Thursday, December 30, 2021

Go West, Young Bloke: British Actors Are The New American Cowboys

 New westerns star Benedict Cumberbatch, Idris Elba, and Tom Blyth; ‘it’s not his first rodeo’. 

British actors are roping in starring roles in today’s westerns.


The Wall Street Journal

By Ellen Gamerman

December 12, 2021

Recent chaps in chaps include Benedict Cumberbatch as a brutish Montana rancher in the new movie “The Power of the Dog,”Idris Elba as an Old West gunslinger in this fall’s “The Harder They Fall” and Tom Blyth in the title role in the coming series “Billy the Kid.”

Such casting can be a boon for dialect coaches, many of whom wrestle with issues such as diphthongs—the combination of two vowel sounds—so that British cowboys don’t slug whiskey at the barrrrrrr (too American) or the bahhhh (too British). By default, some actors start out with an all-purpose twang that requires immediate dismantling.

“The Brits go right to Texas,” said dialect coach Denise Woods, who worked on “The Harder They Fall.” “It’s like, did you guys grow up watching ‘Dallas’ on the BBC?”

Some British actors who work with Ms. Woods must repeat the phrase, “around the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran” or “here there and everywhere” to train the tips of their tongues to form the right “R” sounds.

Mr. Elba had already played many Americans, and Ms. Woods described his cowboy accent coming easily. “It’s not his first rodeo,” she said.

Mr. Elba was unavailable to comment, a representative for the actor said.


[Regina King, Idris Elba and LaKeith Stanfield in “The Harder They Fall.”]



Even as westerns push harder than ever for authentic American history—Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t eat raw bison liver in “The Revenant” because he was hungry—Hollywood is chasing Brits who often come with classical training and awards-friendly prestige.

British actors have played fur trappers (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter, “The Revenant”), widows (Michelle Dockery, “Godless”), cavalry officers (Christian Bale, “Hostiles”), more widows (Rosamund Pike, “Hostiles”), sweaty tough guys (Daniel Craig, “Cowboys & Aliens”), and more.

Swapping nationalities for iconic roles is an established filmmaking quirk. Around politics and power, it’s a free-for-all: British actor Clive Owen played Bill Clinton and Mr. Bale played Dick Cheney. Americans Meryl Streep and John Lithgow played Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill. And Kristen Stewart is now on screens as Princess Diana in “Spencer.”

But the British cowboy is a particularly sharp spur in the side of some U.S. actors who say that the classic American genre ought to rely on its own.

“I don’t know why we would be outsourcing our own culture,” said David Warshofsky, an actor and director of the MFA acting program at the University of Southern California. “Let’s do a cage match with British actors and we’re all going to audition for western cowboys and let’s see who comes out on top.”

He added that he has nothing but love and respect for his British colleagues.

International talent is helping reshape a classic movie tradition that is falling deeper into American memory. Defenders of overseas casting say that the performers who win these roles are acclaimed in their own right, regardless of nationality, and to a certain extent the material is foreign to everyone. An American actor would need to be more than 150 years old to know what real-life Western characters sounded like back in the day.

“It’s no longer the quintessentially American genre that it once was,” said Pete Falconer, British author of “The Afterlife of the Hollywood Western” and a film and television academic. “In recent decades it has come to feel closer than ever before to a form of period drama,” he said. “And who do you see in period dramas? British actors.”

John Wayne in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” 1962.

Photo: Everett Collection




Despite its love affair with Italian directors in the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, the art form remains associated with American actors such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

The casting of an actor like Mr. Cumberbatch sparks a frisson of intrigue. Would the Britishness of this classically trained performer poke through, or would his preparation on all things Western achieve its intended effect?

“It certainly adds layers when someone is not from the place they’re portraying,” said Carmen Cuba, a casting director for the Netflix film “The Power of the Dog” who was hired after Mr. Cumberbatch was cast. American actors might think they know more about a Western accent than they actually do, she said, but British performers might fall short on the cultural nuances instantly available to Americans.

Mr. Cumberbatch’s performance has been praised by critics. The actor was unable to be immediately reached for comment.

Michael Hirst, the British showrunner for “Billy the Kid,” set to debut on EPIX next year, noted that Billy the Kid came from an Irish family, so the casting of Mr. Blyth makes a certain sense. “America is a melting pot,” he said, adding that Americans also auditioned for the role, but Mr. Blyth was cast on merit. Mr. Blyth was unavailable to comment, a representative said.

Tom Blyth plays the title role in “Billy the Kid.”

Photo: Epix




For director Jeymes Samuel, the casting of Mr. Elba in the Netflix film “The Harder They Fall” was undeniable—there was no one else for the role, he said. The British director described an ineffable quality in Mr. Elba’s face. “His eyes always look like he’s smiling and crying at the same time,” he said.

He also liked how the genteel actor clashed against the rough cowboy type, which helped in a final shootout scene when Mr. Elba’s outlaw character begins to cry.

Ms. Woods, the dialect coach on that film, has encouraged actors to consider the Western accent and the vocal impact that could come from, say, chewing tobacco or squinting into the sun. On top of Mr. Elba’s research, she gathered YouTube samples featuring the fathers and grandfathers of Black cowboys.

Mr. Elba and other British actors become transformed by the American accent, Ms. Woods said.

“They can replicate it take after take,” she said. “It becomes part of their DNA.”

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