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The 21st Century Fake Accent Matrix

As Oscar Isaac’s “British” accent joins the likes of Amanda Seyfried’s Elizabeth Holmes and Julia Garner’s Anna Delvey, it’s become necessary to codify and categorize the dialect work of so many actors over the past 20-plus years

Hulu/Apple TV+/HBO/Paramount/20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

There are plenty of reasons for the current onslaught of scammer shows and Silicon Valley biopics. First of all, there were a whole slew of juicy scams exposed around 2018—the sordid true-life tales were then turned into TV specials, then documentaries, and through the physics of the Hollywood Time Continuum, arrived on our streaming platforms as scripted prestige dramas within mere months of one another in 2022. There is an entire podcast genre predicated on the fact that people love to learn about crime, and when it can’t be murder, corporate fraud is a close second.

Are those good reasons to put out this much thematically overlapping content all at once? Perhaps we’ll know in about a year when the last Elizabeth Holmes project has been ushered through, the Tiger King ashes have lost their final glowing embers, and WeWork has dumped out its last carafe of fruit water. But there’s still one obvious but lesser discussed reason that all of these based-on-true-events series keep coming out: our Hollywood actors love nothing more than to take a big ol’ honking swing at the juicy dialect of a real-life villain. Do you remember where you were the first time you heard the voice of Elizabeth Holmes? Do you remember the first time you tried out the “First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you” accent yourself? Now imagine you’re Amanda Seyfried, and someone is saying they’ll pay you a bunch of money to do the exact same thing, and you can wear a wig that looks like a disemboweled broom while doing it …

This week, a new big accent swing hits the market, but its IP is neither scammer nor tech bro adjacent. Because really, no genre is safe from accent work. In Moon Knight, Oscar Isaac attempts an English accent, and it is—well, what’s the auditory version of a sight to behold? A sound to be-heard? In Isaac’s honor, and for our own TV-watching sanity, I think it’s high time we provide a little vocal context to the many, many new accents, dialects, idiolects, and cacophony of sounds we’ve been asked to take in over the past few months.

There are a few rules for the 21st Century Accent Matrix:

  • Only accents from the 21st century apply. Yes, Nicolas Cage sounded like he swallowed a whole corn cob and got haunted by the ghost of the Mississippi River in 1997’s Con Air, and yes, James Van Der Beek not wohnting YOUR laff missed the cutoff by a mere year—but for my own sanity, these are the rules. We’ll watch Jon Voight in Anaconda on our own time.
  • This is by no means an exhaustive matrix of all Hollywood accents, merely the best specific examples with which to provide context for Oscar Isaac exclaiming, “bloody ’ell!” every 10 seconds while walking around his own home.
  • This isn’t even an exhaustive list of all the accents debuted this year. The present-day dialects we’re homing in on are: Amanda Seyfried in The Dropout, Jared Leto in WeCrashed, Julia Garner in Inventing Anna, Lady Gaga in House of Gucci, and Oscar Isaac in Moon Knight. Our apologies to all other House of Gucci work and Florence Pugh’s Russian. We will also never be discussing Jacob Elordi’s native Australian accent.
  • To be clear, everyone speaks with an accent; there is no baseline voice we consider unaccented. Therefore, the only big accent swings not considered are actors working in the dialects of their birthplace. Which basically means: no Afflecks doing a flawless Boston on the list. Sorry fellas. Let’s get started!

The Blueprints: Seamless and Accurate

Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady

She doesn’t have 21 Oscar nominations for nothin’! Flawless accents are just one of the many tricks Meryl Streep can pull out of her back pocket when necessary: she was Irish in Dancing at Lughnasa, Danish in Out of Africa, a New Yorker in Doubt, Polish in Sophie’s Choice, Italian in The Bridges of Madison County, Irish again in Ironweed, Julia Child in Julie & Julia, and she actually had to convincingly exclaim, “The dingo’s got my baby!” in A Cry in the Dark. All that practice came together to make perfect in The Iron Lady, when Streep not only nailed the specific idiolect of Margaret Thatcher, but changed everything about her own tone, resonance, pitch, and oral posture to seamlessly embody another character. Long live the queen of accents.

