An Interview with Andrew Jack

Text by Thierry Somers for 200%

On a film set, Andrew Jack moves quietly and inconspicuously. His big red scarf makes him easy recognisable to the actors if they want to make eye contact with him after a take. He wears tiny earphones covered by long hair over his ears so people don’t know he is actually listening: this is important to him as he believes wearing ‘big cans’ (headphones) would give a wrong signal, attracting attention to himself and unnerving the actors—‘Look out: I’m watching you’. The little earphones put an actor more at ease: they don’t feel like they are being observed and he can still hear everything they are saying. Sometimes he asks the sound mixer to squeeze up the volume when an actor is going through his lines and he wants to be able to listen. When the director gives the actors a direction Jack tries to stay within earshot.

Jack’s behaviour is the sum of years of experience working on film sets and stage and he has collaborated on an impressive list of films, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Hilary and Jackie, Batman Begins and the James Bond films—GoldenEye and Die Another Day. He has worked with a wide range of actors such as Emily Watson, Viggo Mortensen, Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Donald Sutherland, Sir Ian McKellen, Scarlett Johansson, Pierce Brosnan, Naomi Watts, Christian Bale, Robert Downey Jr. and directors like Peter Jackson, Wolfgang Petersen, Sir Richard Attenborough, Christopher Nolan and recently with David Cronenberg for his latest film Eastern Promises.

Jack was asked to work on the Cronenberg film because some of the actors were required to speak English with Russian accents. Viggo Mortensen plays Nickolai, a mysterious and ruthless man who is tied to one of London’s most notorious organized crime families. For this film Jack is not the only ‘language expert’ on the set: whilst nine times out of ten he works alone, for this film they hired a native Russian and Turkish language advisor for the scenes where the actors have to speak Russian or Turkish. Jack is the supervising dialect coach for the film. He says that the help of the native speakers is very valuable, but as they are not professional dialect coaches, his role is to give technical support about mouth anatomy or tongue placement to the actors when they have to speak, in this case, Russian or Turkish. Through experience, Jack is able to communicate his knowledge to the actors effectively: he listens to what they are doing and if they are in difficulty he is able to step in and demonstrate how a word or a sound should be pronounced correctly.

His behaviour on set, his set etiquette, is praised by actors and directors alike. Viggo Mortensen: “It’s important you know as a dialect coach how to behave on a film set. Sometimes an actor can be distracted because on a set there are so many people asking for your attention. Usually, after any given take, a lot of people like the director, the cameraman, the props department, the wardrobe people are all talking at the same time and it can affect your concentration as far as accent and speech are concerned. Andrew is always very aware of this, and his timing when he wants to discuss something with you is well chosen.” Jack emphasises the importance of this carefully chosen timing. “A set can be quite hectic with so many people involved. You have to decide, after a take, when to go to the actor on set and get his attention to give him a direction. Hopefully if I don’t have to go on set too often it means I’ve done my work and so has the actor. But if you have to, you need to know how and when to do it. Fortunately most of the actors I work with know when they have gone wrong and they will self-correct it and the next take will be terrific. So I don’t have to respond.”

An unsurprising difficulty that Jack faces is that on a set everybody in a way thinks he or she is a dialect coach. Jack makes the comparison with football, where everybody has an opinion. “On the set you sometimes hear people whispering: ‘Did you hear how they say that? That’s not Cornish!’ And I have to be careful because especially on a set you can’t start a discussion with someone else who thinks of himself as quite adequate. You can’t say ‘No you’re wrong because I’m the dialect coach and I know what’s what!’ It doesn’t work that way. You have to be diplomatic.”

Occasionally people have violated Jack’s set etiquette. “When the publicity people come on set and I’m introduced to them as the dialect coach they say: ‘Oh great, do you mind if we film you while you’re teaching an actor an accent or something?’ And I say ‘Well, I’d rather not, because that’s intruding into an area which is very personal.’ Actors don’t want to be filmed while they are learning something that they feel they should be able to do themselves. You have to protect their environment. One time someone asked me if they could set something up. They wanted an actor to say something wrong and then I should correct him. Well this kind of request is out of the question for me. So in the end I try to avoid this kind of publicity work. Teaching an actor a dialect or an accent is a delicate situation. I never do it in public.”

