Theatre arts alumnus adds HBO miniseries The Pacific to his growing list of dialect-coaching work.
Viewers of the new 10-part HBO miniseries The Pacific, which premiered on March 14, will see University of Iowa alumnus Bruce Shapiro on screen only briefly. But they will hear his contribution in virtually every scene.
The Pacific, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as a sequel to Band of Brothers, is the biggest-budget miniseries ever filmed in Australia. Outside of the American actors who fill the three lead roles, the cast includes more than 175 Australian actors who must pass for U.S. Marines, nurses, and civilians. Shapiro taught them how to sound like Americans.
Shapiro has been dubbed “the dialect coach to the stars.” And for good reason: He wrote the book, literally, on how Australian actors can sound like Americans in stage, film, and TV productions. A second edition of his 2000 book, Speaking American: The Australian Actor’s Guide to an American Dialect, with an accompanying CD, was released in 2008 by Currency Press, Australia’s performing arts publisher.
The Pacific is just the latest of more than 40 cinema and TV productions on which Shapiro has contributed his expertise during the last dozen years, including movies featuring Jodie Foster, Naomi Watts, Julia Roberts, John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, Kathy Bates, William Hurt, Jamie Foxx, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Paris Hilton, Rob Lowe, Donald Sutherland, Gabriel Byrne, and William H. Macy.
Shapiro received a Master of Fine Arts in directing from Iowa in 1979, and after teaching at Tufts University in Boston he moved to Australia in 1995 on a fellowship to the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). That placed him near the location of the movie studios that were booming due to favorable exchange rates between the United States and Australian dollars, as well as Australian government tax incentives.
“One of my duties at QUT was to direct an American play and in the process teach the student actors to speak American, because of a burgeoning American film industry that was happening on the Gold Coast, about an hour south of Brisbane,” Shapiro says.
He lived briefly in Melbourne to lead the acting program at the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne—a job that gained him a permanent residency visa—but he returned to the Gold Coast in 1997 to complete his book Reinventing Drama: Acting, Iconicity, Performance, which was published in 1999.
Shapiro started going on auditions, and soon a casting director asked if he’d be interesting in coaching dialogue. “Beginning in October 1997 I was continuously working on films,” Shapiro says. “The new Fox Studios opened in Sydney and also the Central City Studios in Melbourne, bringing lots of American films.”
So what challenges do Australian actors face in sounding convincingly American? “When American speakers speak, they start at a certain pitch and then they finish below that mark,” Shapiro says. “So when we come to a period we go down to finish that sound, and that creates a much deeper sound. Also, because we open our mouths wider, it becomes like a megaphone. It’s like just bellowing out the sound.”
An additional hurdle that Shapiro sometimes faces with Australian actors is the distinction between accurate dialect and good acting. “There’s a trick to it,” he says. “You have to realize that this is a technical skill that an actor needs to develop, and it’s really not about their acting or the delivery of their lines. It’s just a subtle shift in how they use their mouth and how they lilt their voice for intonation to create a different dialect in which they still exude their own persona, their own acting.
“Their own choices as an actor still come through, so they don’t sound like anybody other than themselves, only it’s themselves speaking American.”
Having conquered Australia, Shapiro set his sights set on Asia, where he has already worked with actors on the American dialect, including a series of speaking engagements in Taiwan.
“Being a multicultural country, Australia has afforded me the opportunity to work with many Asian English speakers, and in addition to my activities in Taiwan, I previously worked with the Japanese company Kumon in developing their English language video series for Japan and Korea,” he says. “I also coached the wonderful Vietnamese actress Kieu Chinh (from The Joy Luck Club) in Tempted a few years ago, and last year I spent a couple of months in Thailand researching the problems Thai speakers have with English.”
With the Australian film industry now in a recessionary slump, Shapiro has taught at Shu-Te University in Taiwan for three semesters, and he has remained in Taiwan to continue work on his book for Asian speakers of American.
story by Winston Barclay
March 22, 2010