Perfecting Accent Work with Dialect Coach William Conacher

All things accent related with William Conacher, dialect coach on The Crown, Peaky Blinders, Happy Valley, Dunkirk, The Reader and more...

Accents have different entry points for me. Sometimes it’s the rhythm and melody, or sometimes it’s vowel and consonant changes… I believe learning an accent is much more akin to learning dance steps than it is learning a piece of music.
William Conacher

You studied drama before transitioning into dialect coaching – what made you decide to become a dialect coach? How did this particular path come about for you? 

I joined the National Youth Theatre at 16, that’s when I think of myself as setting out on this path. I then did 3 years at the Webber Douglas Academy (no longer in existence!) and set about being an actor. But within a couple of years I realised it wasn’t for me after all. It takes a very particular type of personality, I think, to survive in those murky waters. I don’t have it, but I understand it and deeply admire it. I think that’s one of the reasons I get on so well with actors. You have to be willing to be reactive I think, which just isn’t me, although ironically perhaps I have become more like that now I’m older.

I then did lots of different stuff for a few years, including a fantastic stint at the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. But I knew I wanted to reconnect with actor training and at first thought about teaching yoga and movement in drama schools. I enrolled on the PGDVS course (MAVS these days) at Central, thinking a combination of voice and yoga would tick all the boxes. But voice work is all consuming and soon took over.  

While I was there, I discovered I really enjoyed phonetics. By the end of my time at Central I was back where I started at Webber Douglas, but this time as a teacher. I loved that school and within a couple of years was combining working there with lots of other schools. In the end I settled at RADA and stayed there for 8 years.

I'd love to know how you break down an accent from the beginning: what does this process involve? Is it just about listening to a lot of people with that accent? How much knowledge about the technical qualities of accents creeps in initially?  

Certainly, the first place to start is getting the right sample to listen to, appropriate to the life of the character in terms of gender, period, class etc. I’m old enough to say that when I started out it was pre-internet. My options were to go the National Sound Archive at the British Library or travel and try and meet real people. I actually miss that time.  

In my early days at RADA, I found I had quite a high proportion of Irish students and felt I didn’t have the knowledge to equip them with the regional accents they might need. So, I flew to Cork and made my way up to North Mayo on a bus, recording people all the way as I went. I met John B. Keane in a pub.

You learn so much more from sitting down with people. These days of course three clicks and you’ve got the right ‘accent tag’ or whatever which saves on money and shoe leather but it’s not the same.

Once I’ve got the right sample I obsess over it and take my first pass at it. This means I listen and write down absolutely everything I notice about it. Then I take a look at what I wrote and work out the pattern. I’m looking for half a dozen salient points that I can teach; I don’t want to bombard people with changes, just the ones that will give them a way in.

Accents have different entry points for me. Sometimes it’s the rhythm and melody, or sometimes it’s vowel and consonant changes. Learning a new accent is about training muscles and the more you do it, the more familiar your muscles get with making those kinds of changes. I believe learning an accent is much more akin to learning dance steps than it is learning a piece of music.

I like to start with where the actor is at with the accent and take my lead from them rather than me spouting everything I might know about it.
William Conacher

When you're working with a new actor (that you haven't previously coached), what's the process for getting started? Do you work from their accent into the required one or vice versa, do you consult the script a lot - what's the process like?

Depends on their situation and how experienced they are. I think I've reached a point now where most people I work with have worked on an accent with a coach before, and so have an idea of what process will be best for them. Some people like to work on drills that are made of nonsense sentences, some people like to get right into the script. Others like to just read from a book or improvise without a text. But in essence I like to start with where the actor is at with the accent and take my lead from them rather than me spouting everything I might know about it.  

It’s quite delicate. Actors feel quite vulnerable when learning a new accent, you have to be prepared to make a fool of yourself and that doesn’t always feel good.

What do you feel has been the most rewarding project you've worked on to date? 

It’s really hard to pick things out from such a long period of time but I certainly feel I have done my best work in collaboration with Stephen Daldry. We first met putting together the stage version of Billy Elliot and ended up taking it all over the world. It was amazing to see this story that was so specific in place and time connect so universally with audiences.  

On film we worked on The Reader together. I’m proud of that because the initial idea was to reduce the German accent of the lead actor (David Kross) but I pushed to not make him less German, just more fluent. At the same time, we made Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes have very light German accents that worked well with the accent of the boy and I believe we created a very plausible world because of that.  

