What Filmmakers & Actors Can Learn from Kevin Spacey's Off-Sounding Accent in 'House of Cards'

While Kevin Spacey gets some of the accent right, he sounds less like people actually do in the south these days. Here's Vox on that:

There are a couple of distinct features that make Underwood "sound" Southern to some people. One of these traits is his "R-lessness," which an expert would call his "non-rhoticity." "This is when r at the ends of syllables is pronounced like a vowel or deleted, so that car and cars sound like cah and cahs," Becker explained to me. You can hear it in the way Underwood says words like "uninformed" and "careless."

This is one of the features that Thomas considers a stereotypical Southern feature. It sounds the way people think Southerners sound, but it's actually a feature that is disappearing in Southern speech. "R-lessness was a traditional Southern feature — although not everywhere in the South — it was most prevalent in areas where the plantation culture had pre-dominated at one time before the Civil War," Thomas told me, explaining that non-rhoticity had once been considered prestigious.

The post at Vox goes into a little more detail than the video, but one thing is clear, if you're not from the southeastern part of the United States and your characters are supposed to be (and your actors also aren't either), you've got to do more than just drop Rs (or in contrast make them sound super hard). If you can't afford a vocal coach, some of the explanations above can help you get southern accents from non-southern actors sounding far more realistic. 

In the end, you've got a better shot at getting a believable accent by really listening to how specific parts of the south form their vowels and consonants, and not just having the actor put on a stereotypical "southern" accent that doesn't really make sense for any part of the region. The best case scenario would be to spend time with people who are from the area your characters are supposed to be, but that's not always an option. IDEA is a great resource if you're looking to hear accents from all over the country (and even the world).     

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6 Comments

Even as a Dutch person I felt his accent was a little off from the start. The video does a nice job to explain the accent. A good example of a non-southerner (non-American even) doing a great southern accent is Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead.

March 7, 2015 at 12:49PM

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This is a great video. Personally I don't have a problem with his accent. Knowing his training and as is evidenced in his work he's not an actor to just throw on an accent without it being a choice. That could have happened but I'm willing to be his use of an older more affected accent is choice because it reveals something about the character. Nothing is ever what it seems with Frank Underwood, and he is constantly playing a role with everyone even Claire (with whom he is closest and most honest). It makes perfect sense that Frank would choose to design an accent that would affect the way people perceived him to his liking rather than just speak with what accent came naturally.

March 7, 2015 at 3:28PM

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Michael Markham
Actor/Filmmaker
1017

I agree, Kevin Spacey knows how to act and knows how to do impressions. See here https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=kevin+spacey+impressions

But what they say in the article
"This is one of the features that Thomas considers a stereotypical Southern feature. It sounds the way people think Southerners sound, but it's actually a feature that is disappearing in Southern speech. "R-lessness was a traditional Southern feature — although not everywhere in the South — it was most prevalent in areas where the plantation culture had pre-dominated at one time before the Civil War," Thomas told me, explaining that non-rhoticity had once been considered prestigious."

So it's an old fashioned prestigious way of speaking, doesn't that fit the character of Frank Underwood perfectly? It's a fictional show and his accent is creating the context of his character. I think it's very appropriate.

March 7, 2015 at 10:59PM

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Julian Faras
Editor, Cinematographer, Director
455

Wow. Spacey has got such a professional approach to his roles. BTW Could someone provide me some links to Australian TV series online, as I want better understand their English.

March 8, 2015 at 10:42PM

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Einar Gabbassoff
D&CD at Frame One Studio
1332

Check out Blue Murder: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1u_HLOJ1hM0

This is a good place to start for middle and lower class eastern urban Australian. There is some regional variation but it's very subtle and if you're not born and bred you won't notice the differences. Rural Australian and Indigenous Australian accents are more defined - look at Redfern Now for some Indigenous accents: https://vimeo.com/60794751. Hope that helps. Let me know if you want something more specific.

March 19, 2015 at 2:36AM

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Dominic McDonald
Producer/performer
74

As a true blue southerner myself, id say 70% of the time all hollywood southern accents sound more like a caricature than realistic. I'm sure this goes for most dialects and regions. Spacey's is all over the map. Someone mentioned walking dead... just don't. Its laughable at times.

March 9, 2015 at 6:35AM

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Seth Evans
Editor
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