Why Brits Are So Good At Playing Americans

In the new civil rights drama Selma, at cinemas this month, the three central characters – each in his way an iconic american figure – are all played by British actors: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr; Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B Johnson; and Tim Roth as infamous Alabama Governor George Wallace. It’s a noble tradition: from Cary Grant to Tom Hardy, Brits have excelled at playing Yanks. But why are we so good at it, and how come we’re so rarely willing to return the compliment by casting them as us?

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There have always been English actors thriving in American films and at the Oscars this year you may hear a lot of Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Timothy Spall being interviewed on the red carpet, or even giving a wry but heartfelt speech of thanks.

Americans still love the way Brits speak, not just the sound of their voice, but their rather laconic and ironic touch with sentiment or sincerity. If you go back to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), which is as American as Mount Rushmore, the sun-baked prairies, crop-dusting planes where no crops grow, you’ll note that both the hero and villain (Cary Grant and James Mason) are not just English to listen to, but English with butter, jam and cream, like a suave Cornish tea. They seem to be playing Americans, but the system didn’t worry about the gap because it trusted that Middle America loved hearing smart limeys talk.

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In their different ways, Grant and Mason crossed over to the US. It remains a mystery as to what Grant did with his voice after he abandoned Archie Leach. It’s almost certain that he had sounded like a West Country boy, born and raised in Bristol, and yet by the time he was 30 there he was on screen, chatting with Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn and seeming at home.

As for Mason, I don’t think he ever messed with his voice after he had found the recipe for superiority, allure and elocution. So he simply asserts that he is American as Dr Quinada in Caught (1949); as Norman Maine in A Star is Born (1954); and Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (1956).

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In Some Like it Hot (1959), where Tony Curtis’s rascal character does a Cary Grant impersonation to seduce Marilyn Monroe, the infuriated Jack Lemmon tells him, “Nobody talks like that!”. And I suppose they don’t, or not unless they have found the need to talk in a way that won’t trouble Americans too much.

I was born and raised in south London, but have been a resident in San Francisco for more than 30 years, so I’m sensitive to this dilemma: or is it best approached as an opportunity?

[Above: Idris Elba, from Hackney, and Dominic West, from Sheffield, played Stringer Bell and Jimmy McNulty, from Baltimore, in 'The Wire']

But in 2014, I was struck again by the puzzle when I started to watch a new television series, The Affair. It’s summer on Long Island and a New York family (parents and four children), have gone for a holiday, staying at the wife’s parents’ home in Montauk at the eastern tip of the island. The man in the family, Noah, is a novelist, struggling to write his second book and pay for the brood. Well, he meets a waitress on the island, and she’s attractive, sad and a bad risk. She’s a woman who has lived all her life on Long Island. They fall in love.

The couple in The Affair are played by Dominic West and Ruth Wilson. They’re pretty good; I’m not sure that they aren’t better than the series deserves. But Dominic West was born in Sheffield, while Ruth Wilson comes from Surrey.

I’d seen plenty of West before, but Ms Wilson was new to me – did I sleep through The Lone Ranger (2013)? – until I learned that she’s the anguished, Londonish voice of Tom Hardy’s wife on the carphone in Locke (2013). She’s done a lot of theatre in England but I hadn’t seen that. All I knew was that she sounded like a young woman from New York State, with a voice that seemed insinuating, beseeching but tough (by turns), not to mention her rare mouth. I know, we’re not supposed to mention an actor’s particularities, but what are we meant to look at? And how can Ruth Wilson act without letting her mouth move?

Then, in a promo for The Affair, I happened to see her being interviewed, talking about her character Alison, and her voice was just what I’d have expected from south London and the suburbs south of the city: not quite proper, somewhere between harsh, lazy and whiny, just like the voice I grew up with. But then the promo cut away to a scene from the new series and she was once again a plausible Montauk outcast.

