Richard Armitage speaking American, a retrospective (Staged, Captain America)
The most recent snippet of Armitage sounding American from Epix re-animated my interest in a long-standing question for me: the development of his American accent. I have wondered about it since reading an interview early on that describes an incident that occurred before 2006, in which Armitage refers to a trip to Hollywood to audition for a pilot: “‘I’d practised my American accent really hard so I could get the part just right. When I finished reading, the casting people said, ‘Wow! That was great… Now would you mind doing it again with an American accent?””
I thought this was a charming story for him to tell about himself, but at the same time, as he experienced first hand, ability to reproduce the American accent is definitely an important skill for today’s globally marketable actor. Since then, he’s had a dialect coach on Into the Storm (film credits list this person as Julie Adams but Armitage referred to the person as a man) and on Berlin Station (Rebecca Gausnell). Hannibal had a dialogue coach for Mads Mikkelsen (I know, right?) — Diane Pitblado — but it looks like she only worked on the first two seasons of the show. Armitage’s recent follow on Twitter of dialect coach Liz Himelstein suggests his continued interest in working with these professionals.
The first surviving example of Armitage using an American accent at work comes from Staged (1999), although fans were not able to experience this piece until 2013. Armitage himself described this accent as “appalling.” My first impressions are here with an addition here about my perception of his wobbly accent-switching at the time — Darryl is a British actor who has made it big and is performing an American role on the London stage. I am not providing a link to excerpts from this piece because some fans have been aggressive in defending the rightsholder’s claims; I don’t want to cause a kerfuffle; and it’s hard to write a detailed analysis if I can’t share the source in detail with readers. While I wouldn’t go so far as describing this accent as “appalling,” however, Armitage is correct that it is not effectively executed. He starts off reasonably well, but by thirty seconds into his first dialog he’s gradually losing control of it, sliding into an English accent that sounds a lot like Paul Andrews’. If this is the baseline for understanding Armitage’s American accent, we can truly conclude that he came from nowhere.
We only saw that later, however. The first time most fans and I heard Armitage “speaking American” can be listened to below, in the BBC radio program, “Symphony of a City” (2010). Details about that production are here. My initial reaction to it is here (there is a mistake there in that I confuse the first part of the dos Passos reading with the poem from William Carlos Williams).
I hadn’t listened to this in quite a while. I stand by my perception that he’s working too hard on the “r,” and that the “a” and “o” vowels are inconsistent. One thing that seems different to me on this listen is that it doesn’t seem like he’s trying for the East Coast emphasis until about twenty seconds in (thus complicating the vowel problem even more). As he pushes more in that direction, after the musical break in the middle, his voice becomes increasingly nasal — which might have been more effective had it also been consistent all the way through. Listening to it with my eyes closed, I also find the closing consonants enunciated perhaps just a tick too forcefully. It’s at this point that I notice something that will continue to be an issue for me throughout all of his performances of English: the way that the American accent affects the resonance in his voice. When he nasalizes, he loses that power.
It seems that “r” is one of the harder sounds to make in any non-native situation. I struggle with both the Spanish and the German “r” sounds. One of the problems in the American accent is to decide when you’re going to pronounce the closing “r” — and you have to be consistent. If you say “motoRs” then you can’t say “roadstas,” for instance. And when pronounced, the closing “r” doesn’t get the weight that Armitage often gave it in his early American performances.
Then — no American Armitage for two years, until he played Heinz Kruger in Captain America. Below, Heinz is pretending to be Fred Clemson, a U.S. State Department official. He definitely sounded American, but somehow more like a Westerner to me. Indeed, listening to this now, he sounds to me like some famous actor from the fifties or sixties, but I just can’t quite place it. In this line (which one images was redone in ADR), he somehow manages to circumvent the resonance problem, although he still sounds nasal. And he mostly has the “r” figured out, although there are no closing “r” consonants in this line.
Something interesting here, I find, is how tightly he seems to be holding his jaw. It makes his “s” sounds very noticeable.