Like any good and dedicated teacher, Liz Himelstein keeps detailed notes of her pupils’ strengths and particular challenges. In Himelstein’s notebooks, however, the pages log the progress of students like Nicole Kidman, Gary Oldman, Naomi Watts, David Oyelowo, Emma Watson, Colin Firth, and Oprah.
For nearly three decades, Himelstein has worked as a dialect coach for TV and film projects, teaching actors of all backgrounds to convincingly mimic accents unlike their own. And when she spoke to me from a trailer on a film set in Los Angeles — with pure, impeccable morning-news-anchor diction, naturally — she had documentation of Peter Dinklage’s vowel sounds and Margot Robbie’s diphthongs at her fingertips. She could, at a moment’s notice, look up what slang words Andrew Garfield learned when she took him to a high school in Queens to prepare for The Amazing Spider-Man.
Himelstein got her start teaching acting students at SUNY Purchase and Carnegie Mellon; her students began asking to learn more accents than “the usual old-fashioned four or five” that were taught in college acting classes, “so I just started studying more and more and more,” she says. In 1990, John Waters heard about Himelstein and enlisted her to train the cast of Cry Baby, and her reputation has only grown since then. On Sunday, Sam Rockwell, accepting a Golden Globe for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, thanked Himelstein onstage. Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman did the same when they accepted Golden Globes for Fargo and Big Little Lies, respectively, and those are just three of the five performances she worked on that were nominated that night. Vulture talked to Himelstein about the roles she helped elevate into awards-season contention this year.
Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
It all started with an innocent note from the director. “Martin McDonagh wanted a very subtle Missouri, Ozark sound,” Himelstein says. Which might have been an easy thing to deliver if Sam Rockwell weren’t such an extra-mile kind of actor: When Rockwell prepares for a role that requires dialect work, “he likes to find authentic people and record them,” Himelstein says.
So then the search was on. Himelstein, in a stroke of inspiration, watched the episode of Cops that takes place in Springfield, Missouri, and tweeted at the head of the police department there. “I asked them, may I please have an interview with this cop?”
Not long afterward, Himelstein and Rockwell Skyped with the officer and learned about his life and his job. “The officer actually came up with the word ‘clank’ for jail,” she says. “Sam brought that to Martin and he agreed to put that word in the script.” Then, she says, the officer made a recording of himself saying all of Rockwell’s lines.
Rockwell, according to Himelstein, also traveled to visit that officer in Springfield, where they did a ride-along together. “Sam totally made everything [about the character] his own,” Himelstein says, but spending time with an actual Missouri cop provided “sort of a template for him.”
Margot Robbie in I, Tonya
The upside and the downside of playing Tonya Harding is just how famous she is: Himelstein and Robbie were under extra pressure to faithfully re-create the sound of Tonya Harding, on one hand, but on the other, they had tons of research material. “We had so many tapes,” Himelstein says. “We massively listened to her and studied her.”
“One thing we noticed a lot was, after a phrase, she’d say ‘and stuff.’ ‘So I went over there, and stuff,’” Himelstein adds. “We loved that. Margot added that into her performance.”
Robbie and Himelstein also took care to incorporate Harding’s accent: “Instead of get, she said git. Instead of remember, she said remimber. And inyone. ‘I didn’t do inything.’” They dropped the g’s from -ing endings, so that “chopping” became “choppin’” and “plotting” became “plottin’.” Himelstein remembers that Robbie, a native of Australia, worked particularly hard to master the American “r” sound. “She had to say ‘scores’ a lot, so we did drills. ‘Four, door, more and more.’ ‘Reliable source.’ ‘Divorce.’”
Of course, creating a Tonya Harding out of a Margot Robbie wasn’t just a matter of teaching an Australian how to talk like a Portland native, but a matter of teaching an Australian how to talk like a Portland native at several different stages of her life. “We wanted to have the younger version of Tonya Harding, and then years later, when she was in her 40s,” Himelstein says. As Craig Gillespie has noted, that meant making Robbie’s voice sound believably higher as teenage Harding and lower as her character aged.
Ewan McGregor in Fargo
When Himelstein was asked to work on the third season of Noah Hawley’s Fargo, she was in familiar territory: She had worked on Joel and Ethan Coen’s original film in 1996, and she’d worked with its lead actor Ewan McGregor on several projects, including Beauty and the Beast. A trained singer, McGregor tends to apply what he learned about vowel formation from singing to accents — and when he was working on his French accent to play Lumière, Himelstein remembers with a laugh, “We did Maurice Chevalier’s ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls.’ We sang that.”
For Fargo, “We listened to the original Fargo,” she says. “We listened to [William H.] Macy.” The trouble with mastering a Minnesota accent, though, when you’re Scottish, is that the two accents are almost too similar. Sometimes when McGregor would pronounce a Minnesotan “oh,” Himelstein says, he would accidentally flip back into his natural Scottish lilt.
“The note that I gave him was to relax the ‘o,’ and when he relaxed it, it was just the pure Fargo ‘o’ that came back,” she says. “And once he mastered the sound changes and the placement of the sounds, he soared.”
Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes
Much has been said about Emma Stone’s physical transformation into the tennis legend Billie Jean King, but Stone didn’t settle for just looking like King. To master King’s signature singsongy speech patterns (see: “Dinosaurs can’t play tennis!”), “We listened to all of her interviews over and over and over again, just to listen to her rhythm and her cadence,” Himelstein says. “She had this lovely melody to her speech.”
They also had to master King’s hybrid regional accent. “Billie Jean King is from Long Beach, California, but she had a slight twinge of a few southern vowels,” Himelstein adds. “And she had certain quirks. She would say ‘right on,’ because it was also the early ’70s.”
“Emma worked so hard on this, and she cared so much that she really honored Billie Jean King,” Himelstein says. “She’s an American playing an American, but it didn’t matter. She was so disciplined.”
Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies
When Nicole Kidman worked with Himelstein on her widely heralded, Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning performance as Celeste Wright, a Monterey mom with more troubles than meet the eye, it was the pair’s tenth time working together. “I’ve worked with her since she was 26 years old. We mark everything, we drill all the sounds … and she’s a joy to work with,” Himelstein says.
Kidman’s final-cut performances are sometimes surprising to Himelstein; Kidman often “marks” in rehearsal — that is, tones down her performance to save energy — and then unleashes something different when she gets on set, Himelstein says. Her line delivery in Big Little Lies has occasional flashes of her native Australian accent, causing some (like Vulture’s E. Alex Jung) to even speculate that perhaps her character is meant to be Australian-American. Not necessarily, says Himelstein.
“The accent came up, you know, some little bits of Australia, in some emotional moments,” Himelstein says. “But when you’re being very, very emotional and the acting is so good, there’s no reason to run in there and [make an actor run through dialect drills, like] ‘ah, ah, hot coffee pot.’ And sometimes the director will say the moment is so good, we don’t want to go in and do ADR.” Plus, she points out, who among us doesn’t speak a little differently when we’re in an intense emotional state?
It’s moments like those, watching Kidman as Celeste, that remind Himelstein that turning in a great acting performance is the top priority, not nailing the specifics of an accent.
“And she won an Emmy and a Golden Globe,” Himelstein adds with a laugh. “So, discuss.”