Anticipation is growing for the Fox remake of the British ITV hit Broadchurch, not least because Scottish star David Tennant will be playing an American in the adaptation, which is titled Gracepoint. The primary remnant we have of Tennant trying out an American accent for a US series is offered here, and as the comments on the clip illustrate, this snippet was posted to elicit laughter at how awkward Tennant sounds. Of course, there’s nothing new about Tennant altering his natural accent; he spoke seamlessly with an English accent in Doctor Who. He’s also commonly acknowledged as one of Britain’s finest actors, with his Shakespearean stage stints offered as primary proof. So is performing a foreign accent a tougher acting challenge than iambic pentameter? What of the challenge audiences have of accepting anachronistic sounds emanating from a familiar face on screen?
Of course, viewers don’t always know when an actor is affecting an accent. British and Australian actors are now all over US television playing Americans, and if viewers don’t explore extratextual material, they may not know that Michael Sheen on Masters of Sex is Welsh, Kevin McKidd on Grey’s Anatomy is Scottish, and the actors who deliver American southern accents as Scarlett and Gunnar on Nashville are actually Australian and English, respectively. When television viewers do discover this, the actor’s native accent becomes the novelty that is sought out on YouTube, and the performed accent undergoes subsequent scrutiny week after week, a circumstance that film actors don’t face. Many take note of English actress Archie Panjabi’s speaking voice on The Good Wife, for instance, and say that her real accent “slips through” in certain moments (though this could be intentional, given her character’s enigmatic backstory). Conversely, Matthew Rhys has been praised for “hiding” his Welsh accent on Brothers and Sisters and now The Americans.
So is such accent performance about embodying another identity, as we typically characterize physical performance, or about subsuming one’s own? Is there a distinction between acting with an accent and just mimicking one? And how does extratextual knowledge of an actor’s nationality come into play when we assess such performances, especially given scripted television’s long-form status? Regardless, I’m already certain the biggest problem I’ll have with Gracepoint is that “Bloody Twitter!” just won’t sound as good when delivered in an American accent, no matter how much David Tennant has been practicing it.