Accents when voice-acting: art or insult?

4 min read

Apart from the ability to act convincingly, wide-ranging vocal and linguistic versatility is one of the surest ways to secure a successful career as a voice actor. English, for example, literally has hundreds of acknowledged dialects and accents around the world.

On Voice123, the most requested English accents — excluding British, General American, and in order of popularity — are:

African American, Australian, Spanish, French, Italian, Irish, Southern American, Mexican, Scottish, and German.

Interestingly, clients frequently search for US actor Morgan Freeman soundalikes too.

Controversy

Accents, however, are not without controversy. Dialects and accents are associated with specific and sometimes less-privileged social groups — while others get linked to more ‘refined’ and ‘educated’ layers of society.

Accents when voice-acting: image of a microphone
image: Shutterstock

“American comedian Robin Williams was a master of accents,” English dialect coach Dominic Thompson nods. “But he was universally loved and admired. While he could have been accused of stereotyping during his standup routines, he never was — not that I know of, anyway. I guess he just ripped into everyone equally. You’d have to be careful in racially-charged or racially-sensitive environments, though, I imagine.”

American actor Hank Azaria, who provides the voice for Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in long-running animated satire, The Simpsons, has frequently come under fire. His interpretation of the Indian character has been called “a noxious pastiche of South Asian stereotypes.”

The accent debate

Towards the end of 2018, Azaria claimed on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show that he’d be perfectly willing to give up the role if replaced by an Indian or South Asian actor. Greater inclusion and diversity in the show’s writing room would be great, he admitted.

“I really wish some folks would just get over themselves and get out of their own way,” scoffs a casting director we spoke to, in response. “My clients aim for a particular sound and a particular result with their voiced commercials.”

“On more than one occasion, I’ve had to source actors with African American accents. I’d have the girls on my team search for about ten, whittle those down to five and finally, maybe three. I’d then present my team’s top choices — those who most accurately interpret the brief in our opinion — to the client. And you know what’s funny? Four out of five times so far, they’ve chosen a white actor impersonating an African American. Now why would that be, do you think? I’ve no idea.

“Should I put on my oh-so-easily-offended liberal hat and say: ‘No, you can’t use that actor, it’s politically incorrect; you have to choose a genuine African American actor.’ Or not put forward a white actor at all because they’re ‘faking’ it? There’s a deadline. and a budget. I have to get the job done.

“I’ll take whoever can help me do that quickly and affordably, irrespective of color, race, or creed. I really don’t care as long as the end result is good.”

Prejudice and sensitivity

“The South African voice over industry is pretty brutal at the moment,” says a popular character voice actor who didn’t want to be named for fear of reprisal. He’s based in the country’s capital, Pretoria. “I fully understand the repercussions of our apartheid history and everything, but come on — our society is so sensitive about race nearly a quarter of a century after the demise of racial segregation!”

“I’ve perfected a range of local South African English accents — black, Indian, and colored. Otherwise, as an Afrikaans-speaking white guy with an Afrikaans name, I just don’t get voicework unless it’s in my mother tongue. That hardly happens these days; Afrikaans is the language of the former oppressors. Major companies in this country choose to distantiate themselves from it.”

“My agent gets me to pitch for as many gigs as I can and he’ll use a black or Indian pseudonym if his clients are looking for one of those accents. I’ve landed quite a couple of decent jobs that way. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten them had the clients known I was white and Afrikaans-speaking. It’s sad, you know? But I’m a professional voice actor; I have to eat and I have a family to feed. I’ll take what I can get.”

Impersonation

Zulu voice-actor living in Cape Town, Bongani Peppeta, shrugs. “It is what it is. I don’t really mind. I do plenty of English ads. Sometimes the client asks me to use an even stronger accent than my normal one. Is that ‘stereotyping’? Can I ‘stereotype’ myself as a black person? I also have white friends who do my kind of accent extremely well and book work three or four times a week. Impersonating is one thing; belittling is another.

“I’d take offense if a white guy was making fun of me or black people in general simply for being black. I see belittlement as racism, but not impersonation.”

“You know, I do find accents something of a minefield,” winces UK casting agent Sally Green. “Reason being that there are just so many loud rally-and-petition groups in Britain. As far as possible, I try to work with standard accents and native speakers. When I’m casting for regional ads, I’ll always do my best to source actors locally. Our audiences are anything but stupid.”

The real thing?

“If you’re aiming to sell something locally, get a local to sell it for you,” Sally insists. “If people hear the ad voiced by an actor who’s faking their accent, you won’t only get very little traction, you might even get outright rejection — and that can end up a grindingly expensive campaign flop. I don’t want that kind of blemish on my record.”

Nathan Aune, who owns an agency with an expanding global footprint, is adamant. “We do what we believe is right. For us, the stakes are high and we can’t afford to waste money.”

Accents when voice-acting: image of signpost indicating 'accent' or 'native'
image: Shutterstock

“Every commercial we do has to be authentically voiced and 100% believable. We have to be sensitive as well. We’re strong adherents to a code of mutual decency and respect. We actively support diversity and inclusion.”

“I can’t have the media agency I work with doing anything other than being absolutely respectful and upfront. We want real people speaking with real accents to real audiences in all the languages of all the countries we work in. I don’t see why there’s any debate or controversy about accents and authenticity at all.”

Identity

“I believe these conversations are worth having even if they’re emotional and tempers flare,” adds Voice123’s CEO, Rolf Veldman. “A big part of shaping the future is taking a stance on matters that reach beyond the individual participants themselves.”

“One needs to understand that a voice, apart from being an instrument, can also be an identity. For me, the only way to deal with accents is absolute transparency: from the clients’ side by indicating whether they require a genuine native accent or not, and from the voice actors’ side by being honest about it. I think the discomfort that exists regarding this topic isn’t the result of bigotry but rather naivety, necessity, or plain ignorance. Being candid is the way to go — and it matches how we do things at Voice123.

“We promote open and honest interaction among all our users because being transparent is part of our platform DNA. It’s how we manage the fact that there’s no such thing as the absolute truth. For us, it’s all about straight talk, speaking out, and speaking for yourself.”