Many actors and actresses have tried perfecting roles with a foreign accent or dialect. Although many of these have made an honorable attempt at it, some doing a decent job, it is rarely close to the original. And of course, it is difficult, since there will always be locals who can pinpoint the smallest nuances of words that the actor might have gotten wrong.
However, there are a few great examples, in which the work and effort put into the voice acting has proved to be almost perfect. This list therefore honors these great and nearly flawless attempts at foreign accents and/or dialects.
There is a difference between doing a foreign accent and a foreign dialect. Accents mainly refer to the pronunciation of words and phrases, while a dialect is when actual words are changed in their spelling as well.
This list focuses on the English language, and will come across accents as well as dialects, seeing as the distinction can be extremely difficult to make, and the performances are equally astounding, be it a foreign accent or dialect.
To clarify why certain great performers aren’t mentioned in the list, it’s not a list of great linguistic performances in general, but a list for the English language in particular, hereby excluding an actor such as Christoph Waltz, who though brilliant in French, German, Italian and English, hasn’t done a distinctive performance of a foreign English accent (yet).
The list does also exclude people such as Alan Cumming, Hugh Laurie, Yael Stone, Lars Mikkelsen and Damien Lewis, who have all showcased brilliant accent and dialect work, but seeing as they have done so on TV-shows, they deserve a list on their own.
In the end this list hopes to revisit, or maybe even discover, truly great performances of all kinds of different English accents and dialects, giving the importance of great voice work (actors as well as dialect coaches) the attention it deserves.
20. Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years A Slave
12 Years a Slave was generally a well received film all around and is till this day praised as extremely believable and well made. From its acting, costumes and script, to the southern dialect.
Although most actors and actresses were praised for the apparent authenticity of their speech, with a few exceptions (looking at you, Cumberbatch), Chiwetel Ejiofor takes the cake. His dialect is consistent throughout the film, it isn’t exaggerated, and this combined with an overall great acting job, makes the performance very impressive.
The knowledge that Ejiofor was raised in London by Nigerian parents and usually carries a soothing English accent, only makes it so much more impressive.
Michael Buster, who has worked on productions such as Minority Report and Star Trek was the dialect coach behind the whole cast of 12 Years a Slave, and hereby also helped Ejiofor reach the perfection of his character, Solomon’s, dialect. As they didn’t know much about the dialects of slaves in the 1840’s, they put together an accent combined of rural samples from Mississippi and Louisiana.
Other than that, Ejiofor explained that he also grew up watching American television, which gave him a sense of dialects from an early age, and the more times he has done accents and dialects in films, the better it gets.
And Ejiofor has done some noteworthy American accents before the Academy favorite, in films such as Inside Man and American Gangster. However, the role as Solomon being his true break through role, combined with the precision in every aspect of his depiction of the enslaved man, makes it an obvious choice for this list.
Solomon: “I apologize for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years”
19. Colin Farrell – Tigerland
Irish Colin Farrell has starred in quite a lot of American films with all kinds of different American accents, from Crazy Heart to Minority Report. He’s of course also gone back to his Dublin roots with his Irish accent in films such as In Bruges and The Lobster, but does carry a certain status as an American darling with certain impressive verbal abilities.
Although there are many options to choose from, seeing as the actor has done quite a lot of American roles (some more convincing than others), his best American-inflection must however go to the less known, but very gritty, War-film Tigerland. Here Farrell does a convincing Southern accent as the rebellious Roland Bozz.
When talking about the preparation for the dialect, Farrell bluntly admitted his lack of knowledge about America circa 1971. Therefore, Farrell chose to travel through The States for a period of about 8 months, staying in Austin, Texas, to learn the accent. On top of that, he also made sure to buy and read a new book about the war, every time he got off the train.
Farrell also credits the many hours he spent watching American television as a youth, which gave him a natural flare for the particular way of speaking. This, combined with dedication and will power, brought about the perhaps best American accent Farrell has ever done.
Bozz: “What else they gonna do? Send us to Viet-Fucking-Nam? Too late for that shit?”
18. Idris Elba – Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Role: South African
Idris Elba is an English actor. However, one could be fooled by his American accent in The Wire, as well as the South African in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, where Elba gives his best as Nelson Mandela. There’s a lot of responsibility and expectation in such a historically important role, and no matter the success of the film, the performance by Elba is great.
It’s detailed and played with finesse, and one can tell the huge amount of respect that went into the role of Mandela, especially when noticing the dialect and tone of voice that is used. Elba explained himself that he used his background a lot when preparing for the role: his parent’s are West African, from Sierra Leone, and carry the accent thereof.
