This article was originally published in the National Post April 18, 2011.
“I help the actor wear the costume of the accent,” says Eric Armstrong, a 47-year-old dialect designer. Having coached Michelle Williams on her “Toronto” accent for an upcoming film, Armstrong also just finished work on Canadian Stage’s production of The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union. Armstrong spoke to Melissa Leong about getting tongue-tied.
Q No matter what accent I do, it sounds like I’m impersonating a valley girl. There must be some natural talent involved.
A I get a lot of students here at York [University] where I teach actors who have a quote-unquote natural talent. A lot of that is that they do it a lot. They’re people who like to make funny voices and do impersonations. It doesn’t hurt that someone is musical, or has a linguistic background. Those kinds of things help to tune someone’s ear but it’s not magic or genetics. People learn it.
Q Did you make the funny voices when you were a kid?
A As a seven-year-old boy, I lived in France for six months and was forced to learn to speak French on the playground or get beaten up. I came back to Canada but I spoke French with a perfect Parisian French accent and my classmates made fun of me for sounding too French. They wanted me to parlay Français like they did.
Q How did you get into this line of work?
I worked as an actor for five years; I wasn’t terribly successful. I went back to grad school at York where I trained to be a voice teacher.
Q What is the greatest accent challenge for actors?
A Many people find Welsh very difficult. Many people are tone deaf to the melodic aspect of spoken English. The percentage of Chinese speakers who have perfect pitch is much higher than the percentage of people who don’t speak a tone language, because their ear is attuned to tone as a way of conveying meaning.
Q What’s your favourite accent to do?
A I like doing accents that are subtle, like a North American Canadian accent. That takes a fine sense of skill.
Q You’ve lived in France, Canada and the U.S and you’re constantly speaking with other accents. So what is your natural accent?
A I speak mainstream Canadian. But it is modulated because I taught in the U.S. for six years so I ironed out many of those Canadian features that now I’m embarrassed that I got rid of.
Q Such as?
A The word “sorry.” We typically think of it as “sore-y.” For most Americans, that word is pronounced the same way an Indian garment, “sari,” is pronounced. Canadians have said to me: “Where’s the ‘sore?’ I want to feel pain when I say sorry.” Americans say “barrow” instead of “borrow,” “pah-sta” vs. “pasta.”
Q Are these things you taught to Michelle Williams and Sarah Silverman in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz?
A I was working with them on sounding like they’re from Toronto. Working with A-listers is a delight. The reason why they’re A-listers is because they’re really talented. So, it’s surprisingly easy.
You also coached child star Isabelle Fuhrman in Orphan.
A She was doing Estonian. Her mother is Russian so she had a facility with Russian. She was 11-years-old at the time. My son is 11-years-old at the moment and there’s no way he could’ve done what she did.