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Why Is Hollywood So Bad At Doing South African Accents?

Posted on Thursday April 28, 2011, 16:29 by Ali Plumb in Empire States
Why Is Hollywood So Bad At Doing South African Accents?

Let’s kick off this blog with a slightly tortured anecdote. You know, the way the best blogs do.

Here goes:  I was interviewing Ray Winstone for his latest movie, Tracker, last week. The interview went really well, with Ray in good form, telling amazing stories and generally being awesome. It’s what he does – see our webchat with him for more details – and I was genuinely chuffed with the result.

Needless to say, the tape they recorded it on was a duff one, and it got wiped. That's right, I had to do it again. Bugger. During the now lost interview I asked him about how he managed to pull off such a good South African accent – he plays a Saffa who’s gone to New Zealand after the Boer War, you see – where so many others have crashed and burned.

Now as much as I love Ray, his accent work in the past hasn’t been, well… that good. His American accent in Fool’s Gold, for example – ‘nuff said. But in Tracker he nails the notoriously difficult sub-Saharan twang, giving it a husky, understated tone and genuinely making me forget he was ‘doing an accent’ half way through the movie

I was doubly impressed because my family are from South Africa, and so I know a lekker eccent when I hear one, and this was definitely one of them. Alongside Leonardo DiCaprio’s masterclass in Rhodesian – note: not South African. He got a lot of undeserved stick for doing a ‘bad South African accent’ when it reality, he aced it – it’s the finest accent from that neck of the woods that I’ve heard in a long time.

But what is it about that accent that seems to trouble so many of Hollywood's finest? The intonation, the rhythm, the words themselves? It's a common problem, and the list of criminal attempts at a Saffa accent ever-so-long and ever-so-horrendous… and here it is:

1. Mission Impossible 2 (2000)

Richard Roxburgh (Hugh Stamp). You're so much better than this, Richard. So, so, so much better.

2. Invictus (2009)

Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela) doing a generic ‘Morgan Freeman’ accent with an African lilt every so often, and Matt Damon (François Pienaar), who fades in and out like a bad radio.

3. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

Joss Ackland (Arjen Rudd) and Derrick O’Connor (Pieter Vorstedt): “Dip-lo-ma-tic Immunity”. Funny, yes. Good, no.

4. Country of My Skull / In My Country (2004)

Juliette Binoche (Anna Malan) is meant to be an Afrikaner poet. She is obviously a French actress pretending to be an Afrikaner poet. Hmm – who knew South Africa was… so French?

5. Boesman and Lena (2000)

Danny Glover (Boesman) playing a South African homeless man forced out of his shanty town? Who thought this through?

6. The Interpreter (2005)

Nicole Kidman (Silvia Broome) makes her South African linguist too soft, too clipped, too English. Nice try but… not quite there.

7. Munich (2005)

An admirable film in many, many ways, but Daniel Craig’s South African-born Steve and his thick, clunky accent saying “Don’t fuck with the Jews”? Um, nah.

8. A Dry White Season (1989)

Almost everyone involved comes a cropper here and there with the South African accent in A Dry White Season – the Oscar-nominated Lord Marlon of Brando (Ian McKenzie) included – but Susan Sarandon (Melanie Bruwer) is the biggest loser in the bad accent stakes, by a long, long way.

9. Cry Freedom (1987)

Denzel Washington (Steve Biko) sounds like he’s trying to impersonate everyone in the world at once and Kevin Kline (Donald Woods) manages to very nearly almost just do an English accent instead.

Another notable non-SA-ers who’ve dabbled in the accent include Tim Robbins in 2006’s Catch A Fire (thumbs up) and Taye Diggs in 2004’s Drum (thumbs down).

So all in all, the South African accent will almost always destroy an American actor’s credibility, in just a few “yesslikes” and a couple of “aswells”. So it goes to show just how impressive it is when they do it right – so hats off to Leo, Tim and Ray, really.

Just to throw this one out the floor now, how about you let us know your favourite, most impressive, most difficult-accents-well-done from throughout movie history? We’ve all gone to town on how bad people like Don Cheadle and Dick Van Dyke are at British accents – see here for more details – but what about Bridget Jones, say? You know, when foreigners do a foreign accents genuinely quite well? Let us know in the comment box below, why not.

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1 kickpuncher
Posted on Thursday April 28, 2011, 22:06
I thought Jake Gyllenhall did a bang-up job in Prince of Persia. Doesn't make it a good film, but still. Not film, but I'd also call on Alexis Denisof for Buffy/Angel (better in Angel, actually) - his actually voice sounds fake to me. Then again, so does James Marsters, and his accent doesn't actually sound like any part of England I've ever been to. I'd like to visit though, I'll bet the people are cool there.

