Faking It: How Do Actors Actually Learn To Speak With Accents?

Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio.
Welcome to Faking It, our monthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground of faking sex, drugs, violence, and more.
An accent can make or break a movie. A good one earns you an Oscar nomination. A bad one condemns you to perpetual punchline status — seriously, ask Kevin Costner.
The best movie accents are the ones you don't even really notice. They're a seamless foundation for the character, with the actor’s performance layered on top. But things get murkier the more you delve into the details. It's easy to pinpoint an accent as terrible, but what are the specific elements that make an accent good or bad? And how do actors prepare for the challenge?
Enter the dialect coach. As authentic accents have become more important (some credit Meryl Streep's iconic role in Sophie's Choice for setting the industry standard), the demand for dialect coaches has grown. Today, dialect coaches can help actors adopt an accent that is not their own, or alternatively, conceal their native regional accent. (For a really fun run-through of the best and worst accents of all time, check out this viral video.)
It's actually interesting to note that in the early days of Hollywood, many of the biggest stars were actually not American. Rudoph Valentino, for example, was Italian; Charlie Chaplin was British; Greta Garbo was Swedish. They had accents — you just didn't hear them. With the advent of talkies, the way characters sounded became as important as the way they looked.
Bob Corff, a man whom Channing Tatum calls "his voice Doctor," according to reviews on his website, is one of those tasked with helping actors perfect their vocal gymnastics. Did you enjoy Kristin Bauer Van Straten as Pam on True Blood? Gwyneth Paltrow in Country Strong? Emilia Clarke as the Mother of Dragons? You have him to thank.
Corff has been in the business since the early 1980s, when a writer's strike halted his acting career. Over the years, he and his wife Claire, also a dialect coach, have worked with everyone from Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) to Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation), to Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games), to Selena Gomez (The Heart Wants What It Wants).
Curious how your favorite actors suddenly sound British when they star in historical dramas? (Personally, I am still reeling from the realization that Hugh Laurie is not in fact, a surly American doctor.) I asked Bob Corff to walk me through the process of faking an accent for a role.