Those situations are always the hardest, when English is representing another language – [should we] do ‘foreign’ accents or not? There are successes and failures and I think of The Reader as a success. More recently of course there has been The Crown. How can I not be proud of it when its reach seems to be never ending? People love it. 

Were there any particularly challenging aspects of working on The Crown?

The Crown is another project I had to push an idea on to. The producers quite reasonably wanted the accents to be accessible to a modern audience and so there was a valid discussion about not adhering to the period sound too closely.

I felt, however, that the dilemmas faced by that family and their reactions to them (or inability to react to them in some cases) were so particular to them, that there was more emotional value in their sound being contained in the prism of that extraordinary accent.  

In purely pragmatic terms there was always an ambition to make 6 seasons of the show, so we would have left ourselves nowhere to go if we already sounded like 2015 in 1947.

I can see from your history that you've worked with Naomi Watts on quite a few projects - does that mean you've reached a kind of shorthand way of working together? Or do you really have to view each project again from the beginning? What's the relationship like?

There are just some people you become instant friends with for whatever reason and Naomi is one of them. We’re the same age and she’s actually a lot more English than people think. She only left the UK when she was about 14. I’m lucky enough to work with quite a few actors on a regular basis and enjoy helping them create new characters, it’s part of the fun.

How is it different, working closely with one actor over time versus several cast members on a film? What's the process when an actor has their own additional coach as a support - do you confer a lot to make sure everyone's in alignment? 

I must admit there was a time when I was younger when I struggled somewhat with that - I wanted to do it all. But I’ve relaxed with time and experience and now I absolutely love it.

A few years ago, on Cloud Atlas, there were three of us, headed by the late, great Julia Wilson Dixon. Julia oversaw the whole thing and I worked with Tom Hanks and my friend Peggy Hall worked with Halle Berry. It was such a luxury, having a department. It doesn’t happen very often because productions just don’t have the money.

I quite often prep people for roles and then hand over to another coach for the shoot. In those circumstances, I hand over all my notes and drills and make sure everyone’s on the same page. That just happened recently on Damian Chazelle’s movie First Man, where I prepped Claire Foy but handed over for the shoot.

Is it more about a certain kind of project or a specific set of accents that appeals to you on a project? 

These days it’s always about the people. I’ll go anywhere and do any accent with the actors I work well with.

What's the toughest kind of accent work - is it the fact that an accent is very far from the actor's own, or is it more challenging when the required accent is similar to the actor's own? 

Far more challenging when similar to the actor’s own, or similar to an accent they’ve worked on before. Welsh actors find Geordie difficult and vice versa. Glasgow and Belfast, similar situation. I’ve seen actors who’ve worked really hard to get an accent down for a long running TV show who are then incapable of reading in anything other than that accent - it’s got in the muscles and that’s hard to break.

Is there one instance of coaching in particular that you might suggest was the most challenging (or rewarding)? An example you might give us? 

I don’t think I can pick out one really - it wouldn’t be fair - although I will tell you, just because I’m finishing it off in post-production at the moment, so it’s on my mind, that Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury is going to be quite something!

Are there particular kinds of accents you haven't worked with that you'd like to? What would you like to do next?

I’m really interested in regional American accents because the way in is so different from the UK ones - it’s about rhythm and stress so much more than it is about vowel changes. In many cases it connects with a much more ancient way of speaking than you’d expect. RP is a very modern phenomenon really. But of course, there are so many fantastic coaches based in the U.S. who will most likely always hear those accents more keenly than I ever could.

And finally: if I want to achieve a less 'heightened' but still firmly RP accent, where do I start?! Almost every actor in the UK wants to achieve a version of an RP accent - do you have any advice?

Too difficult to give you advice on paper, we would need to speak. But I will say that RP is a slippery creature, because it’s a social accent not a regional one. It only really exists according to people’s perception of it. To the younger generation I probably would be considered as speaking with an RP accent - to the people who taught me it 30 years ago I can assure you I don’t! Americans always think I’m Australian because I don’t sound as they expect, and Europeans always think I’m American. So, I’ll finish in an irritating way by answering your question with a question: what is RP to you and why do you feel you need it?

Thank you to William Conacher for answering Spotlight's questions!