“Knowing how to approach actors is the whole thing if you want to teach a dialect or an accent,” Jack says about his work. “When you see actors in films they seem to be full of confidence, but in practice it’s often the reverse. In real life they’re often very shy people. So I try to approach them like a friend because there is no point in behaving like a teacher. For me it’s all about a gentle approach. Also, as a dialect coach you have to be versatile. It’s never a question of: Right, we’re going to do it this way, this is what you have to do.”

Jack always first tries to find out how the actor works. And as he sometimes works with three or four different actors on a film, he changes his approach to each one of them. A huge percentage of the work is to find a way to get somebody to be able to change their speech. “Some actors are very co-operative and enjoy it, but others almost actively resist,” he says. “They’re very proud, but also really shy and terrified of all kinds of things. They quickly say ‘I can’t do that’ and then you have to find your way through the resistance. They might be embarrassed or they say ‘I’m an actor why do I need you to help me? Just let me get on with it and I will be fine.’ Some actors don’t understand that I’m here to help and not to correct them.”

Jack regards his work to be the most intimate form of communication because speech reflects how you feel, who you are at the time. He explains, “Part of the actor’s craft is to be able not to show that his wife left him this morning, but to play a character who is exuberant. My work is not just about changing sound, it’s about an attitude, a way of behaving.” It’s important that he becomes accepted by the actor. “It’s a question of having a cup of coffee, sitting and talking. It’s listening to what the actor has to say and that he or she understands and starts to appreciate where I could help.”

Viggo Mortensen who worked with Jack previously on The Lord of the Rings trilogy also observed some scepticism towards dialect coaches. “Some actors don’t appreciate the presence of a dialect coach very much, or enough. They are not willing to be helped or benefit from the specific knowledge of the dialect coach. I do not find Andrew’s presence embarrassing or distracting at all. I think as an actor it’s a luxury to work with someone like Andrew, who’s there to help, pay close attention, remind you of the details—and who is able to do so in a very constructive way.”

Teaching an actor an accent is also very much a physical thing. “I try to encourage actors to ‘speak from their stomach.’ It’s the area where breath comes from and it’s also the emotional centre of the body. Good, centred breathing is very useful because it keeps you in touch with your emotional centre and reflects the way you feel. Physically there are things going on which manifest themselves in the voice. An actor’s job is to portray the emotions and motives of a character he or she is playing so it’s important that they realise where the emotional centre of the speech is located. Sometimes this can be a scary and confronting experience because it can make you really vulnerable as an actor because it’s so closely related to your intimate feelings. But when you’re doing an accent it works a little bit differently. It’s like—just a thought I came up with—you’re talking slightly off centre. When I’m talking with an American accent you hear me speaking but it’s not the real Andrew Jack. It’s a different kind of feeling and I probably have a different way of moving my body. It has to do with adopting a physical attitude, informed by social attitudes and characteristics that we recognise in people from different parts of the world, which creates a different physicality—the speaking slightly ‘off centre’ thing I discussed earlier. Once these attitudes are adopted the individual actor can—and often does—look different.”

As a dialect coach you’re not creating the accent for the actor. Each dialect, each accent is interpreted differently by each actor. “You give the actor the information they need and in the end they produce the accent, the dialect,” Jack says. “The differences between three characters in a film speaking with a Cornish accent could be immense, but they all could sound convincingly Cornish. It’s the same as you experience when you go to Cornwall in real life. Everybody speaks Cornish in a different way. It’s not so strict that you can say ‘No, that’s not Cornish they don’t speak like that it’s got to be this.’ Every actor, brings something to a dialect and that’s what makes it exciting.”