2 K0rrupt
Posted on Friday April 29, 2011, 11:37
David Anders (Sark in Alias), an absolutely terrific British accent in my view. Thoroughly convinced me and my housemate that he was British only to find out that he's American.

Oddly enough his American accent (i think you hear it 24 season 7 or 8) sounds really fake.

3 KeesjeCola
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 10:04
Again, not a movie, but a series.
House, anyone? Hugh Laurie is as british as they come, but he nails that american accent. Fooled Brian Singer, fooled half america and fooled me.

4 Dan! Dan! Dan!
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 11:02
I'd like to add Thomas Jane to the list of actors who've successfully attempted a South African accent. His vocal work in Stander was widely considered as pretty convincing.

5 musht
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 13:02
As an Irishman the Irish accents in films really gets me because everyone seems to go for the generic leprechaun accent. Really annoys me!!

6 Michael Klein
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 13:37
Tim Robbins in Catch a Fire has to be the best South African accent ever. And I definitely disagree with the Leo comment. SA or Rhodesia, the biggest problem was he threw in our jargon too much. Yes, we may call someone 'China', but never 3 or 4 times in a sentence. The fakeness of the accent is best emphasised when he talks to Arnold Vosloo. The biggest problem with him is he's Leo DiCaprio, he's supposed to sound American, and no matter how much he tries we will never accept his accent so long as he looks like Leo. It's precisely the reason Robert Redford has an American accent in Out of Africa and not an English one, Sydney Pollack knew no-one would accept Redford as anything but an American.

Back on the SA accent, the key is to bring in a bit of the Afrikaans accent, as it offers a lot more subtleties. And I say all this with confidence because I am a South African.

7 peter_murray86
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 13:41
any Scottish accent at all is usually woeful, Mel Gibson in Braveheart, Robert Duvall in A Shot At Glory, Christopher Lambert in Highlander are all laughable to name just a few, the best attempts I've ever heard are Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland & Alice In Wonderland, and even better is Johnny Lee Miller in Trainspotting, I swear I thought he was Scottish when I first watched it....

8 Oriainarama
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 14:24
well being Irish i'm going to pick an irish accent because they are generally done terrible and its apparently a tough accent to do so hate off and a round of applause to Mr. John Voight in The General nails his garda impersonation, top notch accent. Verythick but very believable you would completely forget its an american doing the accent and not just some local garda.

9 swordsandsandals
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 14:41
Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica) always puts on a great English accent interviews.


10 bobulus
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 15:14
Not a movie but a TV series - The Wire

Dominic West (McNulty) and Idris Elba (Stringer Bell) nail their East coast Baltimore accents. I had no idea they were English whilst watching The Wire - Dominic West has an upper-class toff voice and Idris Elba is from East Lun-dun innit!

11 kisswithatear
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 15:29
As a pure bred mackem who lives in Newcastle I must point out affectionately that Michael Sheen did an excellent job in The Damned United pulling off the Middlesbrough accent. Unlike most who try a North East accent, they basically shout it for laughs, he performed the tones rather beautifully. I adore the North Eastern accent, having lived around it my entire life so I appreciated his effort.

To be fair Michael Sheen pretty much nails most of his accent work.

12 jmebaby25
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 15:47
@bobulus... I absolutely agree. The brits in The Wire excelled themselves.

Likewise Damien Lewis in Band of Brothers wasn't too shabby.

Dreadful accents - got to be Russell Crowe in Robin Hood.

Also, I love the fact that Hollywood as a whole seems to have pretended not to notice Sean Connery's actual accent. He's played King Richard, a Russian General, King Arthur, a Spanish Swordsman, an Irish cop and the quintessential English Spy, all the while maintaining his Scottish twang. God love him. Not sure anyone else could pull that off.

13 StewieGriffin
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 15:51
Richard Roxburgh's SA accent bad? Have you seen Van Helsing? In fact every accent in that is terrible (Alun Armstrong's "Traaansylvaaaania" a highlight).

14 varoh
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 17:04
The Dublin accent. Notoriously hard to do, even for Irishmen, wince through Pierce Brosnan's go at it in Evelyn or Jonathan Rhys Mysers in Mission Impossible 3. Props so to Cork man Cillian Murphy in Intermission. And a very impressed salute to James McAvoy for his flawless one for Inside I'm Dancing. In fact the three leads in that were all UK and all perfect. I proclaim it the best accented film ever!