It was Wilson’s sly naturalness that impressed me. She wasn’t straining after the US accent in the way Marlon Brando was reaching to sound haughty and English in Burn! (1969) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). In the latter, he played First Lieutenant Fletcher Christian as if he might have learned the aristocratic English drawl from Berlitz records. As soon as I noted The Affair, I remembered the Deep South of 12 Years a Slave stars three British actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender plus Cumberbatch). I realised that the wife in Gone Girl (2014) is Rosamund Pike (born in Hammersmith).

In Selma, Martin Luther King, Jr is played by David Oyelowo (born in Oxford), wife Coretta Scott King by Carmen Ojogo (Kensington), President Lyndon B Johnson by Tom Wilkinson (Leeds) and Alabama Governor George Wallace by Tim Roth (London).

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[Above: David Oyelowo, from Oxford, as Martin Luther King Jr, from Atlanta, Georgia in 'Selma']

Meanwhile on television, Damian Lewis has been a US marine in Homeland, and Idris Elba a Baltimore drug dealer – alongside Dominic West again, as a local cop – in The Wire. Then there is Tom Hardy in The Drop (2014), playing a beaten down, none-too-bright Brooklyn barman so that he fit in as suitable company for his boss James Gandolfini.

Of course, Hardy is a wonder: he’s from Hammersmith, too, but he did a melodious, hushed, Welsh voice for Locke, and in Lawless (2012) he is a Virginian, back-country moonshiner who seems embedded in the smoky burr of the place. This acting is fit to be put beside Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible (1996) and There Will be Blood (2007) – before he won every bit of esteem and approval as President Lincoln himself.

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As Lincoln (2012) made clear, Day-Lewis isn’t just a master actor but a vocal chameleon. Yet it’s remarkable that the American acting community stood by and let a Brit play that hallowed part (in fact, Day-Lewis was second choice after the original casting of Liam Neeson fell through). Suppose a new movie was proposed (yet again) on Churchill in his finest hour. Would Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson or Robert Duvall have the nerve to do it? I know Duvall did Stalin once, and he was Dr Watson decades ago – in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) – with a rather stilted accent.

I don’t think Britain would welcome the casting, and I doubt the best US actors could be as smooth with the role’s voice as Ruth Wilson or Tom Hardy are with theirs.

How many American actors are there who can do foolproof English accents, let alone voices as local as Hardy manages in The Drop or Lawless? I can think of Gillian Anderson in The Fall; that’s good, if indeterminate. Of course, Anderson has spent a lot of time in Britain lately, so she’s had the chance to learn.

But I saw her last year as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (I must admit I thought it was a wretched production at the Young Vic, despite receiving so much praise in London), and her Southern voice had seemed overdone there, or not nearly as touching or authentic as Vivien Leigh in the 1951 movie of Streetcar (Leigh’s own voice was one she might have purchased at Harrods).

I’m not forgetting Meryl Streep as Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011) – very close – but I never believed the way Maggie talked in the first place.

[Rosamund Pike, from Hammersmith, played Amy Dunne, from New York City in 'Gone Girl']

I think many actors might note there is a marked difference in attitudes to voice in theatrical training. In British drama schools, there is a liberty or ease with ways of speaking. Accent, dialect and local voices come with the British repertoire, along with fencing, dance, how to stand and carry yourself. From the outset, there is a stress on being ready (and eager) to pretend.

An actor of the generation and confident daring that bred Laurence Olivier allowed him to do [restaurant manager George] Hurstwood in the film of Carrie (1952), the father in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (ITV, 1962) and Big Daddy in a Granada TV production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1976. More daring still, without ever altering his voice, Richard Burton was George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). He simply presented himself as American, and dared us to doubt it.

But that was paddling at the edges of a sea that another Welshman, Anthony Hopkins, would plunge into like a happy seal. There was a time when Hopkins was Port Talbot and the National Theatre in terms of voice, but Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs (1991) freed him. That doctor was utterly American, and he would be followed by parts in Legends of the Fall (1994), Nixon (1995) and All the King’s Men (2006), without a hint of awkwardness or shame.

