When Should I Start Being British? Audition Room Accent Etiquette

  • Thomas Burns Scully

“For a lot of foreign actors in the US it’s something we have to be able to do without a second thought,” says Anna Frankl-Duval, “on stage, in front of the camera and the audition room, I have to be able to switch into a perfect American accent. I sometimes even find myself having to do it in day-to-day life… although that’s mostly just when I’m asking for a glass of water at a bar!.”

Anna’s work includes Agamemnon: Redux (The Lab at Roger Smith, New York), How Will I Know? (White Bear Theatre, London and Brighton Fringe Festival), Good Fit (WOW Café, New York), La Proposition (4th Street Theater, New York), and indie shorts The Resistance and If Only, (for which Anna was nominated for Best Leading Actor at the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema). “I’ve been cast as an American for a load of the jobs I’ve had.” she says, “Luckily, it’s something we worked on a lot at drama school.” Anna studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where famed voice coach Edith Skinner’s General and Standard American have been on the syllabus for longer than many people have been alive. “It was something we really focused on,” she says of the training, “We were told to talk in our General American accent whenever we were in the building. One teacher even threatened to drop us a grade if he heard us talking in our own accents in the school - I’m pretty sure he was joking, but I followed that rule, just in case. I do think that using an accent your working on in your day to day life is still the best way to get comfortable with it, but when it comes to auditions, it can be hard to decide when to use and not use your American accent.”

According to Anna, there are two main approaches, each with their own advantages and drawbacks. “First, there’s the honest approach,” she explains, “You go in as yourself, using your own accent in conversation, switching to your American accent when you read the sides, then going back to your own accent.” With this approach, there is never any illusion as to the nationality of the person auditioning. “That can work to your advantage and your disadvantage,” she continues, “I’ve found that I can bring more of myself into the audition room when I work this way - I’m more comfortable from the outset, which allows me to do better work. There is, however, a chance that it could work against you - I’ve found that once people know that it’s not your own accent, they think they can hear mistakes in your dialect work, even if there aren’t any. I was once in a play where I had to do both an American and British accent in the same scene, and during tech, a cast member who had never seen me work before came up to me and told me that I needed to work on my British accent! He was so embarrassed when he realized I was a Londoner. ”

Anna Frankl-Duval (RJ Lewsi)

Anna Frankl-Duval (RJ Lewsi)

If that’s the honest approach, then what is the dishonest approach? “That’s when you go into the audition room as an American. You say hi in your American accent, you say your lines in your American accent, you make a joke with the reader in your American accent. Although I’ve come to realize that because my sense of humor is very British, I struggle to do this in the way, I would in my own accent.” Of course, like the previous method, there are ups and downs. “If you come in doing an American accent, you remove the need to try and convince the team that your dialect work is good enough - they’re not going to be listening out for mistakes.” she goes on, “It puts you on a level playing field with Americans who are auditioning.” This approach has been made famous by some actors’ audition tapes. Producers who watched Hugh Laurie’s read for House notoriously described him as “a real American,” unaware of his Anglo roots.

“However, you do run the risk of getting caught in the lie or finding yourself in an awkward situation,” says Anna, “they might ask you where you’re from, or notice something on your resume and ask if you’re British and then you have to decide how to answer.” But what if you don’t get caught out? And then subsequently get cast? “It does happen!” she divulges, “It’s up to you how you want to deal with it at that point. I’ve had a director call me to offer me the part and, upon realizing that I was British, tell me that had he known he would have run the audition completely differently. I didn’t understand that at all since he was calling to give me the job!” She laughs and then adds, “That was back when I used to audition in an American accent, which I don’t tend to do anymore - it’s a personal choice, but for me, being as true to myself as possible seems to produce the best results both in auditions and the real world.”

So what then is the solution? What’s the golden rule for the audition room? “There isn’t one. I think it comes down to whatever is going to make you feel most confident and allow you to show your best work.” she surmises, “If you wanted to you could even blend the two methods - go in with an American accent until you finish the sides, then go back to your own accent after the read,” she explains, “that combats the possibility of being judged solely on your accent work while remaining truthful in the room. For me at this stage, unless a character is described as being from a specific place, I just ask the team what accent they’d like to hear. Sometimes that means that I get to do multiple reads in different accents and show them a little more of what I could bring to the role.” And there you have it, advice from the expert.

Anna’s work on both sides of the Atlantic means that she has lived through these situations countless times. “I’d say the most important thing is to keep your accent sharp. Keep practicing, otherwise, it can get rusty very quickly,” and finally she adds, “In the end, your work is going to speak for itself, and that’s going to happen when you’re feeling your most confident, so do whatever makes you feel good in that room .”

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Thomas Burns Scully is an Onstage contributor, and also an award-winning actor, playwright, and musician. In his spare time, he writes and designs escape rooms. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.