15 bez263
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 17:26
I thought Pete Postlethwaite was very good in The Constant Gardener, even though its only a fairly minor role.

16 Dr Science
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 22:15
Kelly Macdonald in No Country For Old Men. Christian Bale in the The Fighter. Cate Blanchett in pretty much everything she's done e.g. Elizabeth, The Aviator, Notes On A Scandal. Colin Farrell in Tigerland. Guy Pearce in LA Confidential. Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland.

17 nclowe
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 22:55
I agree with Kickpuncher and Swordsandsandles; Alexis Denisof and Jamie Bamber are so good at the acents that when I heard their natural ones (USA/UK) it sounded fake! Likewise when James Marsters went 'English' again for Torchwood it finally sounded like he was talking normally for the first time since Buffy/Angel :)

Hats off to the Band of Brothers cast - most of which seemed to be brits and did ace with the various American accents!

I think half the problem is that when putting on accents people often end up trying to do a stereotypically recognisable 'English', 'Irish', 'American' etc accent when there is no such thing. It seems to work much better when they instead copy regional accents... (excepting most of the main cast in the recent Robin Hood. Not sure where they were supposed to be from).

18 llanelliboy
Posted on Tuesday May 3, 2011, 23:29
Those kids in School of Comedy playing the Saffa security guards are brilliant according to my Saffa mate

19 EriCritic
Posted on Wednesday May 4, 2011, 01:09
It would be interesting to hear how you thought Leonardo DiCaprio's South African accent was in Blood Diamonds?

20 teedom
Posted on Wednesday May 4, 2011, 08:45
believe you will love it.

====( w w w )( jordans forking )( c o m )


There are many fashion clothes high-heeled shoes

21 mokey
Posted on Wednesday May 4, 2011, 10:55
For bad accents it's got to be Mike Myers in every Shrek - not eye-stabbingly ear-bleedingly bad just really really consistently pants.

Again for a seamless TV role accent: how about Idris Elba as Stringer Bell.

Also good is Jimmy McNulty's twang, but I think it's a bit hit and miss in places. That said in season 2 Jimmy valiantly goes undercover it's hilarious. Dominic West, a British actor, doing a Baltimore accent, pretending to be an upper crust English gent (well not that much of a gent seeing as he's posing as a jon) - sheer class.

22 K Grandaddy
Posted on Wednesday May 4, 2011, 11:36
Anyone else remember that bird in Caddyshack. Think she was supposed to be oirish with her "tanks fur nuttin". Horrible, horrible accent - even if she was actually irish

23 glloyd24
Posted on Wednesday May 4, 2011, 12:59
To be fair, it's a horrible accent to begin with.

24 Davmur121
Posted on Wednesday May 4, 2011, 13:01
Have to agree with all comments about Irish of the worst is Johnathan Rhys Meyers in Bend it Like Beckham...and he's Irish! Cringe worthy.... Oh and honourable mentions for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman for their absolutely hilarious attempts in Far and Away!

25 TheMadFatChickKiller
Posted on Wednesday May 4, 2011, 13:07
This one's not from the movies, or TV but it has to go on the list. I am completely in awe of Lulu's ability to turn on a sixpence from proper BBC nowhereland English accent to a broad east-end of Glasgow accent, normally when she's up in Glasgow staying in touch with 'her people' / drumming up publicity for herself in a way other than dating men young enough to be her grandkids. The shift from 'I so luuuurve duetting with Take That' to "awrite rerr, Big Man pure mad mental so it is" is 100% vocal alchemy.

26 KobeNash1234
Posted on Wednesday May 4, 2011, 13:15
I've only heard about 2 good AUSTRALIAN accents in many many attempts!! Come on guys, let's give us Australians some respect and try to do the accent well :P

27 manufan
Posted on Wednesday May 4, 2011, 13:32
@mokey, exaclty what does an acurate Ogre accent sound like?

28 Oriainarama
Posted on Wednesday May 4, 2011, 14:45
Colin Farrell in Ondine does a very good accent

29 TheMovieAddict101
Posted on Wednesday May 4, 2011, 19:42
Hugh Laurie nails an American accent in House, which is cool since he has an awesome english accent and he's English aswell :)

30 kcb8
Posted on Thursday May 5, 2011, 01:00
This article makes a really good point, and is also rather reassuring for me! I've been going to South Africa four or five times a year since I was a baby, but I absolutely cannot do the accent. Admittedly I'm not very good at accents in general, but given that I practically grew up there, it's a little ridiculous. I can hear it perfectly in my head but it just won't come out right! Glad I'm not the only one.

