Speaking In Tongues

Four years ago Barbara Berkery was sitting in the middle of a burnt-out village in the Wicklow mountains

Four years ago Barbara Berkery was sitting in the middle of a burnt-out village in the Wicklow mountains. She was working as dialect coach on an American TV series and enjoying a rare moment of peace looking out over the land of her forebears. Although based in England, she was born in Dublin and the house in Tinahealy, Co Wicklow that she and her Romanian husband now call home, is just down the road from where her mother was born.

Suddenly her mobile phone rang. A movie offer. The high-profile cast included an American an Australian and a Scot. Worse, it was a classic of English literature adapted for the screen by its American director. "My heart sank," recalls Berkery. "I just thought, is it worth it?" It was the most pivotal decision she ever made. Because the film was Jane Austen's Emma, and the star was Gwyneth Paltrow. And as Austen aficionados across the world held their breath, Barbara Berkery set to, using all the skills that a lifetime in the theatre had given her, to dismantle the natural - and dramatically different - accents of Gwyneth Paltrow, Tony Collette and Ewan McGregor and reassemble them into a harmonious, 18th-century whole. The number of films that had been ruined by American actors' inability to get their mouths around standard English had led to a general acceptance that they just couldn't do it. Emma changed all that.

Gwyneth Paltrow was special, admits Berkery. "She's a highly intelligent young actress. She speaks French and Spanish. She understands and has the ability to spend time actually learning the sounds of an accent."

Berkery's method is based on phonetics, not mimickry. Once the principles are understood, an actor learns an accent in much the same way as he or she would learn a foreign language. Gwyneth Paltrow now has three English accents under her belt, all courtesy of Berkery.


For Emma, the accent used was standard English (known in the dialect-coach world as RP, Received Pronunciation). Then came Sliding Doors, where Paltrow has a contemporary London accent and most recently - though not yet released here - is Shakespeare In Love (screenplay by Tom Stoppard), in which the English used, says, Berkery, is richer and more open than RP. Other actors in the cast include Ben Affleck (American) and Jeffrey Rush (Australian).

The play-within-the-film is Romeo and Juliet, which provided Berkery with added layers of complexity. "You have to know as an actor what you're saying before you can actually do it. Because you have to imbue all the language with your own connections, your own ideas." But similarly it's not enough to understand. The beauty of the language must come through.

"It's exactly like playing an instrument. You may have the most wonderful ideas of melody but if you can't actually put your fingers in the right place, it's a waste of time." There are no short cuts, says Berkery. It's achieved word by word. Convincing accents are all to do with personality, she says.

"If people are stiff and resistant, they won't be as good. People can be just rather macho. There is a moment when you have to let go, and submit to the accent, and that's hard for some people."

Berkery trained as an actress at RADA in London (she even appeared in The Riordans), but when her son Seamus was born, she realised that the nomadic life of an actor was far from practical, so she did a voice coaching course "so that at least one of us would stay still". For 10 years this held good but since films took over from theatre, Barbara has been permanently on the move.

After Emma came Seven Years In Tibet, with Brad Pitt and David Thewlis, filmed high in the Andes where she spent three months living in a former barracks. (Paltrow was involved with Pitt at the time, hence the introduction.) Here the accent was Austrian. When "foreign" accents are involved, she uses the same basic techniques, helped by the BBC World Service where she can usually find someone with the specific accent she needs, tape conversations and make notes of all the physical changes that take place. She uses the same approach for all accents, from Polish/Yiddish (Jakob The Liar with Robin Williams) to French (French Kiss with Kevin Kline).

"It's quite a scientific approach. You have to learn how to change the shape of your mouth. A Scottish accent has a tight upper lip. If you come from the west country you use your throat resonator rather then your face resonator. If you come from Belfast it's in your nose." (She coached Helen Mirren and Fionnuala Flanagan for Some Mother's Son.)

`There are very basic differences in where you place the voice and how the vowels, the consonants, the tongue. The aim is to make the accent part of you rather than a mask that you put on."

Perhaps her most daunting job to date has been the remake of The Parent Trap, where the lead actress plays twins: one American, one English. Not only that, but the American twin pretends to be the English one, and vice versa. "It really meant four different accents". All this from an actress aged 10.

"Fortunately she was a very bright kid. Also she just loved the Just William videos. So when she was flagging I would promise that, if she was good, she could watch one."

Not, one suspects, a technique that would have worked for Brad Pitt.