We take a look at 13 times actors who weren’t Australian attempted the notoriously difficult accent – with varying degrees of success. By Caris Bizzaca.
Amid the stunning landscapes and knockout performances in Lion emerges a rare sound… that of a non-Australian perfecting the Aussie accent.
The actor in question is London-born Dev Patel, who you would be forgiven for mistaking as a local based on his excellent wrangling of our accent – a challenge many before him have failed to master.
Based on a true story, Lion tells of how Saroo, who was raised in Tasmania by his adoptive parents (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), used Google Maps to try and locate the family he was separated from in India as a child.
Patel also had to bulk up considerably to play Saroo Brierley, but it was the accent that was really making him sweat.
“The accent was the first and foremost at the top of my brain,” Patel said, admitting, it “was hard. It took a long time to get down”. Eight months in fact, during which Patel worked with Melbourne-based voice and dialect coach Jenny Kent to perfect it.
He worried for good reason. Many an actor has tackled the elusive accent before – some with aplomb, others, well… let’s just say Tarantino’s love for Australian cinema isn’t matched by his ability to mimic us.
Here’s 13 other times non-Australians attempted (and sometimes succeeded) in sounding like a local. (* denotes projects supported by Screen Australia or predecessor agencies)
Kate Winslet (Holy Smoke!/The Dressmaker)*
The first lines in 2015 box office hit The Dressmaker are uttered by Kate Winslet as the glamourous Tilly Dunnage, announcing “I’m back, you bastards” in a spot-on Aussie drawl. What a boss. Not that Winslet was any stranger to tackling the laid-back dialect. The English actress also nailed it some 16 years earlier in Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke as a feisty woman seduced by a cult, whose family hire a spiritual pro (played by Harvey Keitel) to de-program her.
Robert Downey Jr (Natural Born Killers/Tropic Thunder)
Proof that even Iron Man can struggle with words. Downey Jr is another actor who, like Winslet, has attempted the accent twice, but with more debatable degrees of success. In Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers Downey Jr’s over-the-top TV host sported an Aussie accent so broad and bizarre it was entertaining for all the wrong reasons. He redeemed himself in the 2008 satirical comedy Tropic Thunder, playing a confused Australian method actor so committed to his craft he dons blackface to play an African American.
Meryl Streep (Evil Angels)*
Not even the world’s most prolific and awarded actors can handle the minefield that is the Australian accent. Case in point: Meryl Streep. The actress has been lauded for her portrayal of real-life characters including Margaret Thatcher (The Iron Lady) and most recently as New York heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, but it was as Lindy Chamberlain in Fred Schepisi’s 1988 film Evil Angels (titled A Cry in the Dark overseas) that audiences witnessed one of her more polarising performances. If you listen to a recording of Chamberlain, Streep actually sounds remarkably similar, but without that reference point many locals point to it as a poor example of the Australian vernacular.
Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained)
Tarantino’s Australian accent is bad. So bad in fact, that in the screening of Django Unchained this journalist went to, there were sniggers from the audience. It’s probably magnified considering an actual Australian – John Jarratt – is in the scene with him. But in all fairness, Tarantino had never intended to cameo in the scene (although he has appeared in many of his own films, including Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs). Jarratt was meant to shoot the scene with Anthony LaPaglia and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but filming was pushed back and the two actors had to drop out. US actor Michael Parks stepped in for Gordon-Levitt’s role and Tarantino played LaPaglia’s part – resulting in an Aussie accent that meanders from ‘kiiinda maybe there’ to ‘what the…?’.
Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake)*
If you haven’t seen Jane Campion’s superb television drama, stop reading this and go and watch it right now. You’re welcome. Now, on to the Australian accent of Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) – solid effort. The ocker accent is arguably easier than the more subtle dialect carried by most Australians, but Moss does a spot-on job as Sydney-raised detective Robin Griffin. She worked with dialect coach Victoria Mielewska for months in the lead-up to filming to nail it (the same person who helped Winslet with Holy Smoke!). Moss even had Mielewska send recordings each night of all of her lines in the next day’s scenes, so the script supervisor and sound department could make sure she hit the right intonation. And it paid off. Now Moss will be back on screens in the upcoming second series of Top of the Lake, so we can be impressed all over again.
