Mastering an American accent has become a rite of passage for British and Australian actors, and assorted other former British colonies. It’s an interesting phenomenon: in America we send most of our young actors through the teenybopper homogenizing machine, which spits out enough semi-interchangeable over-coiffed influencers every year to fill Disney Channel sitcoms and country music contracts. The downside of which is that casting directors looking for someone “authentic” looking frequently land on actors born and raised thousands of miles away. Half of our superheroes are English and Australian.
This, in turn, has led to a class of actors so good at American accents that hearing their natural ones in interviews is downright shocking. This past month alone has seen the release of Judas And The Black Messiah, starring British actor Daniel Kaluuya as American revolutionary Fred Hampton, and now Cherry, starring Brit Tom Holland as an Ohioan with an opiate addiction (actually Holland’s second turn as an Ohioan after Devil All The Time). Kaluuya looks like a lock for a Best Actor nomination, but both are quickly proving themselves masters of the American accent, and American regional accents.
It’s all very impressive if the actor can pull it off. When they can’t, it’s easy to wonder if they might just be better off writing around it. Scot Sean Connery didn’t even attempt an Irish accent in The Untouchables, and for the most part, no one cared. The reverse is also frequently true, like Richard Gere refusing to sound British opposite Connery in the King Arthur movie First Knight. Peter Dinklage more recently split the difference in Game Of Thrones, opting for Mid-Atlantic. Schwarzenegger never needed to sound like anyone but Arnold Schwarzenegger. There was an interesting tidbit in the recent More Than Miyagi documentary, about Pat Morita. The American-born, American-sounding Japanese-American Morita (whose family ran a Chinese restaurant growing up) had modeled his accent as Arnold on Happy Days after a Chinese cook that he knew. But the union initially had a problem with a Japanese actor doing a Chinese accent. Solution? Morita invented a backstory that Arnold’s mother had sent him off to China when he was a boy for complicated reasons.
I guess my point here is that doing an accent is an impressive trick, but you can always just write in a one-sentence explanation too. As Rob Lowe’s character says when explaining how they could have characters smoke in space in Thank You For Smoking, “It’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue: ‘that’s why we invented the… you know, whatever.'”
Honorable Mention: Christian Bale
The big question we had while brainstorming this list: does Christian Bale count? Certainly, he’s played lots of American characters convincingly: Patrick Bateman, Dick Cheney, Batman, the fat guy in American Hustle. But did he really trick us into believing he was American? A seamless accent feels more like a character actor’s trick, whereas Bale seems more like a lead. His characters are more like unicorns than people you’d run into in everyday life, so their accents have kind of a hyperreal quality to them. He’s such an actor’s actor that you wonder if he even has a natural accent. That English thing he does in interviews seems like just as much a put-on. Bale was born in Wales with a South African father, which may have contributed to his dialectic fluidity.
Honorable Mention: Margot Robbie
Margot Robbie, in my mind, is a lot like a female Bale. Clearly, she’s an incredible actress and has convincingly played a number of different Americans, from Tonya Harding to the Batman lady who falls in love with the evil clown. But again: mostly a unicorn. Which makes sense: it’s hard to look at Margot Robbie and think, “Ah an average American woman.”
She’s also Australian, which would’ve made my entire headline a lie.
10. Anya Taylor-Joy
Anya Taylor-Joy has had the benefit of becoming famous (sorta) for American roles (in The Witch and Queen’s Gambit) before many people had heard her natural accent. Which is jarring to hear. And also… complicated. Her mother is English-Spanish, born and raised in Zambia. Her father is Scottish-Argentine, raised in Buenos Aires. Joy herself was born in Miami, and lived in Argentina speaking Spanish until she was six when the family moved to London. Incidentally, her father was an international banker turned powerboat racing champion which sounds like a Bond villain or Jason Statham character.
9. Imogen Poots
“Imogen Poots” belongs on the Mount Rushmore of British-sounding names alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (which is Ralph Fiennes’ full name). “Imogen Poots” sounds like some kind of Cockney slang for a queef. What do your friends call you when you’re named “Imogen,” anyway? Jen? Emo?
Uh, anyway… that fancy handle was a big part of the reason it was so shocking to hear that Poots had probably the most believable accent in Green Room, where most of the cast was American. In films like The Art Of Self Defense, Poots has continued to excel at… well, at sounding like someone named not “Imogen Poots.” Probably for the best.
8. Tom Holland
Tom Holland is 24 and very British-looking, so having a believable American accent was a must for playing Spider-Man. Holland plays Spider-Man slightly more “gee whiz!” than fellow British-bred Andrew Garfield, whose Peter Parker was more of a smart-alecky New Yawkuh. Of course, he wouldn’t be on this list just for being the second British Spider-Man (how about that, huh?). It was more his roles in Cherry and Devil All The Time, in which he’s begun developing an interesting niche as “British guy playing dysfunctional Ohioans.”