Working so closely with the actors Jack walks a fine line between the work of a dialect coach and that of an acting coach. Jack says it’s ‘unavoidable’ and the boundary between the two is also different with each actor. “I think first of all you have to have an understanding of the way that that actor might work. Some actors will welcome any suggestion which might be connected with acting. And there are some who would rather not. And I think it’s knowing the individual that tells you how much you can make contact with the actor in the sense of performance and creativity. It’s an organic process and it’s allied to experiences of life, the human being, the actor in question, the character they play and how much they’re willing to show you of their own character and personality. I never get the impression from an actor that I have overstepped the mark. And I think they appreciate the work I do once they realise it’s a benefit and helps them to understand the character they play, which invariably it does. Mortensen agrees “I believe when you master a good dialect it helps you as an actor if the dialect coach also is involved in the story, understands the context of your speech.” Working with actors for Jack is never a situation of us and them. “We’re in the job together. I’m an aid to their work.”

Lena Headey, the English actress who worked with Jack on the film The Red Baron, which required her to speak with a French accent, adds “A dialect coach works alongside the actors. It’s pretty much like an actor–director relationship. After a take you’ll go over to the director and ask if it’s okay and now I also ask Andrew if it was okay accent-wise. For me as an actor when you have to do a character with an accent you can rely on a dialect coach. It feels that somebody has got you backed and knows what you’re doing is okay or not.”

Knowing how to approach people and how to make them comfortable was something Jack learned in his years as an airline steward. For six and half years of his life in the ’70s he flew all over the world. Through this experience he certainly ‘matured a lot’: he found it an incredible experience to find out what you can and can’t do on your own. Being an airline steward was also an acting experience. “You’re actually playing a part and during my job I learned all about different accents—particularly foreign accents—and cultural differences. It was a good experience how to approach people, which helped me in my film career to go up to actors like Brad Pitt or Donald Sutherland and say not in so many words that the way they are speaking is wrong. I don’t want to feel like a servant to anybody. I think it has something to do with my character where I wouldn’t like to feel superior or inferior to somebody else. And I also like to put people at their ease. My work is all about being as laidback as I can be. Not to be confrontational ever. The element of trust is very important.”

Mortensen confirms this from his own work experience with Jack. “Andrew has got an excellent ear and he’s very helpful in communicating his experience with accents and language without being intrusive, putting too much pressure on you. He has the ability to stand back, stay quiet, and listen to you objectively.”

Throughout his career Jack has prepared actors for films and theatre. Is there a difference? “In the past more than now,” he says. “In theatre the actor had to speak louder, be articulate and clear, but there can be a danger of speaking too articulately so you can overdo it. Nowadays many theatres are wired for sound but actors still need to know how to use their voices. Good articulation is knowing which bits to put in and which bits to keep out. There are certain consonants that you leave out for reasons of clarity. Over-articulation can serve to break down communication rather than encourage it.”

When talking about the astonishing performances of actors who have adapted an accent very convincingly, Meryl Streep is always mentioned as a benchmark. Think of her Polish accent in the films Sophie’s Choice, her Italian accent in The Bridges of Madison County or repressed English accent in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  “I’m astonished at the level she has perfected it because I know how difficult it is to change your speech,” Jack comments. “She is a great technician.”

Jack says it was a dream working with Christian Bale. “For Batman Begins we had to find the voice that distinguishes Batman from Bruce Wayne. Why does Batman talk the way he does and where is it coming from? Why is his speech so curt and cold? Well, because Bruce Wayne is angry about the things that happened in his life. So Batman’s voice came out of being angry and his thinking and behaviour are connected to this. Christian took this all the way. I remember one time his wife came up to me on set an asked me ‘Andrew could you please ask Christian to say something like Christian? I haven’t heard his own voice for two years now’. Even in his private life Christian stays in the character he is playing. He’ll say ordinary things to his wife like: ‘Honey, shall I make some coffee?’ as Batman! It’s extreme, but it’s fantastic to work with somebody who is so dedicated. So when you go up on the set to him and ask him something he answers you back as Batman. I first came across this with Robert Downey Jr. when we did Chaplin. Robert also stayed in accent all the time. When we went to the pubs to find Chaplin’s London we were always talking in the Chaplin ‘Cockney’ accent.

