The Top 10 American Accents done by non-Americans

Hugh Laurie

Kristin Dos Santos / Wikimedia

USA Today ran a piece yesterday listing the top five American accents done by British actors. While I am unfamiliar with the number one actor on the list, Jamie Bamber, I’m glad to see that Hugh Laurie and Idris Elba are represented: both actors who have done fantastic dialect work.

Continuing this meme, here is my own list of the top 10 non-Americans who have excelled at British American dialects.

1.)  Idris Elba, The Wire. It was hard to pick number one, but at the end of the day, this British actor won out. He didn’t just do any American accent on the wire. He mastered, from top to bottom, the variety of African American Vernacular English spoken in West Baltimore. It is some of the most masterfully specific dialect work I’ve ever seen.

2.)  Hugh Laurie, in House. There is a debate about the authenticity of Hugh Laurie’s accent on this American TV show. Personally, I don’t think authenticity is what makes this fake accent seem so real. It’s that Laurie realizes that Americans can be just as witty, ascerbic and cutting as Brits. Laurie gives the accent a refreshing intelligence and vigor.

3.)  Heath Ledger, in basically anything. What was great about this late Australian actor was that you never noticed that he was doing a dialect. Ledger created characters, from Ennis del Mar to the Joker, with voices so developed that the whole notion of “putting on an accent” was an afterthought.

4.)  Toni Collete, in the Sixth Sense. Collette’s accent work is always phenomenal, but her work in the Sixth Sense impressed me for one reason. She is basically the only actor, ever, and I mean EVER, who has grasped the fact that Philadelphia actually has an accent. She could have done some standard American something or other, and would have been fine. But no. It’s that attention to detail that separates sublime dialect work from the merely competent.

5 & 6.)  Guy Pearce & Russell Crowe, LA Confidential. Continuing the theme of “Australians do the best accents” is this one-two punch of Aussies in this 1997 crime drama. Like a lot of actors on this list, these two layered in lots of great character work: Crowe was rough and grizzled, Pearce uptight and bookish. And they fit into the period and milieu perfectly.

7.)  Naomi Watts, in most things she’s in. I have to give props to this Australian actress, who has played Americans more than she has Aussies and has never once slipped. Extra points for being able to handle some seriously emotional material while donning a different accent than her own.

8.)  Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York. Day-Lewis did not use an actual dialect in this movie, but rather a faschinating interpretation of how a New Yorker would have spoken in the mid-19th-Century. The dialect coach working on the film spoke of trying to return the accent to its roots in British English and Dutch, and Day-Lewis nailed this concept beautifully.

9.)  Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn. Bale’s accent work can be hit or miss, not the least because, given his international upbringing, I have often questioned whether he has a natural accent. However, I thought his dialect work in Rescue Dawn was excellent: he didn’t just do an American dialect, but actually managed to add just the perfect hint of a German influence. Another of those small details that really steps things up.

10.)  Tracy Ullman on the Tracy Ullman Show. This now-forgotten show (the inauspicious birthplace of the Simpsons) featured the superb dialect abilities of Tracy Ullman in a variety of characters. All flawless.

What actors do you think do great accents?


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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39 Responses to The Top 10 American Accents done by non-Americans

  1. dan says:

    Idris Elba is something else in The Wire: I couldn’t believe he was originally a Hackney lad. On the other hand, it wasn’t hard to work out that Dominic West was British…

    Jamie Bamber sounds way better in Battlestar than he did in Law and Order or Outcasts, so send him back over the pond and we might get some better roles out of him again!

  2. lynneguist says:

    “Continuing this meme, here is my own list of the top 10 non-Americans who have excelled at British dialects.”
    Should that be “American dialects”?

  3. Baishui says:

    Peter Sellers

  4. Tovah says:

    Your list is great. The actress who completely fooled me (I’m an American dialect coach) was Rebecca Hall, daughter of English director Peter Hall. Her accent in The Town and Vicky Cristina Barcelona is perfect! Here’s a clip from The Town:

  5. Chris says:

    Christian Bale also had a very good American accent in the under-rated movie Harsh Times.

    • alison says:

      He did the whole tour for Batman using the American accent, so as not to throw people off – amazing!

  6. Well, let’s not forget the queen of all accents, Meryl Streep!!!

    • Ngamudji says:

      While Meryl Streep may be good at accents generally, we must not forget the notorious exception of “Evil Angels” in which she played the part of Lindy Chamberlain. I don’t how her performance sounded to Americans, but to many Australians not only did it sound nothing like an Australian accent, it was difficult to understand.

    • alison says:

      Sophie’s Choice! Other languages, as well as accents!

