Last week, the trailer for Mary Queen of Scots was released to much discussion. Oscar talk began almost instantly, as did excitement over the gif possibilities warring Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan presented. Robbie in full Elizabeth I costume and make-up seemed primed for either fawning profiles on the ‘ugly’ transformation awards voters seemed to love, as well as a variety of future drag show possibilities. Mostly, I found the trailer to be pretty decent, if leaning a tad too heavily on the unreal melodramatic side of the story. The thing that baffled me was something many others on Twitter were celebrating: Saoirse Ronan’s Scottish accent.
By the standards of non-Scottish actors doing Scottish, she was rather good. The problem came more with why she had it in the first place: Mary Queen of Scots spent most of her life in France. The chances are she wouldn’t have spoken like that. Granted, having Mary Queen of Scots sound Scottish made more sense than some films that just give her the ‘token plummy English period drama’ accent, but in terms of historical accuracy, it was clear that this film had other priorities.
I wondered why Ronan was doing that accent, although the effort was appreciated. Was it a personal choice made by an actress who wanted the challenge of a familiar but tough to nail accent? Did the film-makers not do the required research and just assume that she’d talk like that because her name said it all? Is Mary Queen of Scots such a national icon of Scotland that giving her the allure of ‘true’ Scottishness was the whole point of the story? Or was I the only person who cared about this, as I often am? Whatever the case, the accent still intrigued me. It’s not very common for me to see a major Hollywood production where someone talks like me, much less where they sound reasonably believable.
I’ve talked many times before about my Scottishness and how facets of my identity have been repackaged by pop culture over the ensuing decades: From Highlander romance novels to tartan noir crime stories to our major movie stars to Groundskeeper Willie himself. When you think of Scots on screen or the page, you have certain images in mind, be they kilted men rolling in the heather, grime-ridden council estates scored to Iggy Pop, or something in-between. With that comes expectations of character: Inherent fieriness, a pre-disposition for violence, a fondness for drink and public revelry, a noble savageness that inspires both fear and awe. That, to many requires, an appropriate accent, preferably rough and ready and with heavy emphasis on the letter ‘r’.
A Scots accent isn’t one many actors get a chance to do. There simply aren’t that many films or T.V. series made here, nor do the major industries in Hollywood and London choose Scotland as a backdrop of its own origin very often. More likely, we are to be a pretty landscape for a galaxy far far away or a mystical land past the white wall. We’ve also got enough of our own homegrown talent to the point where it would just be daft for casting agents to go for a bigger name who sounds like a background extra in Brigadoon.
That’s not to say there isn’t prestige to be found in going Scots. Obviously, the people behind Mary Queen of Scots think so. That’s too good a story to leave to the countless other versions made for film and television. There’s also The Outlaw King, the upcoming Robert the Bruce drama directed by a Scotsman, filmed in Scotland, starring an array of beloved Scottish actor, and centred on Chris Pine. And believe me, a lot is riding on his Best Chris ranking if he screws that accent up.
So, because I’m a good person, I have decided to bestow upon Hollywood a few hints for those stars who think the Scots accents is the next great acting challenge. Take that, extensive weight loss and bad wigs.
ONE: Pick a region and stick to it. Amateurs make the mistake of thinking everyone in Scotland sounds the same, which usually means they go for a pseudo-Glaswegian twang. This is just Accents 101: Dialects exist! I would say it would be bad form for a Brit to do the generic American accent when playing someone of a specific region but that does seem to be a default mode for some. A person from Aberdeen sounds different from someone in Edinburgh who sounds far more upper crust than someone from Inverness. Oddly, the only Scottish film I’ve seen get this right is Brave, and that even had a cracking joke about how most Scots can’t understand some of the dialects, like Doric. Saoirse Ronan’s Scottish accent is good but it’s pretty generic stuff. Getting the region right adds incredible layers to your work: Think of how iconic the clipped vowels and clear-as-a-bell enunciation of Maggie Smith’s Morningside accent in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is, and how you know everything about that character the moment she opens her mouth. Emma Thompson has a different Scots accent in Brave compared to her delightfully grotesque turn as Robert Carlyle’s mother in The Legend of Barney Thomson. The way she says ‘breakfast’ as ‘break-fist’ gives me unending joy.
TWO: Stop rolling all the Rs, for the love of… Look, I appreciate the effort, I really do. Yes, we do roll our Rs quite a bit, perhaps more than our pals south of the border. However, that doesn’t mean we extend the length of every word by two seconds through added growling. We’re people, not motorcycle engines. Keep it to a minimum, although it’s perfectly okay to never pronounce the letter T about 90% of the time. That stereotype is totally true.
THREE: Don’t worry about every word. The big mistake most actors make when going Scots is in thinking that the pure force of the accent must apply to every single syllable. You can practically see them carefully planning every beat, sure not to let a single word slip for fear that everyone will suddenly know they’re not from the motherland. There’s a wonderful relaxing tone to the Scots accent that gets lost when you’re too distracted trying to figure out its machinations, so don’t panic. Maybe cement the stereotyping further and have a drink to help loosen up the vocal chords.
FOUR: Stop saying ‘aye’. Or, at the very least, don’t make it every third word. The same applies to ‘och’ and my perpetual enemy, ‘bonny lass’, a phrase I almost never hear in real life. It probably looks great on paper to pepper your script with these monosyllabic words that seem so very Scottish. Perhaps it helps get the word count up, or maybe it’s a studio mandate because they’re worried it won’t be authentic enough otherwise. I can assure you that we are capable of saying ‘yes’ and all such variants. Actually, I think most people would be surprised by how many Americanisms have found their way into everyday Scottish and British vocabulary.
So, those are my tips. Godspeed to you, Chris Pine. We’ll be paying attention…
What hints would you give to eager actors when it comes to performing your accent or dialect? Let us know in the comments.
(Header image from YouTube)