It’s quite different from the accent that is used in the more Southern part of Africa when speaking English, but it nonetheless gave him a foundation on which he could build. Other than that, you can also see the dedication and attention to detail in Elba’s performance when listening to how it changes throughout the film.
This is done by not only following the changes in time and hereby manner of speaking in South Africa (from colonial influence to independence), but also generally using warm tones in his voice.
The voice and reenactment of Mandela’s words have been seen thousands of times before, but Elba’s attempt is one of the greater ones, especially when hearing his very different accent in interviews.
Inspired by his dialect coach, Idris Elba would supposedly every morning on set greet people with the same line from the script (the opening line), which was adapted from Mandela’s trial speech in 1964:
Mandela: “I am Nelson Mandela, the first accused. I do not deny that I have planned sabotage”
17. Meryl Streep – Sophie’s Choice
The highly praised actress Meryl Streep has found recognition in the world of film for many good reasons, one of them being her ability to take on different accents and dialects, far away from her own American.
And although Streep has many profound examples of great accents and dialects (Doubt, A Cry in the Dark etc.) on her resume, with a few misses (Out of Africa), nothing really comes close to the dedication and precision that was used in her role as Sophie in Sophie’s Choice.
When preparing for her role as Sophie, Streep actually learned to speak both Polish and German, in order to give a believable portrayal of a Polish refugee. Along with this, Streep has explained how she in her vocal performance also tried to emphasise how gender roles and the backstory of Sophie might also affect the way her character spoke.
In the end Streep definitely succeeded in giving a believable Polish accent, and this combined with the commanding performance in itself, let her to win her first (of many) Oscar statuettes.
Sophie: “I am six months in the… in here, in U.S., and so I eat more good now than in my life”
16. Christian Bale – American Psycho
Christian Bale is a Welsh-born British actor who’s famously known for his many great performances and method acting. It should therefore come as no surprise that Bale will do almost anything to portray his characters to the best of his ability, including only speaking with an American accent, when giving press interviews concerning films in which he plays an American character.
This he does to confuse the audience and thus make the performance more believable. As frighteningly believable as his performance as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
Compared to roles such as Batman in the Nolan trilogy where he does an almost flawless brooding American accent, the choice of American Psycho might seem a slight bit controversial, seeing as some people have accused him of ‘over-pronouncing’ certain words and have argued that Bale’s accent in the film is too stiff.
Although this is true, it’s probably also what makes this the best of his performances to choose for a list such as this. Because not only is the accent in itself a good American accent, but the ‘robotic’ feel it once in a while carries only suits the calculating and perfectionistic character which is Patrick Bateman. The manner of speaking is hereby not only impressive for a British actor, but would be impressive for any actor.
According to different sources from the set of American Psycho, Christian Bale made sure to use the American accent at all times during production. Bale was actually so convincing as an American that when he finally used his natural English accent at a wrap party, crewmembers thought it was fake.
Patrick Bateman: “He was into that whole Yale thing”
Donald Kimball: “Yale thing?”
Patrick Bateman: “Yeah, Yale thing”
Donald Kimball: “What whole Yale thing?”
Patrick Bateman: “Well, for one thing, I think he was probably a closet homosexual who did a lot of cocaine. That whole Yale thing”
15. Margot Robbie – The Wolf of Wall Street
Margot Robbie was born in Dalby, Queensland, Australia, and hereby carries an obvious Australian accent. In The Wolf of Wall Street where she plays the stunning Naomi, which was her breakthrough role, she not only used an impressive American accent, but also that of a superficial Brooklyn woman from Bay Ridge.
There were of course many factors that played into getting the perfect accent for the role, including an acting coach, but one that Robbie has revealed to make great use of when acting, was pretending that she’d just had a manicure.
The accent is maybe a tad bit exaggerated, but so is the role of Naomi with her short skirts, platinum hair, and foul mouth. There’s a lot of focus on her in the film in general, and this only makes it so much more impressive and astonishing that it’s her first role in a big budget production, that she’s playing alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and that she’s directed by Martin Scorsese.
It’s especially when looking at the scenes with big emotions and arguments, Robbie’s performance in terms of her accent becomes particularly striking, seeing as these are the scenes that are the easiest to make mistakes in.
Jordan Belfort: “Duchess, baby, come on!”
Naomi: “Don’t you fucking Duchess me! Don’t you Duchess me! Do you really think that I don’t know what you’re up to? You’re a father now, Jordan”
Jordan Belfort: “Yeah! I know”
Naomi: “You’re a father now. And you’re still acting like an infant!”