Winston Duke in Black Panther

The experience of watching Winston Duke play Lord M’Baku on screen in Black Panther for the first time was a powerful one. Had a man ever looked better? Sounded better? Sat on a throne like this? Was he supposed to be the bad guy? It didn’t feel bad watching him. The Trinbagonian actor trained at Yale, where they’re notoriously good at studying, which might explain why his Igbo-inspired Nigerian accent for the Jabari tribe leader M’Baku—intentionally differentiated from the South African–inspired Wakandan accents—was lauded Twitter-wide as the perfect example of studied precision and instinctual embodiment of a character.

Idris Elba in The Wire

There is an entire swath of people who don’t know Idris Elba is British (and they may never know unless the right people make the right decisions and he becomes James Bond). Which is wild because Idris Elba’s real British accent is so British it almost sounds fake. (You can tell Elba is British just from the way he eats a chicken wing.) But this is the power of Elba’s American accent in The Wire. If one is pushed to pick nits—which one is in an accent matrix—Elba’s American accent doesn’t always hit the Baltimore-specific vowel sounds, and sometimes, if Stringer Bell gets angry enough, it sounds like he’s yelling for his afternoon tea. But other than that, this is a convincing knockout.

Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary

Renée Zellweger, no matter how proficient the accent—and her English accent has been cited by many a dialect expert as being proficient—simply has the presence of someone who has been to, or at least heard of, Six Flags; who knows what a two-point conversion is; who was once briefly wed to Kenny “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” Chesney. Zelleweger has a distinct enough American voice that the experience of hearing her excellent English accent in Bridget Jones’s Diary is ever so slightly marked by thinking, “Wow, she’s doing a great English accent,” as opposed to thinking nothing at all beyond, “OK, when is this bird gonna snog Colin Firth?”

Jeremy Renner in The Town

Would I call Jeremy Renner a dynamic dialect actor? I would not! Does the signature Bostonian line “Whose cah we gonna take?” float to the surface of my mind on a weekly basis? Yes, it does! Not an “r” in sight! James Coughlin in The Town was Renner’s role to play, and he played it.

Jodie Comer in Killing Eve

For a true feat—a master class—in accents, look no further than Jodie Comer in Killing Eve (also available for master classes in crumbling-Parisian-apartment-chic and pulling off tulle). For Comer, playing the assassin Villanelle means putting on as many different accents as she does outfits, and she alternates between them with just as much ease, often speaking in different languages, and with never so much as a hint of her own strong Liverpool accent. Sure, some voices in the dossier are better than others, but when you start to question, always remember that Comer isn’t just doing, say, an American accent when she takes on an American identity: She’s a British actress playing a Russian character doing an American accent that she may or may not be making just annoying enough to intentionally get herself caught. Hey, mercenaries have layers too!

Ruth Negga in Loving

Like Elba, there’s probably a large group of people who have never heard Ruth Negga, an Ethiopian Irish actress raised mostly in Ireland, speak in her native brogue (those who have likely heard her as the Emerald Herald in the video game Dark Souls II). That’s because Negga is so consistently, so convincingly committed to an American Southern accent in all her biggest roles. My personal favorite is her violent, twangy Texan in the violent, twangy Preacher—but certainly the most remarkable is her Oscar-nominated performance in Loving, which sees Negga turn that twang into a delicate Virginia drawl. As played by Negga, Mildred Loving’s softness is her power, and so it can only leave us wanting more of this raw vocal performance.

Amanda Seyfried in The Dropout

Here’s the thing about Elizabeth Holmes—her voice is wild. And there are plenty of first-person accounts that say she intentionally deepened her tone as the Theranos years went on. Seyfried wisely goes the route of close impression (deepening her own voice, matching Holmes’s oral posture while avoiding some her wonkier tone choices) as opposed to pure imitation, which could make her sound as distracting as Holmes’s real (fake) voice. The show also wisely gives Seyfried a montage in which she practices Holmes’s iconic baritone … and then dials it back three notches for her actual performance, as in, Hey look at what we’re NOT making you listen to!