But these two actors are exceptions. Most actors Jack works with don’t stay obsessively in character. Some actors can drop into and out of their character instantly. This was not the case with all the actors he worked with on The Lord of the Rings films. “We had three breaks of five weeks each during the 16-month shoot in New Zealand,” he recalls. “During the breaks a lot of the American and Australian actors went home, but when they came back I had to get them back into the accent of their character. Most of them forgot all about it so I had to rehearse it with them again.”

The Lord of the Rings is the biggest production Jack has worked on and he is proud he was part of it. The biggest challenge for him on this film was teaching the actors to speak Elvish—a fantasy language spoken by the Elves, created by the novels’ author Tolkein. The director of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, was aware of LOTR fans already knowing from the books how this language would sound and realised that they would be very critical judges of how the Elvish language would be used in the film. He foresaw that a proper use of Elvish would benefit the film and so it was Jack whom he asked to take care of this. Jack looks back on this challenge: “We were very strict with ourselves. We followed the rules that Tolkien wrote—the information you can find in the appendices of the book—virtually to the letter. Except that we originally intended that the Orcs would sound more evil without any accent, but then decided that the Orcs should be ‘Cockney’ to bring in a modern sound to what was supposed to be a rural and altogether separate world of accents. Nevertheless, I think we pleased the audience by doing it like this and not dramatically changing a lot by keeping the pronunciation very close to the way Tolkien had originally intended.”

Jack shared coaching duties on LOTR with Roisin Carty with whom he also collaborated on Troy. They divided the actors between them: Jack taught most of the men like Christopher Lee, Viggo Mortensen and Sir Ian McKellen, whilst Carty taught most of the women, including Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler. “Liv was really astonishing,” remembers Jack. “In the beginning she found it very difficult to speak the language, but when you see the finished result, when you hear Liv’s character, Arwen, with Viggo—as Aragorn—on the bridge talking Elvish to each other it’s a complete language. It’s so believable and a remarkable achievement because for an actor it’s difficult to speak in a language that doesn’t exist: you don’t have a reference.”

Perhaps an even more remarkable personal achievement for Jack was his involvement in the film Hilary and Jackie where he coached Emily Watson as Jackie, the brilliant cellist Jacqueline Du Pré. Speech patterns played a vital role. Jackie becomes seriously ill when she is diagnosed with Multiple Scleroses. MS manifests itself in different ways in different people and the illness can affect speech. Emily Watson, who did a lot of the research herself for the role, says “Jackie starts by using an upper class British accent—which is very familiar to me—and then picks up on and starts speaking Daniel Barenboim’s accent, which is a strange hybrid Argentinean/international accent. In real life Jackie actually spoke in many accents. When she returned from Russia she would have a Russian lilt to her voice, from France a French one and so on. Andrew and I decided that this would really confuse the audience so we had her change her accent only once. Andrew guided me carefully through this. We didn’t want her to sound like a parody. Together I think we struck a tone that didn’t seem implausible.”

Jack and Watson had extensive discussions about how her speech would deteriorate and at what points in the film. Usually a film is not filmed in a chronological order so they had to be really careful as to the stage of her illness they were at for continuity reasons. “Andrew was a great help in keeping me accurate,” she continues. “He is a very calm man and was a great point of reference during shooting in terms of feeling whether the scene was right. He also worked very closely with Rachel Griffiths so he was intimately involved in every part of the film. For me, the dialect coach on the movie is one of the most important people. If you are doing an accent that is not your own, they are your safeguard, your security, your truth. They listen closely to everything you say and know for sure when you are getting it right.”

