Samara Bay, Hollywood Dialect Coach, on Finding a Niche, Working with Actors, & Communication Processes.
December 7, 2015
I’m from Santa Cruz, California – a hippie/university town on the central coast. My parents, perhaps sensing they had a precocious kid on their hands, started taking me to the local Shakespeare festival when I was little and I decided when I was ten that I wanted to do that.
I didn’t really know what “do that” meant for many years though… acting? Directing? Being the artistic director of a regional Shakespeare festival while also serving as its voice coach and teaching at the university or institution associated with said festival?
I kid you not, that was the plan at some point. It took me lots of years of trial and error to figure out what was gonna actually make me happy.
In the meanwhile I got an English and theater degree from Princeton and MFA in acting from Brown, and traipsed around New York City producing theater, acting in theater, seeing theater, and drinking lots of free theater wine.
First Job in the Entertainment Industry
I was about a month out of grad school, mid-twenties, living on Mulberry Street in Manhattan (before the landlord realized they were charging way too little), and I got the call to teach the entire cast of the subUrbia revival off-Broadway how to fill a theater with their voices.
A mentor of mine who somehow just decided I’d be good at this, a gentleman named Stephen Gabis, threw me the job because he was too busy, probably coaching five Broadway shows at once, which was and remains his life.
This particular production of Eric Bogosian’s play starred Gaby Hoffman, Keiran Culkin, Kelli Garner before she dropped out to do Lars and the Real Girl – basically a bunch of TV and film actors who didn’t necessarily know how to do a vocal warm-up or project to the back of the house, and here I was right out of conservatory where we spent all day every day learning how to do just that.
I felt at once like a total impostor (I was younger than half of them and of course wildly envious of their careers) and also like the expert in the room.
I was a heart-pounding mess but I took the advice I was giving them – basically, breathe for the love of crap – and when I ran into Keiran on a subway platform years later he mimicked one of my exercises back at me with a twinkle in his eye as the subway doors were closing shut. So, apparently I made an impression.
I’m inspired by smart actors – James McAvoy comes to mind, or Joel Edgerton, who I just got to coach for two months out of town.
People who get storytelling on multiple levels – from the architecture of a single thought to the big questions they want to leave the audience with.
I’m inspired by my friends, in town, who are writing scripts that engage in big ideas, and my non-industry friends who are teaching and running non-profits that use art to tackle societal awfulness.
My favorite quote is from E. B. White: “I get up every morning determined to both save the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”
I’m inspired by the people digging into that dichotomy. As a dialect coach – or even when I give feedback on friends’ or my husband’s scripts or back when I was acting and producing more – I tend to think of myself as an “interpretive” artist rather than a “creative” artist: I hate a blank page, but I know how to make a full page better.
But those people who know how to fill a blank page with something that helps us process this mad world? I am in awe.
Why Dialect Coaching?
I get to work with actors, providing them support and an outside perspective just when they need it most.
Whether they’re prepping for an audition or sitting in the makeup chair about to head to set, actors are often born collaborators toiling alone.
I get to be that collaborator for them, helping them with the sounds coming out of their mouths, for sure, but also with their confidence and their choices and their understanding of the opportunities in the text.
Plus, I get to work with foreigners all the time, which is definitely the cheapest way of traveling the globe.
I also love that everything I’ve ever observed about how people think and how we communicate, in addition to everything I’ve ever learned in a speech class, is relevant.
I get to geek out about us weird humans every day!
Roles Within the Entertainment Industry
For many years as I was building my dialect empire (just kidding, but kind of not), I didn’t entirely realize that’s what I was doing.
I was an actor in the meanwhile, of course, and director/producer. But I also pursued TV development at some point, dabbled as a Host and Blogger (some people actually still know me as “The Smarty at the Party,” god bless), edited my parents’ books on science and culture, taught speech at Pace University in NYC and Stella Adler in LA, worked with a legendary MBA professor to develop communication classes for corporate types, and had a slew of fancy meetings at the New Yorker and other august publications to create content for their marketing campaigns.
I had no idea what would really spark and said yes to everything interesting that came my way.
It was such a relief, though, when dialect jobs started stringing themselves along with enough frequency that I suddenly didn’t have time to side-hustle anymore.
Business & Freelancing
I’m an independent contractor. So, sometimes I work for myself (I have a DBA, so kind of a business and kind of just three letters to tack on the end of my name) and sometimes I work for Marvel or Fox or Weinstein & Company.