Daniel Radcliffe (December Boys)*
His first film role after being cast as the boy wizard Harry Potter was as the orphan Maps in the Australian adaptation December Boys. In it, Radcliffe plays one of four orphan boys (and friends) vying for the attention of a family that might adopt them during one Australian summer in the 60s. Radcliffe spent six months learning the Aussie accent, admitting it is one that’s easy to caricature but difficult to master properly. The result is ok – it dips in and out – and certainly you can see the effort being put in. It’s not effortless like Dev Patel’s turn, but thankfully no Tarantino either.
Emily Blunt (Irresistible)*
Blunt is known for her knack with accents, a talent that helped her overcome a debilitating stutter as a child. One of her teachers suggested she speak in an accent in the school play and she has said it was so freeing that her stutter vanished while she was onstage. Most would remember the English actress got her breakthrough role in The Devil Wears Prada in 2006, but it was also released the same year as an Australian film Blunt starred in alongside Susan Sarandon and Sam Neill, titled Irresistible. In the psychological thriller, Sarandon’s Sophie becomes increasingly paranoid her husband’s co-worker Mara (Blunt) is trying to steal her life. Filmed in March 2005, Blunt had yet to become a household name, but her pitch perfect role in Irresistible was one of the first to show off her uncanny ability to adopt accents.
Robin Wright (Adoration)*
Mrs Underwood played a kind-of Mrs Robinson back in the 2013 French-Australian drama Adoration (also titled Adore and Two Mothers overseas). Directed by Anne Fontaine, in the film Wright stars alongside Naomi Watts as childhood friends and neighbours, who live an idyllic lifestyle on the Australian coast and unexpectedly fall for each other’s sons (played by Xavier Samuel and Animal Kingdom’s James Frencheville). Wright puts her all into the accent, basing it off Watts’, and despite some occasional lapses into her American intonations, does a fair job of it.
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Fifth Estate)
Another commendable Australian accent by another English thespian – this time, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch playing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Bill Condon-directed The Fifth Estate. Assange took a swipe at Cumberbatch’s accent during an interview with Marc Fennel for SBS Viceland’s The Feed, calling it “grating”, but as Fennel noted in his book The Planet According to Movies that doesn’t necessarily make it inaccurate.
Liev Schreiber (Mental)*
Not that you would guess it watching Mental, but Schreiber is one of the only non-Aussies in a cast packed with the likes of Toni Collette, Rebecca Gibney and Anthony LaPaglia. Directed by PJ Hogan it stars Collette as hitchhiker Shaz, who LaPaglia’s Barry tasks with looking after his five daughters while his wife (Gibney) recovers from a nervous breakdown. In it, Schreiber plays a bloke who hunts sharks (it is called Mental). Perhaps being married to an Australian, Naomi Watts, at the time helped. Or perhaps it was working a number of times with Hugh Jackman, most notably in the Australian-shot X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Regardless, Schreiber nails it.
Rhys Ifans (Danny Deckchair)*
Yes, the Welsh actor many would immediately recognise as Hugh Grant’s housemate Spike in Notting Hill or Luna Lovegood’s dad in the Harry Potter series was also once in an Australian romantic comedy. It starred Ifans – sporting a commendable Aussie accent – as a bloke who fastened helium balloons to his chair and sailed over Sydney, only to crash in a small town where he met and fell for a parking cop played by Miranda Otto.
Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky (Pacific Rim)
Ok, this is one of the bad ones. Guillermo del Toro hired a Brit (Kazinsky) and American (Martini) to play Aussies named Chuck and Hercules, who then went on to massacre our accent much more than the Kaiju they were meant to be fighting in this otherwise fun 2013 action/sci-fi.
Val Kilmer (The Saint)
In the opening scene of this 1997 thriller we are treated to Val Kilmer’s thief-for-hire sporting a Tom Selleck-style moustache and a truly awful Australian accent as he tries to steal a microchip. You don’t need to wince for too long though – this Australian guise is just one of many Kilmer takes on as his character throughout the film. No word from the Germans or Spaniards on his shot at their accents, but apparently his American one is pretty good.
Oh and did we mention Dev Patel’s accent in Lion? Cause it’s great. You should see it. Now. As in stop reading this and go book tickets. Here’s a taster…