      • Monika says:

        As a native Pole, I must disagree. However much love I have for Meryl Streep, her Polish in “Sophie’s Choice” is … well. It’s just impossible to figure out what she’s saying. You know from the storyline that it should be Polish, but then you start to doubt. So, whenever I think about this great actress, I just try to forget “Sophie’s Choice”.

  7. Chris Range says:

    Andrew Lincoln does such a good job on the Walking Dead as former country sheriff Rick Grimes that I would have never figured he was not from the north Georgia hills. And I’ve lived in the South near to my whole life. It is impressive. David Morrissey as the Governor has a good Southern accent also. He reminds me of most any preacher I might have heard growing up. Perfect for the character he plays.

    • Deedee says:

      I hate to “revive the dead” thread but Lauren Cohan’s attempt at an American dialect is such a fail that it actually makes her scenes difficult to watch. I’m hoping that changes. She’s a good actress but struggles with the dialogue.

  8. Ann says:

    Kenneth Branagh does a pretty good American accent as in the movie Dead Again. On the reverse side what do you think of American actor Robert Mitchum version of an Australian and Irish Accent in some of his movies?

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  10. Andy says:

    I’m new to all this, but why no Dominic West? Great blog, by the by.

    • Therese says:

      Because West, in The Wire at least, slips several times (especially his prosody), whereas Elba was always on. Even Aidan Gillen as Carcetti had a more consistent and believable delivery.

      To be an even more selective about accents in David Simon location dramas, in Treme, only Wendell Pierce sounds like an actual New Orleanian, although Pierce’s Gentilly accent seems out of place for his character. Goodman would have worked better had his character been a transplant to the city like the person who inspired it (and whom the writers blatantly quoted), the late Ashley Morris, but he at least sounded somewhat regional. Everyone else spoke wrong in all manners of dialect unless they were direct quotes, be it vocabulary or syntax choice, or pronunciation and prosody.

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  13. Commissioner Gordon says:

    Gary Oldman

  14. Tom, son of Tom says:

    I know this actor isn’t well-known in the US, but Ryan Kwanten’s Gulf-Coast-southern-redneck accent as Jason Stackhouse on “True Blood” blows me away. I’ve lived all but 8 of my 50 years in the Deep South, and I was completely dumbstruck when I discovered that Kwanten was *Australian.* As far as I’m concerned, Kwanten’s accent would be completely at home in any bait shop, country store, roadside diner or gas station down heah in Dixie. Either he’s got an incredible talent for accents, a fantastic vocal coach or both.

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  16. Magdalena says:

    How about all the Canadian actors who have portrayed Americans and other nationalities, and had to modify their dialects accordingly? Christopher Plummer, Donald and Keifer Sutherland, William Shatner, Rachel McAdams, Ryan Reynolds, Ryan Gosling, etc.

  17. Nico says:

    I always thought Lucy Lawless’ American accent in Xena was pretty damn impressive. Several other cast members from Xena and Hercules were pretty good too. However, there were plenty of supporting and minor characters in both series who couldn’t hide their Kiwi accent worth a hoot. =p

    • Nico says:

      Granted, I know some cast members were American also, but I was referring specifically to the ones from New Zealand.

      • Serena says:

        Are you referring to the talented Mr. Karl Urban?
        If so, he doesn’t need to ever hide his Kiwi accent, it’s perfect, like him.

  18. Chris Roberts says:

    Christian Bale

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  22. Nigel says:

    Yes, Christian Bale is fantastic. Another who springs to mind is Lena Headey, the English actress who played Sarah Connor in tv series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Cronicles. I’m not sure if she’s very well known, but I thought her American was fantastic; in fact, my jaw dropped when I found out she was English.

  23. David says:

    Jason Isaacs in Brotherhood. He captured the local Rhode Island working class accent perfectly.

  24. ari corcoran says:

    It’s curious, but not surprising, that 5/10 of the Blog’s picks are Australian. Perhaps because Australians are exposed through TV/film to many accents other than Australian, and can learn to understand and be more apt to be fluent in regional dialects from other parts of the English-as-first-language world. As well, the actor-training system in Australia (e.g. through NIDA) is more attuned to actors getting jobs overseas, especially in the US.

  25. Mitchell says:

    Nobody remembers Mark Addy from Still Standing? Same as with Laurie, he doesn’t just paper over his own accent–the voice is really the core of the character.

    P.S. I have a theory about Gary Oldman’s delightfully weird turn in The Fifth Element: just to be different, he modeled both the voice and the hair on the most unvillainous fella he could think of–Michael Nesmith. Re-view it and tell me I’m wrong.

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