Oscar Isaac’s first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t had the smoothest introduction. During a wild-card game between the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams that aired on ESPN on January 17, Disney+ debuted a spot for its latest MCU offering, Moon Knight. Despite the trailer’s globetrotting visuals, Kid Cudi backing track, and introduction of Marvel’s answer to Batman, the internet couldn’t help but pick apart Isaac’s accent as the show’s protagonist, Steven Grant. “Strange,” “terrible, and “shit” were among the nicer social media responses. Even the leading man himself couldn’t help dipping into an impression of Mark Lester’s Oliver from the 1968 movie when watching the trailer alongside costar Ethan Hawke.
The peculiar and abrasive response to Moon Knight is unsurprising considering the character’s unorthodox history and backstory. Created in 1975 by Doug Moench and artist Don Perlin, Moon Knight has been everything from a mercenary crime fighter who worships a sometimes real, sometimes fake moon god to an antihero with dissociative identity disorder. Whether the crescent crusader is an Avenger, taxi driver, the phoenix, or a television producer, the character thrives on discord, which possibly explains Isaac’s portrayal.
“I think it makes sense for him not to have a standard London accent because it then sets him apart from everyone else around him,” explains Jack Wallace, a dialect coach based in Los Angeles whom we called to help us make sense of the sounds coming out of Isaac’s mouth. “It also might make sense for the character because he has these kind of alienating tendencies and he’s in London.” Originally from Coventry, England, Wallace has spent nine years working with actors to perfect their accents. Wallace says that the polarizing nature of Isaac’s brief performance says more about the American perception of how British people are supposed to talk than Isaac’s work. Below, Wallace discusses Moon Knight, the history of received pronunciation, and where Isaac might have gotten inspiration for his viral voice.
What are some common misconceptions that Americans have about British accents?
It all comes down to the way that we talk about accents as a population. So there is a tendency to talk about a British accent from an American’s perspective, whereas technically Britain is three countries together. So, a British accent doesn’t exist, but what people are usually referring to is something called received pronunciation or RP, and that’s kind of like a non-regionalized English accent.
What does “non-regionalized English accent” mean?
A couple hundred years ago, in high society they decided that people that were rich and wealthy enough to be in the high society shouldn’t have any things in their accent that say, “Oh, you’re from this part of the country. You’re from that part of the country. That’s more for the working class.” So if you had those, then you could be seen as being poor. Then it became fashionable. When theater was taking off in different places, they were like, “If we do this, then the character could be from anywhere,” and people won’t think, “Oh, they’re from here when they’re supposed to be from there.” So it became, for lack of a better word, a standard accent to learn in drama school. But technically nobody ever spoke like that.
Someone will always have some little regionalism in their voice and in their accent, because we’re all individuals. We all speak in different ways. It’s kind of an ideal standard from back in the day. That’s why it’s called received pronunciation, because you don’t grow up with it. You receive it from learning it.
Before I reached out to you, did you have any idea who Moon Knight was as a character?
Yes, I am a fan of all things Marvel. I’ve been excited for this to come out. So yes, I have heard of him.
Oh, you’re a Moon Knight fan?
I mean, I meant Moon Knight tangentially rather than being like a stan for Moon Knight.
Do you know the basics of Moon Knight’s character?
He has this dissociative disorder, DID, I think it’s called. And so he has all these personalities and they all have different personalities and therefore different voices.
First impressions, what did you think of the Moon Knight trailer?
I really enjoyed it. I’ve had different opinions every time I’ve watched it, but my initial one was like, “Wow, this is great. I love that they’ve gone for this accent.”
You liked the trailer, though?
I’m now doubting myself. But yeah, I think it’s great. I think the difficulty with this trailer is that the sounds in specific accents are going to pinpoint the exact region. He doesn’t use any words that have them. So there are three particular sounds I was listening out for, and except for when he’s stomping on the mirror saying, “Shut up,” none of them are in there. So it’s hard to place the exact accent because other ones overlap their sound.
So initially, I was like, “Oh, he sounds like he’s from here,” and then I saw the reaction online of people [laughs] being quite against the accent that’s been chosen. So I tried to listen to it with their perception of what it should be in mind. It’s definitely not that, which is this received pronunciation, because that’s what people think of as the British accent. It’s the standard one people go to. He’s definitely not doing that accent.
What type of accent is Oscar Isaac trying to portray?
I may be proved wrong as soon as he says any of these other words, but I initially thought he’s doing more of a Northern accent. There were two things, the way he says “difference” and “dreams” in his very first statement, make me think that it’s some version of a Northern accent. That is found in Yorkshire dialects, some Lancashire dialects. So based on the things that I’d heard up to that point, I was like, “Oh, he’s definitely doing that.” Then we don’t get any other words that will confirm that for me.
Are there risks involved when an actor gets specific with an accent, and they’re like, “Hey, I want to do a Northern English accent.” So to American ears, if it’s not perfect, we might be like, “We don’t like this.”
I would say even when it is perfect, that response happens if it’s not stated. This happens quite a lot in movies, you’ll find that sometimes the character is like, “Oh, I’m from Lancashire.” All of a sudden, people are like, “Oh, OK,” and then it’s fine. But because nobody has said where this version of Steven/Moon Knight is from, no one could be like, “That doesn’t sound right,” because we haven’t been told by the character where it’s from. So people will assume it’s this RP one. And it’s definitely not that accent. I can confirm with a hundred percent he is not doing RP. So there will be that reaction of, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong. That’s not how British people sound because it’s not the accent I’m accustomed to, or not the one I think it should be.”
Just from the trailer, what would you grade this accent?
Based on my first hearing, I thought immediately, “Wow, he’s doing a Northern accent. Wow. This is great. I love this,” because he’s manipulated various aspects of the voice in order to create this. So it doesn’t sound like him at all either. I would rate it very high.
I would. The risk I’m running as a dialect coach is, because there are the missing sounds in this trailer, I can’t with a hundred percent certainty guarantee what I’m saying. And then I might hear something in another word and be like, “Oh, he’s actually doing this accent.” Because there’s so much overlap between accents.
There’s the sound that would be in a word like “bath.” There’s a sound that would be in the word “goat.” And there’s a sound that would be in the word “strut.” So if my theory is correct, just from hearing the way that he’s speaking, that makes me think that it’s Yorkshire. I think, if there is a later trailer with more speech, people would be like, “Oh, it’s not the accent I thought it was,” and then they’ll chill out. They’ve heard that in like Game of Thrones, some of the Starks have that accent. They’ll be like, “Oh, I’ve heard that before. Oh, it’s that accent.” But I think because there’s none of that, what we call signature sounds happening, it just sounds slightly off to people’s ear.
Another polarizing part of this trailer is the song choice. They edited my man Kid Cudi’s “Day ‘N’ Nite” into an MCU trailer. Did you like it?
I actually did like it. I saw that reaction where Oscar was watching back and it’s like, “Oh, Kid Cudi’s in this.” So, yeah. That’s what they went for. I think it’s great because they’re trying to get in their new audience. Also because it ties into, like “Day ‘N’ Nite” having different themes and he has all these personalities. I was like, “This is great.”
Will you watch Moon Knight when it comes out on Disney+?
Absolutely. Yes. I will definitely be watching it, for sure.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.