I genuinely hope for more roles in this vein. In The Devil All The Time, with a dynamite cast full of British and Australian actors playing Appalachian, Holland was rock solid as the lead. People notice Robert Pattinson for being weird, while Holland is right there next to him keeping the whole thing believable. Tom Holland acts so that Robert Pattinson can goof around.
7. Florence Pugh
When I was trying to brainstorm this list with friends and someone suggested Florence Pugh, of Midsommar and Little Women fame, my first reaction was “wait, she’s British?”
Let’s examine that: do you know how good your American accent has to be for people not to realize you’re British despite being named FLORENCE PUGH? That is David Blaine-level illusioneering.
6. Idris Elba
I remember hearing Idris Elba’s natural accent for the first time while I was binging The Wire and being shocked. It’s harder to remember now that he’s spent the last decade playing the character equivalent of a series of bowler hats filled with fish and chips, but there was once a time when you’d see Idris Elba and think, “That guy? British? No way!”
I considered leaving him off the list after Molly’s Game, in which Elba’s ability to sound American seemed to have regressed 15 years, but I think Elba has earned an off day after The Wire. We can blame Molly’s Game on Aaron Sorkin and keep it in the repressed memory file.
5. Matthew Rhys
Watching The Americans, you’d never guess that Matthew Rhys was an alumnus of Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Melin Gruffydd in Wales. Yes, he has acted in Welsh. But consider what he’s pulling off in The Americans: a Welshman pretending to be Russian pretending to be American. It’s like the non-parody version of Robert Downey Jr. shouting “I’m the dude playin’ a dude disguised as another dude!” in Tropic Thunder.
4. Daniel Kaluuya
With Judas And The Black Messiah, it feels like Daniel Kaluuya has just about completed the transition to playing singular figures — unicorns, like the characters Christian Bale and Margot Robbie play. Fred Hampton isn’t just some random American guy, he’s a specific historical figure, a Black Panther from Chicago in the late sixties, with a distinctive way of speaking. Kaluuya nailed it, but this was only after Queen And Slim, Widows, and Get Out, which all required slightly different regional American accents. This from a guy who sounds like this when he isn’t working:
It’s hard to tell which version of Daniel Kaluuya is more compelling, Daniel Kaluuya in character, or Daniel Kaluuya as Daniel Kaluuya. After he gets his Oscar for Judas And The Black Messiah this year, I’d love to see a Schwarzenegger phase where instead of learning new accents, movies have to write in a character explanation for Kaluuya’s regular accent.
3. Hugh Laurie
To be honest, I never watched the House show. It was like Columbo or Matlock but a doctor and on heroin, right? America is a strange country: we don’t have universal healthcare, but you can find a show about a hospital on any channel any time of day.
Anyway, Laurie is one of those actors who tricked us into thinking he was American despite being named “Hugh Laurie.” Whose full name is apparently the even more British-sounding “James Hugh Calum Laurie.” Another thing I just learned about Hugh Laurie is that his father “was a physician and winner of an Olympic gold medal in the coxless pairs (rowing) at the 1948 London Games.”
Jesus Christ, is there any British actor who wasn’t the spawn of a wealthy industrialist and/or champion of obscure sport? “Ah, yes, it’s Ashley Oxbridge-Twizleshire, the son of Quidditch Grand Dragon Marcus Oxbridge-Twizleshire and current star of CBS’s new primetime drama, Psychic Nurse.”
2. Damian Lewis
Damian Lewis (OBE) is a ginger-haired Englishman whose most famous roles are Major Winters in Band of Brothers, a Marine-turned-Muslim suicide bomber in Homeland, and Steve McQueen in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Not many British gingers could pull of Steve frickin’ McQueen. And yet the London-born Lewis (no industrialists or obscure athletes in his family tree, sadly) did it all, and despite his incredibly small mouth. A hero to disabled people everywhere.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis
If Bale, Robbie, and Kaluuya tend towards “unicorn”-type characters, Daniel Day-Lewis is the all-time king of unicorns. He never just does “American” accent, it’s always “misanthropic Gilded Age tycoon” or “Civil War-era homicidal nativist New Yorker,” or “Abraham Lincoln.” Luckily Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest actor alive. Certainly the most insane. Technically Daniel Day-Lewis has dual British and Irish citizenship, but what even is he? I think his first language is “actor.”
And just to complete a stereotype, I should point out here that Day-Lewis’s father was the poet laureate of the UK from 1968-1972. It’s probably hard to get out from under your father’s shadow when he’s a poet laureate, but whatever the opposite of a failson is, that’s Daniel Day-Lewis.