The Daniel Day-Lewis: Daniel Day-Lewis in … Everything

In looking at Daniel Day-Lewis’s perfectly curated body of work, one might start to wonder whether he intentionally takes on accents for which most people have no point of reference. Do you think you know what Abraham Lincoln sounds like? Well, you don’t because there are no existing recordings of his voice—you’re probably just thinking about Daniel Day-Lewis, who used descriptions of Lincoln’s voice and his immense talent to create the accent he used in Lincoln. Same goes for Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood: historical accents that have been passed down to us through story but eradicated in real life, giving a great actor an opportunity to build a voice around a character, and not the other way around.

The Big Honkin’ Swings: Accurate and Distracting

Natalie Portman in Jackie

The premiere example of a completely accurate accent that you spend the entire film thinking, “Wow, that’s quite an accent!” is Natalie Portman’s Oscar-nominated performance in Jackie. Because in real life, Jackie Kennedy sounded like an elegant ghost who had never so much as heard of the letter “r.” Her speaking voice is a complex combination of every intonation along the Eastern Seaboard, and yet, Natalie Portman is doing a pristine imitation of the wispy, WASPy, wealthy sound. Unfortunately, that can make it difficult to focus on almost anything else except the wispy, WASPy, wealthy voice coming out of Natalie Portman’s mouth.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote

Let’s get one thing straight: Philip Seymour Hoffman is doing a near-perfect Truman Capote, for which he won the Oscar in 2006. It is uncanny how much Hoffman sounds like Capote without ever swinging into caricature, especially when you consider how deep Hoffman’s natural voice was. But similar to Portman, this is simply a nutty combination of vocal variants to have to meld together in one performance; the better job the actor does, the wilder it is for the audience to hear. Still, Hoffman is acting with every muscle, every inch, every vocal cord inside him, and the result is much more than just an impression—even if you never quite get over the voice.

Jared Leto in WeCrashed

No one loves an accent more than Jared Leto, and few actors are better at it (you can find a list of those who are explained above). When Leto exclaims, “et-zaccly” in Adam Neumann’s Israeli accent, you could be listening to Neumann himself delivering one of his many impassioned speeches. What’s missing, then, is a bit of that well-documented passion. In comparison to Hoffman, who is pulling off an emotionally resonant performance as well as a vocally accurate one, Leto continues to turn in perfect mimicry … which can make it a little harder to forget that what you’re watching is Jared Leto doing his very good Adam Neumann impression.

Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown

Boston used to be the American city to fear when it came to actors perfecting its accent—that is, until a little lady named Mare Sheehan came on the scene, making the sultry sounds of Delaware County, Pennsylvania (a.k.a. Delco), as commonly known as a Wawa hoagie. Did Kate Winslet nail the Delco accent by the terms of a Delco resident? No—because no one ever will, and you may get a milk jug through your window for asking. Did she nail it by a casual viewer’s terms? Yes. Winslet is making all kinds of bonkers vowel sounds that’ll make you furrow your brow and think, “Do people really sound like that?,” google it, and find out yes, millions of people do! Winslet is a master of accents in general, but Mare was special because, as Winslet said, this is one of two dialects in her 30-year career that made her really have to work for it.

Julia Garner in Inventing Anna

In Inventing Anna, Julia Garner sounds almost identical to the real Anna Delvey—and, this time, that is not a good thing. As a reminder, Anna Delvey (née, Sorokin) was a Russian woman attempting to sound like a German heiress, which makes Julia Garner an American woman attempting to sound like a Russian woman attempting to sound like a German heiress. By most first-person accounts, the experience of listening to Anna speak was a wild one, and the same goes for the process of listening to Julia play Anna in a sound-for-sound remake. What I wouldn’t have given for Garner to just play this character as though Delvey were actually doing a decent German accent—hell, I would have watched her play it in her Ruth Langmore voice. Anything but this!

“I duh naht hov time fuh dis! I duh naht haf time fuh YEW!”

Emma Watson in … anything

This is where I tell you that Emma Watson’s American accents really aren’t that bad—they’re really not! They’re simply inconsistent … consistently inconsistent, one might say. There is one diphthong that especially ails her, and I’m confident you can conjure which one it is if you just imagine little Hermione Granger exclaiming, “No, you caaaaan’t” on a life-size chessboard. Whether Watson is playing a Little Woman, or a Pretty Wild valley girl, or a Perky Wallflower, there will be some flat American a’s that she slips up on each and every time. But we’re just going to love her through it, because surely we wouldn’t trade that British accent for anything.

