Movie Accent Expert Analyzes 31 Actors Playing Other Famous People: Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, and More

Well-known fig­ures’ voic­es are often as dis­tinc­tive as their thou­sand-watt smiles and influ­en­tial hair­dos.

While there is some evi­dence as to the accents and idio­syn­crat­ic speech pat­terns of such his­tor­i­cal heavy hit­ters as Thomas Edi­son, Flo­rence Nightin­gale, and Har­ry Hou­di­ni, tech­no­log­i­cal improve­ments have real­ly upped the ante for those charged with imper­son­at­ing real life peo­ple from the mid 20th-cen­tu­ry onward.

Natal­ie Port­man had to sus­tain her Jack­ie Kennedy imper­son­ation for an entire fea­ture-length biopic, a per­for­mance dialect coach Erik Singer gives high marks, above. Port­man, he explains, has tru­ly inter­nal­ized Jackie’s idi­olect, the indi­vid­ual quirks that add yet anoth­er lay­er to such sig­ni­fiers as class and region.

As evi­dence, he sub­mits a side-by-side com­par­i­son of the First Lady’s famous 1962 tele­vised tour of the White House ren­o­va­tions she had spear­head­ed, and Portman’s recre­ation there­of.

Port­man has done her home­work with regard to breath pat­tern, pitch, and the refine­ment that strikes most 21st cen­tu­ry ears as a bit stilt­ed and strange. Most impres­sive to Singer is the way Port­man trans­fers Kennedy’s odd­ly musi­cal elon­ga­tion of cer­tain syl­la­bles to oth­er words in the script. Tis no mere par­rot job.

Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-win­ning turn as Ray Charles suc­ceeds on copi­ous research and his abil­i­ty to inhab­it Charles’ habit­u­al smile. Obvi­ous­ly, the pos­ture in which an indi­vid­ual holds their mouth has a lot to do with the sound of their voice, and Foxx was blessed with plen­ty of source mate­r­i­al.

The 1982 epic Gand­hi pro­vid­ed the ver­sa­tile Ben Kings­ley with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to show­case not one, but two, idi­olects. The adult Gand­hi under­went a dra­mat­ic and well doc­u­ment­ed evo­lu­tion from the British accent he adopt­ed as a young law stu­dent in Lon­don to a proud­ly Indi­an voice bet­ter suit­ed to inspir­ing a nation to uni­fy against its British col­o­niz­ers.

It’s like­ly that many of us have nev­er con­sid­ered the speech-relat­ed build­ing blocks Singer scru­ti­nizes while ana­lyz­ing 29 oth­er per­for­mances for the WIRED video, above—epenthesis, tongue posi­tions, rel­a­tive degrees of emphat­ic mus­cu­lar­i­ty, and retroflex consonants—but it’s easy to see how they play a part.

Singer invites you to expand his research and teach­ing library by record­ing your­self speak­ing extem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly and read­ing from two sam­ple texts here. Pray that who­ev­er plays you in the biopic gets it right.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Peter Sell­ers Gives a Quick Demon­stra­tion of British Accents

Why Do Peo­ple Talk Fun­ny in Old Movies?, or The Ori­gin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

Watch Meryl Streep Have Fun with Accents: Bronx, Pol­ish, Irish, Aus­tralian, Yid­dish & More

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City through Decem­ber 20th in the 10th anniver­sary pro­duc­tion of Greg Kotis’ apoc­a­lyp­tic hol­i­day tale, The Truth About San­ta, and the book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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