But never in the kind of way where I get benefits. Beyond the benefit of getting to coach their actors.
Heh. But really, I do love being my own boss – on each project I know who I’m working for and whose vision I’m supporting, but between gigs I’ve got free time and the freedom to choose, for the most part, who I want to work with and when.
We’ll usually start with some audio or video samples of an authentic speaker (or the real-life person that actor is playing, if it’s a biopic).
I will have isolated the big sound changes they should listen for ahead of time, so I can point them out to my actor as we go, sitting with the sounds, talking out how they feel in the mouth, what they inspire in terms of character. It’s a dialogue for sure.
Then I’ll usually encourage my actor to dive into some text, either from the script or something more neutral, and do what I lovingly call “the big loud bad version.”
Because among the stereotypes we have for actors are rarely this one but it’s so, so, true: actors are perfectionists.
And it’s deadly to try to be perfect with a dialect from the start. A totally understandable impulse but utterly paralyzing.
So, we have fun with it, try stuff, and then tweak, till perfection (or the most realistic version of it) finds us.
Tech & Gear
The Internet is invaluable for its cataloguing of various dialects from around the world. I use theInternational Dialects of English Archiveall the time to start out my hunt, and YouTube (that “accent tag” that went around a few years ago is a flawed but fantastic resource).
Sometimes, I’ll happen across PDFs of Masters Theses describing in nerdilicious detail the linguistic history and raison d’etre of a specific accent I’m researching.
Sometimes, articles I find will reference professors who specialize in that region and I’ll Google their contact info and call them up, because academia.
But… all that said, the number one most important tool for us dialect coaches isn’t new technology at all: it’s an old book called Speak with Distinction that lays out in excruciating detail the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is our secret code for isolating the distinguishing characteristics of a dialect and translating it to actors who don’t necessarily know the IPA themselves.
Improvements in Technology
I mean, we send audio links by email or dropbox now instead of… cassette tapes? I wasn’t doing this in the ‘80s but I have to imagine there was a lot more tape recording and dictaphoning going on.
My clients use the Voice Memos app all the time to record themselves for later, I Skype or Facetime with out-of-town clients a bunch, and when I need to find a native Lingala speaker (as I did earlier this year for an awesome pilot that unfortunately didn’t make it to air) I shamelessly crowd source my Facebook friends.
The other way technology has probably changed our field is that I have a website and (at the urging of one of my clients last year) a Yelp page.
I get more requests than I can handle via those two sites, so have zero need to market myself.
Which is not something I could have said a few years ago, when the SEO wasn’t working quite so well, and to be fair, when my agent wasn’t getting me so many juicy TV and film stuffs… which makes my time for private clients much more limited!
Challenging Yourself as a Business Owner
Just trying to make a living. Haha. Someday maybe I’ll really think of myself as a business owner. For a while I was thinking of launching a communication consultancy, and went to some fascinating conferences on startup business models.
But for now, I’m just taking cool gigs and learning how to be a better and better coach, and loving that I can get paid for how much fun I’m having.
I’m also, from time to time, training scientists through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, a baller institution everyone should know about, and it’s gratifying to see that the sort of work I do has applications in all kinds of industries.
If climate scientists can explain what they do in a more compelling way when they’re interviewed on, say, television, then maybe they can better change behavior at a mass level.
In the long term I’d love my business to incorporate work like this across industries, and of course, it wouldn’t suck to feel like I’m helping save the world.
No one starts out wanting to be a dialect coach. I’ve talked to a number of ‘em and everyone agrees.
But if you’re at the point where it is something you’re thinking of pursuing: learn and love the IPA (the phonetic alphabet, not the beer, though that’s cool too), learn and love the actor’s process, and get yourself on film sets in any capacity.
So much of what makes a dialect coach get hired a second time has nothing to do with how well they coach actors to sound good ‘n authentic doing an accent.
Instead, it’s about reading a room, knowing what goes into a day’s work on set, knowing when and how to give a note between takes, and when it’s not about you at all.
Theoretically I coach any dialect at all. Challenging ones are the slippery accents for which it’s hard to land on a single audio clip and call it the hero sample – I’m working now on contemporary military speak, a hybrid accent that emerges when a bunch of guys are thrown together in combat.
It’s new for me and every person’s voice I have on file sounds different from every other, as you might expect; there’s freedom in that, of course, and also a bit of crazy-making.