The Lady Gaga: Lady Gaga in House of Gucci

You will never forget that Lady Gaga is Lady Gaga. She does not melt into a role. But she will own a role, command a role; she will, at times, sound vaguely Russian while playing the hell out of an Italian role. And that will be fine because most people don’t know precisely what Patrizia Reggiani sounded like …

I mean, they probably know she didn’t sound occasionally Russian, but Lady Gaga’s performance in House of Gucci lands precisely at the nexus of accurate and artistic and seamless and distracting because, as Gaga told us over and over, she lived in this performance. As she has well informed the public, she called on her education at the Circle in the Square Theatre School, her method acting training at the Lee Strasberg Institute, and used the sense memory methods of Stanislavski for this performance. And the result is an accent that is neither perfectly accurate nor a wild artistic swing—neither a seamless melting into the role, nor a jolting vocal mess. It is simply … Gaga playing Patritzia.

The Character Studies: Artistic and Seamless

Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain

Heath Ledger isn’t so much giving a vocal performance in Brokeback Mountain as perhaps the vocal performance of the last 20 years. And it’s not about the accuracy of the Wyoming-Montana border dialect at all—though that’s also pretty solid when Ennis is speaking loud enough to hear it. It’s about the hard line that Ledger permanently holds in his mouth: the literal repression of Ennis’s own voice, even while he’s speaking. It is an artistic creation all Ledger’s own, and what do we love more from our best actors than making a big ol’ choice?

Will Smith in Ali

Muhammed Ali is a big task to take on. Not only is his voice so familiar, not only is his accent so singular, but if an actor finds himself in position to perform it, then he is also most likely having to do quite a bit of physical work beyond the voice. With all of that taken into account, Will Smith does an admirable job of portraying Ali, but he leans so far on the lyricality of Ali’s voice that the Will Smith of it all never quite disappears. But I tell you what: Listening to Will Smith as Muhammad Ali chanting, “THE CHAMP IS HERE!” will always be a good time.

Penélope Cruz in The Assassination of Gianni Versace

Visually, the logic behind casting Penélope Cruz to play Donatella Versace is a no-brainer. Vocally … it’s a bit more of an uphill climb. As if performing a notoriously singular accent not in your native language isn’t hard enough, Cruz also had Maya Rudolph’s iconic SNL Donatella impression to contend with. Not an enviable challenge. But when you hear Cruz’s Donatella, you ultimately don’t hear Cruz at all—she completely transforms, not exactly into Donatella, but into a variant of Donatella that captures both her signature husky gurgle while also, yes, sounding mildly Spanish. It’s not entirely accurate, but just like fashion, accent work is art, darling.

Nicole Kidman in … anything

You’ve gotta hand it to Nicole Kidman—the woman has been a Hollywood actress for 30 years and she is holding on to that Australian accent tighter than Reese Witherspoon to the TV rights of a bestselling novel. The thing is: No, Kidman can’t do accents for shit, but the performance never suffers. There’s no obvious answer for who keeps demanding that Kidman do an American accent—and hey, sometimes a Russian vampire accent—but until some wise director lets her go back to her native Australian, we just have to allow the acting to work overtime for every “no” that turns into “naur” during an emotionally climactic moment.

Daniel Craig in Knives Out

Yeah, I said it! The Benoit Blanc performance is a little bit seamless. Obviously, the Foghorn Leghorn dialect Daniel Craig has adopted isn’t accurate to any corner of the American South, but I dare call this performance camp. And Knives Out is just the kind of big, ensemble whodunit that can handle such a thing. Is there an obvious reason for Craig adopting this accent? No. Craig claimed it set him apart as an outsider, but we all know what was going on: James Bond wanted to take a swing! Pure artistry, baby, and it makes a movie in which Ana de Armas downs (and upchucks) a big ol’ bowl of beans all the more pleasantly weird.

Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network

As far as impressions go, Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg is the prime example of an actor saying, “What if we just … didn’t?” And that artistic choice worked out. Maybe there’s someone out there who could’ve done a great Zuckerberg impression, but Eisenberg said, “It’s not me.” Instead, the quick-talking, deadpan, and, let’s face it, smug idiolect Eisenberg uses evokes the kind of tech-obsessed, human-avoidant Silicon Valley type the movie wants us to understand Zuckerberg to be—without actually impersonating his real sound. Linguists call it “enregisterment,” and Eisenberg enregisters the hell out of this vocal performance.

