In the new CBS drama Golden Boy, Theo James plays an ambitious New York beat cop named Walter William Clark Jr., who parlays one heroic act into a job as a homicide detective, and later becomes the youngest police commissioner in the city’s history. Clark is presented to the show’s audience as a scrappy kid from the streets of New York. James, however, is nothing of the sort. He was born in Oxford, England, attended the University Of Nottingham, and trained at the Old Vic. He’s about as British as an actor can get.
James is hardly the only foreigner playing an American on primetime TV right now. To name just a few, there’s Australian Alex O’Loughlin in Hawaii Five-0, Australian Simon Baker in The Mentalist, Brits Andrew Lincoln and David Morrissey in The Walking Dead, Brit Sam Palladio in Nashville, Brit Damian Lewis in Homeland, Australian Radha Mitchell in Red Widow, Brit Freddie Highmore in Bates Motel, Australian Jesse Spencer in Chicago Fire, and Australian Poppy Montgomery in Unforgettable. And that’s not even taking into account the large number of Canadian TV stars, or foreigners whose shows are now off the air, such as Brit Hugh Laurie in House, and Australians John Noble and Anna Torv in Fringe.
But in a way it would be better if James were an anomaly. There have been so many English and Australian actors taking starring roles on American TV that it’s starting to become distracting. It’s not that these people are wrong for their parts. They can all act—some of them exceptionally well—and they can do the required accents. The job of an actor is to play pretend, which sometimes means wearing heavy makeup and wigs and, yes, adopting an accent. But more often than not, I can tell they’re doing an accent long before I find out where they’re from. When I watched the first episode of Golden Boy, it took about five minutes of listening to James talk before I realized not only that he wasn’t a real New Yorker, but that he probably wasn’t American. And while he’s good in this role, he’s not so good that the part couldn’t have been played by somebody else.
It may be that I notice actors doing accents more than I should because of where I grew up. I’ve lived about 95 percent of my life in Georgia, Tennessee, and Arkansas, with a short stretch in Northern Virginia, so I’ve been surrounded by Southerners since birth, and know that “my people” speak in a variety of different accents, from deep twang to patrician lilt to flat tones with just the occasional dropped “g.” Yet more often than not, when actors gets the chance to play a character from the American South, they turn into Yosemite Sam, even if they’re playing the head of the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (an institution that just happens to be based in Atlanta, but isn’t staffed entirely by Georgians). I’m sure people from Massachusetts are just as bothered by the proliferation of bad Boston accents in movies and on television lately, and upper Midwesterners by actors doing bad Fargo imitations, and New Jerseyites by actors playing every Jersey boy and girl as a wayward Soprano.
Here’s the big problem with actors doing accents: It discounts the diversity of the real world. When everybody in a Southern-set movie talks like Rhett Butler or Scarlett O’Hara, it’s not reflective of the way people migrate from one part of the world to another, or how different regions and even different neighborhoods can affect the way natives talk. Movies and TV shows tend to grasp this if they’re set in Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago, three cities that are expected to be multicultural and stratified. But as someone who grew up in Nashville, I can assure you that you’ll hear a variety of Southern accents there, too—not just Southern, but also Latin, European, African, and Middle Eastern. And while it’s essential to the story of Golden Boy for the hero to be a New Yorker, in about 80 percent of the TV shows where non-Americans play Americans, the characters could be from England or Australia and it wouldn’t matter much.
There’s another problem with accents that may just be a matter of my biases skewing my perception. I feel like with the exception of the truly great actors—Daniel Day-Lewis being the premier example—doing an accent diminishes the reality of the character. Some of the natural flow is lost. The performance becomes an exercise in mimicry. Actors, I know, would disagree with this. When they talk about their craft, actors often say that wearing wild costumes or doing exaggerated voices helps them to “find” the character, and to lose themselves. But some of my favorite performances are the ones where the line between the actor and the character appears to be non-existent—where people just say their lines, in their own voices, as though they’re coming from their own hearts and heads.
Let me emphasize here that the “actor and character are one” approach is far from the only model to follow for a great or even good performance. I like a lot of performances where actors are completely transformed. Also, there are plenty of roles where a huge gap between actor and character can serve a purpose. Comedy and fantasy are two prime examples. And while I don’t think the Welshman Matthew Rhys does an impeccable American accent in the FX series The Americans, since he’s playing a Soviet spy masquerading as an American, the awkwardness isn’t just excusable, it’s an enhancement.
But I can’t pretend I don’t notice when the distance between actor and character is both pronounced and unnecessary. In the new movie Ginger & Rosa, for example, Elle Fanning is terrific as an activist London teenager in the mid-’60s, and Christina Hendricks and Alessandro Nivola are quite good as her parents; but it’s definitely noticeable that these are three American actors in a very British movie, all doing accents. It’s an obstacle that the movie overcomes, but one that didn’t really need to be there in the first place. It’s not like the U.K. is devoid of actors qualified to play these parts, or even that the story couldn’t have been tweaked so that these three characters could be Americans living in London.
The advantage that TV has in this case is that good shows run long enough for actors to own roles, such that over time it becomes impossible to imagine anyone else in those parts, using any other voice. (Laurie in House is a case-in-point.) But it’s often a hurdle for those actors in the early going to find the voice and the character; and given how much trouble TV series have catching on, that’s a weird hurdle to add. So what exactly is the thought process in casting leads for TV series these days? Is it that difficult to find worthy American actors to play Americans? Or is it that Australia and the U.K. (and Canada, for that matter) have been better lately at turning out attractive, versatile thespians who don’t have the pageant-trained, Disney Channel blandness that afflicts so many good-looking U.S. actors?
If so, that’s an unfortunate shift in values. It’s not that it’s anything new for TV and movie producers to favor the gorgeous; but if the only talented and striking actors are foreign imports, then maybe it’s time to consider something other than physical appearance as the top credential. (Casting agents could also take a closer look at attractive American actors with different skin tones and ethnic backgrounds, but that’s an entirely different discussion.)
As a counter-example, I recently spent some time watching a DVD set of the early-’60s cop drama Naked City, a show that took advantage of the astonishing assemblage of acting talent that gravitated to New York in the wake of the emergence of Marlon Brando and “the Method.” The list of future stars who did Naked City guest shots is amazing: Peter Falk, Dustin Hoffman, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Carroll O’Connor, Robert Redford, Bruce Dern, Christopher Walken, and more. Typical of its era, the show didn’t feature enough of a variety of ethnic types, but its guest stars did represent a variety of physical types—not all handsome or athletic. And though these actors weren’t all native New Yorkers, they didn’t try overly hard to sound like they were. They just talked. And it felt real.