Is that guiltless assurance getting close to the secret? In the years I’m talking about – more or less since sound came to movies – the education of actors in the US has been pledged to authenticity and psychological truth. Americans learn to speak English and they cannot shrug that heritage away. But they are self-conscious or proud about the way their English is different. There is even a kind of patriotism, or manliness, in adhering to your given voice. The way of acting that is labelled the Method, Actors Studio, or Stanislavski, believes in an actor finding himself in a part. So, perhaps it is a test of honour to stay loyal to your own voice because it is your identity.

In saying that, I am close to a curious insight or recollection. When I was growing up in England as a child, it was second nature for kids to start doing funny voices. It was a lark and a way of making fun of the local voices we heard, Oxbridge accents, and the sheer elasticity of voice. In the Fifties, at my school, most kids did Goon Show characters — Neddie Seagoon, Eccles, Grytpype-Thynne, Bluebottle – and so on. I think it was in part an escape from shyness.

At the heart of that great show was Peter Sellers, an actor whose roots were in radio and the mastery he had of his own voice, even to the extent of leaving us all (plus himself) uncertain who Sellers really was. In just a few years, he went from being very English to just about anything: so, in Dr Strangelove (1964), he was an RAF officer, the US president and a Germanic mastermind. The voices were maybe a touch crude but Sellers was the swiftest mimic you ever heard. By the time he did Lolita (1962), his Clare Quilty was unerringly American.

Whereas, it seems to me, kids in America are not quite so inclined to try funny voices. And if they do risk it, they seem to lack the British pleasure in mimicry, no to mention the skill with it. This is very odd in that to live in America now is to be exposed to a remarkable range in the ways of speaking English. It would appear to be a fertile breeding ground for would-be actors. Brando seemed aware of that, and tickled by it. He enjoyed voices, so after his first impact as a Method American – epitomised in Streetcar and On the Waterfront (1954) – he collected voices the way Olivier collected false noses.

He did Napoleon, a guy from Okinawa, a German officer, an Italian-American, and by the time he made The Missouri Breaks (1976), he gave his character an anthology of voices within the one film. He was good at it, and he liked to impersonate people over the telephone, but his English accent never quite rang true (in the way no one noticed Damian Lewis was English in TV series Homeland). And there are other great American actors who seem to regard such an attempt as heresy or ridiculous: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, [Esquire cover star] Sean Penn – I don’t think there’s a single English role to be found in all of their combined credits.

[Damian Lewis, from St. John's Wood, played Nicholas Brody, from Langley, Virginia, in 'Homeland']

At the age of 73, I have now lived far longer in the United States than I did in England. Yet, I am lucky enough to have English children and American, and to be teased by all of them because they think I sound as if I come from the wrong side of the Atlantic. I can’t say this is under control, though I am conscious how, over the years, I may have come to write American, and not simply English.

My model in this, as in other things, was Alistair Cooke. By the time I first encountered Cooke, in the Fifties, listening with increasing pleasure to his Letter from America on BBC radio, the man born and raised in Lancashire had become American. The charm of Letter was the ease, the humour and the intelligence in his American voice.

He sounded like an educated East Coaster who took care of his grammar and his facts, spoke as one who cherished radio’s intimacy, and saw no reason why a good-natured Englishman shouldn’t understand the way an American thought and felt. As I grew up, that seemed a valuable ideal: I liked the idea of the special relationship between the two countries and I suppose that Cooke and I in our different ways tried to live it out.

I knew him a little in his last decade, and I watched once in San Francisco as he recorded a Letter from America. We talked about voice and he shared my feeling: that he had always talked exactly the same way: naturally, correctly and in an attempt to be interesting and eloquent, so that people would listen. He hadn’t noticed his voice shift.

Maybe it all speaks to a deep love of Americana that is felt by some British people, and a feeling that our language can be written and spoken with benefit to us all.

It’s still a bit of a mystery, but when you hear Benedict Cumberbatch (that name makes all Americans smile; the knighthood will push him into Wodehouse country), simply doing American and rural Oklahoma, too, in August: Osage County (2013), you have to wonder what it says about us all that a fine young American actor (you name him) could not, and would not, dare to do south London, Liverpool or Port Talbot.




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