31 Bluehawk
Posted on Thursday May 5, 2011, 03:58
Dutch generally gets screwed up by everyone in Hollywood. While it really isnt that hard for an english speaker to pronounce (check south african, we mesh fine). Its falls into two categories: 1) A garbled mess of grunts that isnt a language at all. 2) Some often used Swedish/German combo that is, as the names say, not Dutch. At all.

32 Eomer_King
Posted on Thursday May 5, 2011, 09:48
Americans attempting Norn Irn accents are always destined to fail.

33 Marwood
Posted on Thursday May 5, 2011, 11:27
I think the South African accent is difficult to nail because although it's essentially English the influence from all the other cultures that have occupied the country make it a truly bizarre one to master. I've worked with a couple of people from South Africans over the years and although their accents are a bit softer having lived in England for so long I still found their intonation for a lot of words to be quite odd, I'm actually not bad at mimicking accents myself but it's one that despite frequent discussions with people from the country I still couldn't get my head round.

In terms of Hollywood stars and accents I think how well they'll succeed is as much about preparation as well as acting ability. In my opinion to really get the hang of an accent they should live in the target country/community for a while and try to naturalise, that way they'll also pick up the slang etc. so it feels more realistic rather than being a formal version of the language which isn't really used by your average joe. English is a good example because quite often the Hollywood British accent is Queens or Cockney, no inbetween, so unless the accent is contextual to the character it will ring false. I think too many actors rely on dialogue coaches who themselves aren't always from the nation that the language is spoken by, I'm pretty sure I read that for the Oceans films Don Cheadle's "cockney" dialogue coach was an American so he was learning the accent from a source that wasn't exactly authentic.

Still, the same can be said for other nations trying on various American accents so it's a two way street. Jason Statham's attempts in The Transporter is cringe worthy. Love The Stath but he's not an accent man.

34 jammyemma
Posted on Thursday May 5, 2011, 13:56
Totally agree with K0rrupt about David Anders - he's also in Heroes with a Brit accent. I nearly fell off my chair when I realised he wasn't from the Home Counties.

35 dunkah
Posted on Thursday May 5, 2011, 18:01
David Tennants Welsh accent in United was godawful.

36 Rain Dog
Posted on Thursday May 5, 2011, 19:41
I could repeat quite a few good accents already mentioned here but why oh why does Ewan McGregor keep getting cast as American? Even he has admitted to being unable to do a good accent!

37 barneyhaynes
Posted on Thursday May 5, 2011, 19:49
Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder! Hilarious stuff.

38 benskelly
Posted on Friday May 6, 2011, 05:35
Kate Winslet is an amazing actress, just tremendous. BUT her American accent in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is one of the worst I've heard - it's way too forced and nasal, and grates on my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. It's weird because she nailed it with a very specific and understated accent in ETERNAL SUNSHINE.

Anyway, I thought it was the worst American accent until I heard another excellent actress Cate Blanchett do a Southern accent in HANNA - God, is that bad. It borders on an Anti-American hate crime.

Only a British director would have let that one get past him.

39 benskelly
Posted on Friday May 6, 2011, 05:38
Oh, and PS> Someone mentioned Hugh Laurie above. Again, I have only respect for Mr. Laurie, but HOUSE doesn't sound like any American I have ever met. He did it just right in the STUART LITTLE films...go figure.

40 benskelly
Posted on Friday May 6, 2011, 05:47
Nomination for worst British accent - Robert Duvall in THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION. I bet he wishes he could burn that print. It's so bad, he actually looks like he's apologizing while saying his lines.

41 ViolentCop
Posted on Friday May 6, 2011, 10:34
Some serious praise needs to be thrown at Thomas Jane right now. His accent in Stander was sublime and he was just brilliant in it all round but one of the best South African accents I have head from any actor.

42 Rocket 3000
Posted on Monday May 9, 2011, 11:35
I agree with everyone here when it comes to Irish accents! And Ican't believe no one's mention P.S. I love you, probably because you all have more sense than me and haven't watched it! Why they didn't just make Gerald Butler's character Scottish is beyond me. His accent is shite!

43 Specialist95
Posted on Monday August 26, 2013, 04:14
Some of the best Irish accent I have ever heard where in the movie The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Cillian Murphy is tremendously good in this movie that I highly suggest

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