Film Ireland caught up with actor Sam Lucas Smith to learn about his experience as an Irish actor playing an American character and the importance of dialect training for actors.
The industry has never been more global. With self-tapes an actor in Ireland can be considered for roles casting from London, Los Angeles, or anywhere else in the world. Most of the time, however, they’re not looking for an Irish accent so it’s important that actors are familiar with commonly requested dialects.
Sam Lucas Smith has built a successful career between Ireland and the UK, with some very recognizable international credits to his name. He’s currently filming 2 feature films and will be seen in the soon-to-be released thriller Killers Within. Sam left Dublin at 18 when he was accepted to train at the Manchester School of Theatre. After graduating, he signed with a top agent in London and split his time between Dublin and London while building up a list of film and television credits – all of which required different accents.
Sam was introduced to an American manager and agent and moved to Los Angeles when he won the role of Abel, an American teenager, in the US feature film Imperfect Sky, for which he was awarded Best Supporting Actor at the Sydney Independent Film Festival.
We spoke to Sam about his experience as an Irish actor playing an American character and the importance of dialect training for actors.
How has dialect training helped you?
Extending my range of accents has enabled me to compete for many more opportunities. I really think it’s a vital skillset, and not just for actors who wish to work abroad. There’s a growing number of international productions based out of Ireland which demand a range of American and English accents, and home-grown productions often require distinct local dialects.
How long did it take for you to become comfortable working in an American accent?
I worked with a dialect coach in the US and getting to the stage where I was Comfortable didn’t take too long, but comfortable isn’t enough. It took many more months of practice to reach the stage where I could forget about it. That’s always the goal. To be able to turn it on and off as required and embody the accent to the extent that you can be spontaneous. That, to me, is the difference between comfortable and flawless.
What advice can you offer for learning accents?
If possible, get a dialect coach. Some offer group sessions which tend to be cheaper – I found I often learned more by listening and learning from others. Then, most importantly, KEEP WORKING ON IT! Make it a habit outside of formal rehearsal or practice environments. Eventually, you want to get to the stage where you can pick up a script and read it with whatever accent is required without giving it a second thought.
My dialect coach advised me to walk around ‘as an American’. It was a very conscious effort at first and I couldn’t help but feel daft ordering a coffee in the accent, or holding every-day conversations in the accent – people would call me out, saying “where are you from” or worse “what’s wrong with your voice!?”… but after a while it became second nature. It became a habit and I didn’t have to think about it.
I realised I had reached that stage at a Q&A screening of Imperfect Sky in Los Angeles, when the audience was surprised to hear me answer a question in my native Irish accent.
What are the most important accents to have on a CV?
It completely depends on your native accent, where you’re working and what opportunities are available to you. Have a look at what’s casting. Notice what accents keep popping up. You really don’t need a huge repertoire. Narrow it down. One or two in addition to your own should be all you need. Just make sure you nail them. If you are in the US, or looking to work on US productions a Standard American accent will do; in the UK, a solid RP will serve you very well.
What tools and resources would you recommend for dialect training?
The first thing I’ll always recommend is a good dialect coach. Not much can substitute their individual guidance and expertise, but there are other resources worth checking out. http://www.dialectsarchive.com is a completely free resource that compiles thousands of samples of accents from hundreds of countries and http://dialectcoaches.com is a directory for linking up with freelance dialect coaches.
Is dialect coaching necessary?
It depends on the individual. It can be a significant expense, so it’s worth weighing up where you are in your career and what you hope to gain from it. Some actors build and maintain successful careers in their own accent and have no need or desire to work in another. Then there are those freakishly lucky people who can pick up accents like there’s nothing to it. That’s probably not you and it’s definitely not me. I had few opportunities to audition in my native accent as I was based in London and I found training with a coach helped me win roles that would have otherwise passed me by.
What dialect coaches would you recommend?
It depends on location and the sort of training you require. Most coaches are adept in a range of different dialects, and they usually offer sessions via VOIP or Skype, but I think it’s important to have an in-person session as there’s a physical aspect that incorporates breathing, posture and many other non-verbal traits that would ideally be addressed.
In London I’d recommend Andrew Jack – he made a “Tour of The British Isles In Accents” video which is worth a watch and he has served as the dialect coach on the Lord of The Rings films and Star Wars films. I also had a great experience with Richard Ryder.
In Los Angeles, I worked with Jessica Drake on my Standard American accent. She has coached Colin Farrell and Tom Hanks and her practical approach really clicked with me.
I haven’t had the chance to work with a coach in Ireland, but I have heard great things about Gerry Grennell, who is based out of Bow Street in Dublin and runs both group workshops and private sessions.
How can an Irish actor be considered for roles casting outside of Ireland?
Casting directors tend to deal directly with agents, so it’s vital to have the right representation. You don’t necessarily need to move abroad. That’s always a big call, and dependent on more factors than career alone. Many Irish agents share clients with agencies in London and Los Angeles so it’s possible to base yourself in Ireland and maintain additional international representation. As a client, that tends to mean you’re splitting commission with multiple parties, but with more people working on your behalf I reckon it’s a price worth paying.
If you are based in Ireland or the UK you need to be on Spotlight. It’s more so an agent’s and casting director’s tool to access talent and submit to castings, but it really is a baseline necessity. I was at a casting director seminar at the Galway Film Fleadh with Ros Hubbard this year who said, “if you’re not on Spotlight, you are essentially invisible”. There are more casting directories in the US, but Actors Access is generally considered to be the equivalent to Spotlight.
Then it is important to be able to work and understand the various legalities and restrictions. This can get a little complicated when it comes to the US and in most cases you will not be considered unless you are already authorized to work. For that you will need to have either an Artist’s visa or a Green Card. It’s still possible to be considered and audition for work without a visa; if you book the job the company would then petition for an O-1 visa on your behalf, but the visa comes with its own restrictions. A visa granted for a specific project will only last for the duration of the production. An alternative is a manager sponsored visa, where they serve as the employer, allowing the artist to work on multiple projects.
Sam will be addressing these points alongside an expert panel as part of an upcoming Film Ireland podcast on Working Abroad. Details TBA.