Actress Francine Segal played prison guard Georgia Ann Payne in 2001’s Monster’s Ball, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry and the late Heath Ledger. “I had a gun. It was a lot of fun,” said Segal.
There was some trouble on the set, however, as Ledger was not getting along with the dialect coach that had been brought in from L.A. to help him learn the thick Georgia accent his role called for.
Segal had done some dialect coaching for plays, but never in a movie. The producers “liked my sound,” said Segal, “and they asked me if I would work with him. So that’s how I started working professionally in the film business.”
In the dozen years since, Segal has worked with actors from Andie MacDowell to Zac Efron. She’s helped Daryl Hannah master an east-Texas twang, made Matthew McConaughey sound like a big city Miami reporter with backwoods roots, and she even helped create an original dialect for the vampires of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
But no matter who or what the assignment, the first place Segal goes is the script.
“It all starts with the writing, and I have tremendous respect for the writing," Segal said. "The reason why I became an actor and have gone into this field is, I’m not a writer, but I have such reverence for language. And I try to understand what the writer wrote in the script.”
Her focus then turns towards the actor, specifically what type of learner the actor is. “I actually studied this after I was teaching," she says. The difference is between left-brain and right-brain thinking.
Someone who learns best through a left-brain approach, Segal explained, “needs to see it written down, and I start from ‘a’ to ‘b’ to ‘c’: this is the sound for ‘a’, let’s go through all the vowels, we make all the vowel changes — here is the word in a sentence, here is the ‘a’ in a sentence, here is a word with the ‘a’ and how to pronounce it in the script. In other words, it’s more linear and finally I get them up there.”
Right-brained learners are more instinctive, and these actors learn in more novel, sometimes physical ways.
“The way I worked with a lot of actors is we get it in the body, because I also am a movement teacher,” she said. "We get the rhythm and they get the inflection and then we tweak it, but they learn it instinctively because that’s what they can do.”
Segal counts Liam Hemsworth and Kelly Osbourne among actors who learn this way.
“Kelly Osborne was a kick,” said Segal. he British Osbourne was to play a Jewish girl from Brooklyn in 2012’s So Undercover, but was having trouble learning the dialect. “I said, ‘Kelly, come on, let’s talk like them and walk like them,’ and we put music on and we started dancing.” Each time the line called for an upward inflection, “I made her jump up.”
Research is another key to the process. This can take many forms, but always with an eye towards authenticity. For the New Orleans Y’at accent, for example, “We go to Liuzza’s for lunch,” said Segal. “If they’re going to do a Pentecostal dialect, I say ‘Hey, let’s go to a Pentecostal church and watch speaking in tongues…' I mean, I take them to the real deal.”
But when it’s time to shoot Segal tries to be a fly on the wall. It is for the actor’s benefit.
“When they’re on set, when they’re shooting, the last thing they should be thinking about is their dialect,” she said. “They have to be in the moment for acting.”
That doesn’t mean she isn’t busy. “I’m always running around, and I like that fast pace,” she said. “And I work long hours because for a lot of films, I might be working with one actor for two hours, and another actor for two hours in the morning, and then I’m on set all day on headset — and then when there’s a break, or they’re eating lunch, I work with them in their trailer.”
And when she goes home, “I type up transcriptions,” Segal said. “A lot of actors like to have a transcription written up, so I email it to them so they have it in their sides before they shoot, from where I write it out in English what it sounds like.”
But one thing Segal doesn’t want her pupils doing is simply mimicking or imitating her, “because that’s not real acting,” she said. “If they learn the sounds and they have it and we work on it and it sounds good, then when they’re acting in the moment, it’s theirs, and the sound will be connected to their emotion, and that’s going to make an effective dialect.”
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