There’s a hymn that has in it the expression “accents sweet.” If you know which hymn it is, write and tell me (not right now, you have to do it at the end of the column-there’s a place for it). If you don’t know which hymn it is, but think a search of the hymns on lds.org will guide you to it, it won’t. But I’ve sung it, and if it wasn’t in church, it was somewhere else kind of holy.
(Pardon me, I had to leave you for a moment to make sure my Birkenstocks were not being rained upon. They’re outside curing. They’re not being cured from anything. I’ve had them for many years and love them and they love me, but the cork was letting go and the soles were disappearing. So I thought, “Hey, I wonder if clear caulk will fix these puppies?” That’s what’s curing-the caulk. Applying it was just like icing a cake, only with caulk. And it wasn’t a cake, it was Birkenstocks. I’ll let you know if it worked. Next month. This stuff cures real slow.)
One of the things that an actor does is to perform audiobooks. Some kinds of books require a lot of acting, some kinds less. For example, I’ve performed some treatises on accounting that required me to act as though I were awake, which plumbed the depths of all my training and theatrical experience, not to mention imagination, which I did anyway. I don’t believe the Beatles should ever have taken drugs to enhance their art, but I wonder if it might have been okay if they were mainly trying to stay awake-no, by the time they started taking drugs, their music had gotten pretty unboring, and probably louder. If I am excluded from Celestial Glory on account of caffeine consumption, I’m going to plead innocent on account of accounting. I know I’m accountable, but there are some things that just oughtn’t to count, although accountants will discount this.
Sometimes the books require the employment of accents. Usually I fake these. (Sir Laurence Olivier worked in the movie “Marathon Man” with Dustin Hoffman. In the story, Hoffman had, for a good while, to portray a guy who’d gone without sleep and shower for several days and had been tortured and starved. I don’t know the degree to which the actor starved himself or was tortured ((in the story, it was with a dentist’s drill)), but he is reported to have gone without sleep and hygiene for several days in order to bring that authentic distress to the screen. Olivier, observing all this, is said to have said, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?” Of course, the discussion is incomplete without recalling George Burns’ answer to the question “What do you consider to be the key to successful acting?” He instantly came back with “Honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”)
Deciding when and how to use accents in an audiobook can be tricky. In a very large book of “scriptural fiction,” I had been playing the wicked high priest in your standard Vincent Price Baritone Villain voice until about page 153, when Zadok (my guy) uttered some appalling threat “in his grating, high voice.” Okay.
I performed four (five?) enormous volumes of a Civil War tale. In Volume One I had to be a young woman in New Orleans with a mother from Massachusetts and a father from France. Rather than attempt Massachusettsian (which I did in a film about the writing of the US Constitution) or French (which I did in “South Pacific,” my guide being Inspector Clouseau), I just had her talk like the guys on the news. Except like a girl. In Volume Four (Five?), some cad trying to seduce her (unsuccessfully) praises her “cute little Southern accent.” Volume Four. Okay.
I once did a book written all in the first person, the first person being, not Adam, but a trader and trapper who gets kidnapped by Indians in the wilds of Utah. I don’t know, I gave him a sort of rough Missourian accent. What the heck. Kind of rugged and leathery.And Southern.On the last page he escapes and hightails it for home. In Michigan.
Sometimes you get it right and it’s wrong. I played the King of Siam a few years ago and knew I had to have an accent of some kind. I faked the Asian component (I say “faked” but I’ve heard lots of Asian people speak English as a new language and can remember a good bit of what it sounds like-you know, Charlie Chan, the lady with the violin on the streetcorner in Spiderman, my six-year-old daughter in Chinese Immersion). But what this royal guy in the play wants very badly is to be taken seriously by the diplomats of the West. When he tries to speak English, he won’t be satisfied with just getting by, he’s going to try to say words the way the English Upper Crust does (“do”? Is this peculiar Crust a single thing or a collection of things?). So he’ll speak a kind of awkward “no-man’s accent” that’s neither Asian nor English, but a clashing juxtaposition of both. I thought about this a lot. In my thinking, I used words like “juxtaposition.” And I worked on it hard. And the Salt Lake Tribune thought the director should have gotten me an accent coach. Or better yet, a different role- in a different theatre. Somewhere the Tribune critic was unlikely ever to be. (The Deseret News loved me. But then, we expect a paper named after a Book of Mormon critter to be a little more discerning about things like the gift of tongues.)
In the book I finished today,
(Pardon me, I had to leave you again briefly. My Chinese-immersed daughter needed some macaroni & cheese and, after boiling-water immersion, the macaroni was to be drained. I was holding the colander over the sink in a manner not unlike how you might hold a catcher’s mitt and somehow forgot for a moment that it is in the nature of colanders to have many holes in them.)
In the book I finished today,
(Pardon me, one more AWOL. My son has gotten home from a birthday party and cake-immersion and needed me to nuke some lentil soup. While removing the dinner from the oven, I somehow forgot for a momentthat it is in the nature of ceramic bowls immersed in microwaves and lentil soup to reach astronomical temperatures. Other hand.I’m typing the rest of this with a pencil held between my teeth.)
In the book I finished today, another epic Civil War saga (Volume One) I first had to do Guys On the News, then Or’naryNasty Southern, then Aristocratic Southern, then Br’er Rabbit Black Person talk (this I would have felt awkward about, but the characters had weight and dignity, and I looked forward to when they’d come back again every few pages), then Irish, then I turned a page and two German guys showed up. Mercifully, the author had made them lose their accents after being in the New World for a few years. I just don’t know if I would have been up to getting Colonel Klink into the mix. I’m hoping that listeners who are of immediate Irish descent aren’t too sensitive about my Irish sounding suspiciously Scottish. You see, I actually made a fairly serious (of weeks, even) study of the Scottish dialect.
It was for a play in which I played a Scottish groundskeeper at a foggy, haunted country manor house. I think I nailed it. Luckily, I’d spent a few hours studying Upper Crust English, too, because in the same play I had to portray the lovely mistress of the household, Lady Enid. My favorite dress was the electric blue gown-it really set off the flowing blond hair. (I had a full beard, but I’m not sure anybody noticed. Nobody said anything.)
The couple of hours I spent on what is formally called “Received English” was on the drive to an audition for some animated princess movie. My agent very carefully explained to me that the animation base was already covered, and they needed somebody whose voice could pass for an Authentic English Person. When I got there, they put big dots on my appendages and filmed me moving about like an Authentic English Person, relating to a similarly-dotted Authentic English Prince and A. E. Princess. No talking at all. This is one of the reasons I no longer engage agents. But Lady Enid was glad I’d spent those two hours.
Imagine the empathy-immersion I’d get if I actually had the guts to learn a foreign language!
My favorite accent ever? I don’t know. My favorite accent of the last few weeks? Hands down, the Uncle Remus, sho’ nuf, Camptown Races accent in the book I just finished. Because it’s funny? No, it never was funny. It was my favorite because the people who spoke like that were the most honest, most caring, most sacrificing, most unified. You love somebody and you love how they talk. Their accents become sweet.