The Shenanigans: Distracting and Artistic

Oscar Isaac in Moon Knight

Oscar Isaac is a great actor. Pretty much every person on this matrix who is an actor … is a great actor. Which makes it, honestly, so funny how bananas Oscar Isaac’s accent choice is in Moon Knight. I have heard tale from a handful of Brits that this is a non-London, non-posh accent so full of idiosyncrasies that it’s more accurate than most English accents on film—so accurate, in fact, that coming out of Oscar Isaac, it circles right back around to absurdity. That seems like a generous take! My take is that Isaac sounds like a cartoon pig putting on a little play with his friends when he’s supposed to sound like a superpowered mercenary with dissociative identity disorder. So, all told, that’s a little distracting, but again: so funny coming out of Oscar Isaac that it makes me come all the way back around to loving it again. Much like a shark, Oscar Isaac’s accent must stay in constant motion or the MCU will die.

Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow

When an actor is nominated for an Oscar in their first feature film performance, it’s easy to start thinking that the now-A-lister has become an old pro before they’ve even gotten their Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours in. For example, Red Sparrow premiered eight years after Winter’s Bone, but Jennifer Lawrence still hadn’t ever “done a foreign accent before,” and, well, her Russian definitely comes off like it’s still in beta. That really distracted from the [checks notes] “ballerina turned spy with a special skill for seduction” plotline.

Cuba Gooding Jr. in The People vs. OJ Simpson

We call this the inverse Eisenberg. Cuba Gooding Jr. also didn’t attempt to adopt any sort of accent when playing O.J. Simpson in The People vs. O.J. Simpson, but he also didn’t attempt to evoke any sort of O.J. characterization. Of course, you don’t blame a baby when it touches a hot stove, and you don’t blame an actor when they accept a juicy role they’ve been offered. You’ve got to blame the person who cast Cuba’s soft, scratchy, pitchy voice in the role of O.J. Simpson’s deep, steady, resonant one, ultimately dooming him to fail.

Gerard Butler in P.S. I Love You

Gerard Butler has never been a master of accents, but he’s also never apologized for how badly he’s bungled one … until P.S. I Love You. Years after the movie came out, Butler said in an interview that he thought the Irish accent would be simple enough, but after hearing himself, he knew he had to offer a heartfelt apology “to the nation of Ireland for completely abusing their accent.” If anything, Butler, a Scotsman, and his inability to so much as hint at a decent Irish accent in P.S. I Love You proves that the United Kingdom is no monolith, and we mustn’t expect a perfect exchange of dialects between its actors. We mustn’t even expect a passable leprechaun caricature. You’ll get ’em next time, Gerry.

Sienna Miller in the trailer for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for the National Theater

Sienna Miller can do an American accent—I’ve heard it! It’s decent in Alfie, and really quite good in American Sniper. Miller has frequently tried on a nondescript American accent; she even did a Delco variant in the grossly under-watched American Woman. So, what then, can explain what Sienna Miller is doing in the National Theater Collection’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?

It can only be explained as the biggest possible swing—and the greatest possible miss by a professional actor this century. The artistic commitment to an accent is there; the only thing missing is any sound you’ve ever heard in the American South not coming directly out of a muffler.

Jesy Nelson attempting a Jamaican accent in a You Generation promotion

Now, in the non-professional-actor category, there is no accent swing and a miss more iconic, more memed, and more absolutely inexplicable than what was accomplished by Jesy Nelson of British girl group Little Mix. Tragically, Jesy departed Little Mix in 2020, but not before leaving her most lasting legacy upon the group six years earlier.

When asked to impersonate a Jamaican accent during a game on Simon Cowell’s now-defunct online video-sharing competition platform, You Generation, Jesy reacted with a word—née, a sound—that can be described only as “Balegdah.” And it has, indeed, been described as such over and over again, taking up permanent residence in the bottom right-hand corner of this all-important matrix—at least until the 22nd century dawns. Maybe by then someone will have attempted the Delco again. Maybe it’ll be Jesy Nelson herself.