Language had been a big part of Jack’s childhood: his father had been a well-respected radio and theatre actor. He doesn’t say it was ‘forced on him’ but it was the beginning of his fascination with language, accents and dialect in particular because of his father’s profession. Jack was used to hearing his father’s voice coming out of the radio, as an actor in BBC drama department productions. At an early age he became aware of the subtle differences between how his father spoke and the way the parents of his contemporaries spoke. Jack’s father was 42 when he was born. In a funny sort of way he felt it was growing up with grandparents. The parents of his friends were much younger. Jack remembers when his father spoke you didn’t really interrupt because there was a beginning, a middle and an end. The construction of his father’s dialogue was very much associated with an older time. In those days there was a tremendous respect for the way people who were involved with broadcasting spoke. “There was a perfection to it and I was very aware of it at that young age,” Jack recalls.

“My father,” he continues “was a bit of a clown in a way, but only in the protected environment of our home or when he was performing. So dialect and funny ways of speaking were very much part of our household. We lived in the Finchley Garden Village, a delightful part of north London. It was an area where a lot of arty people lived. Quite well known composers, writers, painters. There was a great community spirit. My father became quite well known for his work locally, this rather strange actor who did The Pied Piper of Hamelin on the village green. I think I must have inherited clowning from him. For many people clowning is a way of getting out of trouble. I was in a British public school and you can get ridiculed for all kind of things including the fact that I wasn’t a border—someone who lives at the school—but a day boy, and there weren’t very many children in my class who were day boys. Everyday my father took me to school. I believe this clowning—which is all about funny voices, accents and telling stories—comes out of that. I was a bit of a weed at school, I was often ill because I had sinus problems for which I had an operation when I was eight years old. It’s cruel but that’s another reason why you’re ‘got at’ by other kids at school. And clowning became the way out of that. It became a survival mechanism.”

Jack’s father had a massive Ferrograph tape recorder with big reels and he let his son play with it almost as a toy. Jack started to listen to his own voice. “Most people are quite disarmed when they hear their own voice,” Jack says. “They think ‘My God, I don’t sound like that.’ We hear our own voice from inside our body so we’re hearing a huge amount of resonance that’s coming through the body to our hearing equipment. We all believe we’ve got wonderfully resonant voices which sound terrific, but when you hear it coming it out of a tape recorder or a telephone answer machine we’re amazed that we sound like that. Part of the work I do is to encourage actors to hear their own voice because they are just as much terrified to hear their own voice too.”

As Jack was used at a very early age to hear his own voice he wasn’t embarrassed by it. He started to manipulate and change it; experimenting with funny voices. And he used to do radio plays on his own or with friends and they used to do little plays. As it was the era of Peter Sellers they used to do a lot of strange funny voices and strange characters. “Doing these plays,” Jack remarks “was a good education and it taught my a lot about what you could do with your voice.”

Jack used to keep a voice library but he hardly uses it anymore because it’s all in his head now. As he has been doing this work for so long he can now hear whether an accent sounds right or not. The way he originally learned it was by listening to a recorded voice speaking in different dialects and accents and repeating it over and over. He also learned it by writing it down phonetically.

The phonetic alphabet was very useful to him. He learned it in a couple of weeks until he was competent to write it down. “The phonetic alphabet is very useful for me because it’s an international standard and accepted language which captures the sounds of any spoken language very precisely,” he comments. “It enables me to never miss a sound because everything you hear, you can write it down, so it can be pronounced and understood by others. I wish,” he sighs “that actors and particularly drama school students would appreciate the importance of the phonetic language. It’s not just only very useful for accents, but also for continuity of speech.”

Jack has mastered an extensive range of accents from English regional dialects to Polish right through to Japanese and Chinese English. “I can’t teach an actor anything I can’t do myself,” he comments on why he has mastered so many accents. “I can’t sit down with a tape recorder and play a tape and say to the actor ‘listen to this and repeat it and I tell you when you go wrong.’ In order to teach someone an accent you’ll have to understand why Chinese people talk English this way.”

There is one accent Jack finds hard to master. It’s the ‘Geordie’ dialect spoken in the area of Newcastle in the North East of England. “If I do Geordie I sound like I’m Welsh,” he laughs.

