I may not be an actor myself, but I have often said that one of the most difficult aspects of acting is convincingly changing your voice outside its natural tones. We all know someone who thinks they are good at doing an accent but in reality, they would be detained by local authorities if they ever tried it outside of the safety and confines of their own homes. That is not to say some people do not have the gift of modulating their voice, but it’s an extraordinarily difficult feat to master. In film, we see actors take on roles of characters that don’t share the same native dialect as them, so they must change their accent for authenticity’s sake. Some, like Kevin Costner, perform insults unto the almighty, but others are actually decent folks who try their best, and those are the people this list will celebrate!
Seeing as though I am not an expert, I had to do some extensive research on the interwebs for this one, and through my decades of tutelage I have discovered that this is extremely difficult for people to do. It is so difficult, in fact, that even the most widely praised performances still have their detractors. But if this list tickles your fancy and you are interested in hearing directly from an expert, I recommend you visit dialect coach Erik Singer’s website for great videos.
As you know, when constructing a Top 10 List, we must have rules or else there will be Anarchy, Communism, and worst of all, Childhood Obesity! Thusly, the ground rules are as follows: accents must be non-native, so no Mark Wahlberg doing a Bostonian accent. In fact, all Americans on this list can’t be doing any type of American accent, even if the regional dialects differ wildly. And while I am at it, Europeans don’t qualify if they are doing a different European accent! Most Americans can’t tell the difference between English, Scottish, and Irish accents because we are dumb, so let’s just avoid the confusion all together. In this dojo we only acknowledge intercontinental accent changes. Furthermore, an actor can only place ONE time on the list, even if they have several performances that might be worthy. I am all powerful and I have spoken!
Of course, we have some honorable mentions! Brad Pitt in “Snatch” (Native Accent: American/Character Accent: Pikey/Irish), Kate Winselt in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (Native Accent: English/ Character Accent: American), Gary Oldman in “True Romance” (Native Accent: English/Character Accent: Jamaican) and Christian Bale in literally every film he’s ever been in.
And I need to make a special honorable mention to Saoirse Ronan, who, despite her young age, has already proven to be one of the greatest masters of accents of our time. The issue with her is her nationality. She was born in the Bronx, NY in the USA but was raised in Dublin, Ireland. Furthermore, her natural accent seems to me an amalgamation of the two distinct regions. Because of my own tedious rules, she does not qualify for many of her performances despite her exceptional and versatile work. If it weren’t so confusing, she would probably place in the top 5 for any of her roles.
10. Renee Zellweger – “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (2001)
Native Accent: American/Texas
Character Accent: English/London
Full disclosure, this one didn’t impress me all that much when I first heard it. I heard Renee Zellweger’s voice trying to do an accent, rather than a character speaking. But after carefully reading the scriptures, I have seen the light! Actual British people have complimented Zellweger on her accent in this film, which is better than anything I can say about it. What is most impressive though is the fact that her natural accent is from Texas, making this performance a huge departure from her comfort zone.
9. Margot Robbie – “I, Tonya” (2017)
Native Accent: Australian
Character Accent: American/Pacific Northwestern
Margot Robbie is so incredibly gifted at doing accents that most Americans do not realize that she is Australian. She has delivered great performances with a New York accent before in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Suicide Squad”, but I find her accent in “I, Tonya” to be much more impressive. The Pacific Northwestern accent is far more subtle and less popular than the New York accent, and therefore it is more of a special feat for an Australian to master it.
8. Robert Downey Jr. – “Natural Born Killers” (1994)
Native Accent: American
Character Accent: Australian
Robert Downey Jr. looks like he had so much fun filming this movie. The accent seems to have come very natural to him and he doesn’t appear to even be putting in considerable effort to maintaining it, which just gives him the freedom to be as flamboyant with it as possible. He seems so comfortable with it you would be excused in thinking he was born in Australia instead of Manhattan. He eventually went on to use this accent again in scenes in “Tropic Thunder”.
7. Don Cheadle – “Hotel Rwanda” (2004)
Native Accent: American
Character Accent: Rwandan
For the first time ever, War Machine places better than Iron Man in a Top 10 List. Don Cheadle is a very talented actor but his performance in “Hotel Rwanda” is widely considered to be his personal magnum opus. According to those who are experts in African dialects, Cheadle is practically flawless in his speech throughout this film. The trailer above shows this off, along with a cliché narration that will make you laugh.
6. Leonardo DiCaprio – “Blood Diamond” (2006)
Native Accent: American/California
Character Accent: Rhodesian
Leo has done a great many accents and voice modulations in his career, but rarely does he ever play characters who are not American. In “Blood Diamond”, it is the rare exception and he plays a mercenary from Zimbabwe (Formerly known as Rhodesia. Educate yourselves). This accent places this high up because it is widely believed that the Rhodesian is incredibly difficult for an American to master. Most language experts agree that Leo gets this one right, all while still being able to show off his natural charisma.
5. Heath Ledger – “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
Native Accent: Australian
Character Accent: American/Texas
I have discussed my love for Heath Ledger’s role in “The Dark Knight” ad nauseum at this point, and while that could definitely qualify here, I think its time we give his performance in “Brokeback Mountain” some respect. Ledger performs a heavy Texas accent in this role that is emphasized by a deep baritone and accurate lip posture. If he only grew out a mustache, he could easily be confused with a young Sam Elliot.
4. Cate Blanchett – “The Aviator“ (2004)
Native Accent: Australia
Character Accent: Katherine Hepburn Impression
Cate Blanchett does an amazing job with this role. She is tasked with mimicking the very distinct voice of one of the most famous actresses ever. Katherine Hepburn, although from Connecticut, had a very unique voice that sounded like she was always performing in some way, and Blanchett essentially becomes her with this performance. Her natural Australian accent is so well hidden, you’d be forgiven if you think I am lying about her nationality to allow her to qualify for the list.
3. Forest Whitaker – “The Last King of Scotland” (2006)
Native Accent: American
Character Accent: Ugandan
My friend once told me he Forest Whitaker is adorable and, for once, I have to agree with him. But that irrelevant fact aside, he flawlessly pulls off a difficult Ugandan accent in “The Last King of Scotland”. I have made known that African accents are particularly challenging for Americans to pick up on, yet professionals and locals alike have all praised him for his work getting the voice down so correctly. Whitaker embraces the challenge with what is objectively the best performance of his career.
2. Daniel Day-Lewis – “Gangs of New York” (2002)
Native Accent: English/London
Character Accent: Early New York
I could have easily chosen his accent in “There Will Be Blood” or “Lincoln” for the obligatory Daniel Day-Lewis entry on this list. All of these roles required accurate accent work for dialects that no longer exist. In the ridiculously long “Gangs of New York”, he plays Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, who proudly displays a loud, scratchy, and emphatic early New York accent. The vowels are more pronounced than in today’s accent, and DDL just takes it and makes an extremely interesting character in movie that feels like it takes 3 weeks to finish.
1. Meryl Streep – “Sophie’s Choice” (1982)
Native Accent: American/New Jersey
Character Accent: Polish
I have praised actors for being able to master a foreign accent, and they should be praised. But Meryl Streep, in the most Meryl Streep-like way possible, totally outclasses everyone here. Not only did Meryl speak in a flawless Polish accent, she also learned both German and Polish, in just 6 months before filming, AND learned to speak them in a Polish accent. You think speaking in a foreign accent is hard? Try doing it in a second or third language that you have only been speaking for about half of a year. That’s right, sit down before you hurt yourselves amateurs.