Richard Armitage speaking American, a retrospective, part 2 (Into the Storm)
Continued from here.
When Richard Armitage’s participation in Into the Storm was announced, originally as Category 6 — in July 2012 — one almost immediate concern once we learned that Gary Fuller (later Morris) was supposed to be an Oklahoman was the accent question. (See the long discussion here, for instance.) At that point, Armitage had been living in New Zealand for eighteen months, where he presumably hadn’t been hearing all too many American voices as a matter of course, and we had not heard him produce the correct accent before. Producer Todd Garner assured fans even during filming that Richard Armitage was “nailing” the Oklahoma accent. (We forgive you for lying, Todd, or maybe you just didn’t know what an Oklahoman accent was.) We waited a long time on that film, in part due to video effects studio insolvency, which led to them splitting up the work. Pickups for the film added scenes to it, and that, along with ADR in 2013 and changes made to the film after showing it to a test audience, allowed Armitage to reassess and dub over his performance, improving the accent after he’d been living in the U.S. himself. (A full timeline of the development of the film is found here.)
As stuff trickled out, I realized that my evaluation of Armitage’s execution of the accident was more positive when I was listening, rather than watching. When previous became available, we got different impressions of the accent — good on the “r,” for instance — and initial viewers were positive. My own initial reaction to the accent in the entire film was positive, which I think had something to do with the huge space in which I heard the film, and also the fact that Armitage spends a lot of the film screaming, which disguises the consonant issues in particular. A fuller evaluation of this question was going to have to wait. Then the DVD came out as I was taking a new job, and I drowned in that job, and so I am only getting around to thinking about this question more now.
Whatever we want to call Armitage’s accent for Gary, it is definitely not Oklahoman. (Here are some reference points for that accent provided by RAFrenzy in 2012.) I don’t feel that that is such a problem, since Gary is supposed to be an English teacher and his speech should thus sound more elevated than that of his surroundings anyway. Neither of his film sons sound Oklahoman, either. Although the film was made in Michigan and one might expect Armitage to have picked up pieces of that region in Gary’s speech, to me, the accent sounded most like a sort of non-specific Western accent, building on the way Fred Clemson / Heinz Kruger spoke in Captain America. The film did have a dialect coach who (this is recollection) worked at least with Max Deacon and, I assume, also with Armitage. (I recollect someone on the film discussing that one thinks one has an American accent down and then has to start all over again — but I don’t remember who said it, or where, anymore.) I have read various things about the accent from the perspective of neutral parties, keeping in mind that American reviewers expect American characters to speak with American regional accents in American movies, so that they are only likely to comment on the accent when it became noticeable to them as not American.
Watching it now, two years after it premiered and four years after it was made, here are some specific points that struck me. I would still rate it positively on the whole, but there are some notable movements to consider when evaluating Armitage’s later performances of American accents.
Armitage’s biggest improvements in Into the Storm involve “a” and “o” vowels — this problem, notable in the “Symphony of a City” excerpts, is completely eliminated. He is still nasalizing to sound American, but not nearly as much as before — in fact, I was only disturbed by it one time in particular, when he says Donnie’s girlfriend’s last name:
On the whole, the errors in Into the Storm tend to be reduced to individual moments. First, something that I love about Richard Armitage’s English speech — the intervocalic alveolar flap — about which I have written many times — reappears here:
There’s something weird about the way he says “system” (it may have to do with his enunciation of the “r” in “another”), but the word that marks him as non-native here is “totaled.” I get why he’s enunciating the second “t,” for clarity, I’m sure — but almost any American would say something that sounds in varying degrees more like “todaled.”
Second, the “r,” to which I’ve referred previously as one of the hardest problems for the actor transitioning between accents or languages. The “r” in Auslaut (closing a word) is still much too effortful. This happens because he knows he has to put the consonant there but in British speech is not quite accustomed to doing so. And he’s trying so hard that he ends up emphasizing the word “there” itself, which also sounds odd to us:
The effort to speak the “r” correctly is to some extent distorting the vowels around it throughout the clip above, although very subtly in this case.
For comparison purposes or as another illustration of what is going on, here’s a clip where Armitage basically gets the “r” in Auslaut right — but it’s because he’s yelling or exerting himself.
He’s still emphasizing the “r” sound but because of the tension of the situation, it’s exactly right, and the mannerism of accenting the last syllable of a name one is shouting to make sure it carries makes him sound just right in this scene.
This difficulty in generalizing his errors must make it somewhat hard to work with a dialect coach. Even the linguistic and speech experts who do this job are trained to identify and modify speech patterns, his difficulties are not occurring at the obvious level, and often, he gets things just right. For instance, here:
He’s still trying too hard on the “r” in “your” but everything else is right, and “I got no” is perfect.
Or here’s another example of a (for this film) long stretch of scene. There’s absolutely nothing wrong here, and although he’s lowered the pitch of his voice a lot (perhaps to try to circumvent the nasalization issue?) he sounds not only resonant but also “like” a Richard Armitage I recognize. His best American accent. It’s all going along really well, and then he says “chasin’ trouble?” and it falls apart.
I don’t even know how to describe this, because the dropped “g” is definitely a feature of American speech. But it’s too much here; it sounds like he’s consciously dropping an “n” that he wouldn’t otherwise, which sounds affected (and it would definitely be seen as condescending in the U.S. to affect this sort of rural speech if one were not rural).
In the end, I think he sounds best as an American when he doesn’t sound particularly American. Witness this clip (there’s a bit of a slip of his English “a” vowel toward the beginning but otherwise it’s good):
The accent is a bit anodyne, insofar as he’s lost his own vowels but hasn’t necessarily taken on any clearly identifying American regional speech features. This was the pattern that struck me when watching the Berlin Station clip — but first I need to make my way through Hannibal, which will take a little more time.