I recently clicked on a blog that was talking about the possibility of some people in the world being ‘bi-accented’ - a person who would speak with two completely different accents.
The blog is quite old but, as I was scrolling through the thread of the comments, it struck me how many people were claiming to do this.
Not surprisingly, the roots of the question stem from observations of celebrities such as Gillian Anderson (American and RP) and John Barrowman (American and Scottish) – observed giving interviews (rather than performances) in distinct accent shifts.
Cynics may well point out that actors are not the best for measuring identity.
It’s also true that the filter of celebrity has no fixed conclusion with regard to the authenticity of 'normal' behaviour in trying to adapt to the environment – listen to Joey Barton’s faux French accent for an example...
However, in the cases of Anderson and Barrowman, two people who have lived in very different parts of the world, it’s more likely we can presume a yin and yang to be in motion there.
These accents are part a rolling subconscious and similar to being bilingual, which, although well known as a characteristic, always raises eyebrows for some people.
Of course, I can confirm that being “bi-accented” is a thing, because, well, I am!
In fact, having recently moved to Manchester, I faced the conundrum of which one to use (Scottish or Lancashire) for all the new people I would meet!
In fact, were I speak to South African friends (I haven't seen in decades), I would be able to switch back to this too - does this make me Tri-Accented?
I could just envision a room full of people I know where smiles would freeze as I switched mid-sentence (code-switching).
So I picked Scottish, though I keep Lancashire for the friends I’ve known since I was thirteen.
I would still have to switch if I was speaking to my mother one minute and a mate in Prestwich the next, though.
I know. Weird right?
But here’s the thing. Maybe, it’s not so weird after all.
The similarities I have with the people who posted on that blog were interesting – most who claimed to be bi-accented have lived in two different countries, at least from their childhood to their adulthood. In fact, I know of others in my personal life who, having moved around as a child, had that existential accent conundrum and perhaps felt the need to pick only one to use; to be looked on as ‘normal’ in that regard.
The truth though, is that there is no such thing as ‘normal’.
It’s a convenient pursuit, put ahead by the community we are raised by, the class we’re raised in and the values we are sociologically indebted to.
These may change in time, but there’s no denying the starting point.
This includes friends and family, then this leads on to work colleagues and people we meet in a social context.
The more people we meet, the more we DEFINE ourselves. It is also how we are defined by others, setting up a never-ending cycle of being categorised, exalted or dismissed depending on the agenda, what we want from others, and what they want from us.
In this rapid trade of perception, what do we really want?
Most people in the world wish to be perceived positively.
As actors, our opportunity lies in the fact that we can observe people – how they hold themselves, walk, and yes, essentially how they talk, too.
Crucially, the attempt to 'pass' as normal is much more interesting to watch, particularly if they fail.
This has led me to think about how we, as actors, can utilise accents, based on the supposition that authenticity requires manoeuvrability.
When I meet actors who want to be able to do all these marvellous accents, I always ask them to think about their casting type.
This is, of course, at odds with my personal philosophy.
Why should I ask fellow actors to consider their ‘type’ when I personally believe we can be anyone we want to be?
But, in the world of casting, we all know that a tall, blonde male is more likely to be cast for Swedish or German roles than a short and dark-haired one.
Yes, okay, it depends on the part and yes, you’ve every right to challenge the stereotype!
However, learning a new accent takes time, effort and patience.
It also costs money, like any skill such as mastering an acoustic guitar or horse-riding.
For this reason, I ask actors to focus on what they’re more LIKELY to play, rather than just do an accent because they would like to learn it as a hobby.
It can’t be a hobby.
There’s too much competition for roles as it is and this will never change.
So, I advise actors to focus on maximising their career opportunities by mastering an accent they are more LIKELY to get a return on.
If, for example, an actor cannot do RP and/or General American, they are automatically, and severely, restricting the potential employment they could get. That’s just a fact.
Imagine all the plays, TV episodes and films with characters who either speak in an RP or General American accent.
Consider all those parts being off the table, because the accent ‘is a bit dodgy'.
Why limit yourself?
You don’t have to be bi-accented to appreciate the music in another accent – it should be part of the constant inquisitive nature of the actor, to hear the difference and emulate, maybe even borrow for a while.
Isn’t that what we do best?