For every movie you’ll find on the call sheet a director of photography, a sound mixer, a script supervisor, a director or producer, but not necessarily a dialect coach. The job of the dialect coach isn’t yet well established in the film industry yet. Jack remembered he once got a call from a slightly panicked producer who asked him if he was free the next day. It turned out that the actor in the film didn’t match with the expectations accent-wise and shooting was starting the next day. They wanted Jack to come in and listen for the first two of the eight weeks shooting. Jack was surprised by this request and asked the producer why only for the first two weeks? The producer answered “Oh just get him going.” Jack is still amazed by this reaction because in his job it’s not about ‘getting him going’ it’s about ‘making it right on the day.’

Viggo Mortensen confirms that the work that Andrew is doing, ‘is not well established—that he is a sort of forerunner in the field’, and adds, ‘it’s also not always very well respected or sufficiently valued in the film industry.’ He explains “It’s important that a dialect coach pays attention to the spoken language of the actors which is not their own. Dialect coaches can also make specific notes about individual takes and transmit these notes to the director and/or the editor of the film. This is very useful for the editing process because sometimes a take which has some fine acting, but where there is a slight problem accent-wise could still be used in the film when you make some additional dialect recording or substitute sound from alternate takes. Truth be told, there are some dialect coaches who aren’t nearly as good as Andrew is. I think that specialists like Andrew Jack are worth their weight in gold and good directors appreciate their contribution. I know that David Cronenberg is very pleased with what Andrew is doing.”

Directors and producers are slowly beginning to appreciate how valuable it is to have someone on set who is there specifically for the actors, but primarily for their speech. As a director has so many things on his mind and Jack is with the actors most of the time some directors even ask him “Can you get this actor to do this?”

Dan Maag, producer of The Red Baron—a film about a German fighter pilot set in World War I—describes the working relationship between a dialect coach and the director of the film a “delicate situation”. He says: “For a director it’s not always easy to have a dialect coach next to him. Usually, when a director and an actor on the set discuss how a scene should be performed the dialogue is very much part of the discussion. The work of the director and the dialect coach do overlap and it’s important that a dialect coach gives the director ‘space’ to discuss this with the actor. It’s a delicate situation and Andrew handles this really well. He gives you the feeling that he is around but he is never obstructive.” Maag believes that Andrew Jack’s work is getting more and more recognition from the film industry but not from the audience. “The audience thinks that everything the actor does is created by the actor. They think that the actors have mastered the accent all by themselves which is not true of course.”

Thanks also to the enormous success of feature-length computer-generated films like Shrek, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, the field of activity of the dialect coach is expanding. At a premiere of these films the actors who do the voices of the characters, including Eddy Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow are ‘the face’ of the film and their voice performances make a huge contribution to the commercial success of the film. Jack has also been involved in the computer generated animation Flushed Away for which he coached Hugh Jackman as Roddy St. James, a ‘spoiled’ mouse. Jack comments on this experience “You might expect that all the animations would be done first and an actor would go along and do the voice of the characters but in fact it’s completely the other way around. You go into the recording studio with the actor and the director to record the voices. The actor stands at the microphone and you spend hours with them repeating line after line in order to get as many meanings out of them as possible. It’s a very intensive and exhausting experience. As soon as you’ve done that you move on to the next line. We did three days recording with Hugh. I coached him with his accent and when the recordings were finished I sat together with the editor and reviewed all the lines over and over to say whether they were correct or not. It took me another two days,” he sighs. “On a film set between most of the takes there is a pause and then a longer break after set ups for re-lighting for instance—a very different way of working”.

“Computer-generated animation is certainly a new requirement of the dialect coach. To me, it’s a very weird way of working. The animators rely entirely on the voice which dictates the facial expression of the animated characters. To me it feels a bit contrived. I’m missing the live action thing there and you have no idea what it’s going to look like.” It’s clear that Jack isn’t burning with enthusiasm for this type of work. Perhaps to him it’s like dialect coaching on a blue screen. And after observing him at the set of Eastern Promises making eye contact with an actor and seeing the confirmation that a take has gone well, that one moment of trust and connection between two professionals is a priceless moment.

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