trans-Atlantic crossings. Patriotism compels me to point out that sometimes a journey in the other direction proves rewarding — Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher in “The Crown,” say, or Emma Stone’s Cruella de Vil in “Cruella.” (So as not to weaken my case, I’ll glide past the regrettable matter of Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent in “Mary Poppins.” )
Hugh Laurie is a prime example of the career dividends that can flow to an actor who deviates from his mother tongue. Early in his career, Laurie was closely identified with that ultimate British fop, Bertie Wooster, playing him on “Jeeves and Wooster,” a popular ITV adaptation of the P.G. Wodehouse novels. But then Laurie landed what turned out to be the role of a lifetime, as Dr. Gregory House, an eccentric, misanthropic genius surgeon at a New Jersey hospital, in Fox’s “House” (2004-12). In a sense, Laurie’s portrayal of House covered both ends of the equation, since the character was inspired by Sherlock Holmes.
Not long after that series wrapped, the role of US senator Tom James in HBO’s “Veep” (2012-19) was created specifically for Laurie, doubtless triggering more grinding of teeth among the many distinguished-looking American actors who feel they were born to play a senator.
A line often attributed to George Bernard Shaw has it that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” These days, Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle would demand that Henry Higgins teach her how to speak with an American accent, say to heck with the flower shop, and find herself an agent.