On the other hand, I just coached a 1950’s rural Virginia accent based on a real life couple who we’ve got a lot of footage of, which makes it simpler but also means we’re walking the thin line between getting it right and doing an impression (cringe – actors don’t want to feel like they’re doing SNL impersonations if it’s a serious drama).
The easiest jobs are helping foreigners sound clearer – not pass for American, just sound clearer.
I’ve got some fantastic Latin and French clients who are rocking it in Hollywood these days, who just need help opening up their vowel sounds, getting those American L’s, TH’s, and R’s, and who appreciate getting to work on the nuances of inflection and idiomatic expressions with me before they’re in the rehearsal room.
Because that can be killer when English isn’t your first language. I have one client who always comes over with a list of idiomatic expressions she’s heard that she needs clarified – like why do we Americans sometimes say “try to” do something, and sometimes say “try and” do something. Or “I’m up for that” vs. “I’m down for that.”
I adore being able to help with this stuff and I end up learning a lot about my own language in the process!
I think success is hitting the middle of that Venn diagram of three circles: things you’re good at, things you love doing, things people need (and thus will pay you for).
Two out of three is hard to sustain. Three out of three feels UH-mazing.
And I think the biggest factor I can probably attribute to the fact that I’m hitting that center point more these days is that I slogged through all those years of not doing so!
I accumulated wisdom and collected mentors and aimed for the wrong place on that Venn diagram thinking I could muscle through and learned from my mistakes.
The biggest challenge with dialect coaching really was waiting it out.
It took five years with my awesome agent before I started working consistently.
In the interim I was shaking my fists at the heavens a lot, wondering if I was missing some puzzle piece, wondering what I should be doing with my life.
In that time, though, not only did I do a billion other things (um, see above) but I also got way better – by teaching international students at Stella Adler, and by coaching all kinds of clients one-on-one at my home office.
And some of those former students and clients are now booking massive projects and getting the production companies to hire me!
Most Prevalent Deficiencies of New Entrants to the Field?
This is gonna be a technical and sorta tough love answer, but here goes: I think you’re not ready to work in TV and film until you can create your own sound change sheets just by listening to someone with an dialect.
Sure, do all the research possible including seeking out codified lists of the distinctive sounds for a dialect, but if you have to rely on that you’re not ready for prime time.
And you’ll feel it – it’s super empowering to be able to use nothing but your ears and a pen/paper to decode a dialect from scratch.
Specialist or Jack-of-all-Trades?
Within the world of dialects, jack-of-all-trades. We have to be – I’ve gotten calls lately to do Yiddish, old timey mid-Atlantic, RP (the Queen’s English), South African, Chicago, French-Canadian, and of course loads of accent reduction.
Promoting Your Work & Securing New Clients
I share links to projects I’ve worked on when they finally hit the trades or are gonna be in the theaters. Sometimes, I retweet a shout-out a client writes me publicly.
Sometimes, as I said, I post general inquiries for native speakers among my Facebook community. But mostly, the juiciest, funnest stuff I simply have to keep offline. ‘Cuz NDAs are serious business, and I like to be discreet and classy even when there isn’t a contract in place.
Top Memories in Entertainment
*Joel Edgerton had to fly back to LA in the middle of filming Loving in Virginia with me this fall, because he was being honored with the Breakout Actor award at the Hollywood Film Awards.
Back in the makeup chair early Monday morning he told me he ran into one of my other clients, Edgar Ramirez, who’s enlisted me on three movies so far. Apparently Edgar said, “oh yeah! you’re working on Loving with my dialect coach, Samara.” And Joel responded, “…um, she’s MY dialect coach.” Hilarious. And very very flattering.
* On that very early job coaching in New York, I remember one day I had everyone circled up for a group vocal warm-up and Keiran Culkin tried to slip away ‘cuz he was too cool to do the exercises. With a wink in my voice I called him out in front of everyone: “I know – it takes courage to do something silly, doesn’t it, Kieran?” In that moment I think I found my voice as a coach.
* Kind of a career highlight, kind of a personal one – I had a kid this year, and it was a huge, very emotional moment for me when my agent and I had a conversation about my career before the baby came. She is very matter of fact, and there was this moment when, sentiment entirely aside, she just listed off what she would request for me in future so that I could bring the babe with me on location.
Since dialect coaches don’t have a union, there’s no one else to protect our interests but her… and here she was truly doing so.
I could not have been more grateful. Like, monumentally grateful. I would have liked to say that I had zero anxiety about being a working mother, but the reality is that it’s still complicated in practically every industry and perhaps even more so in ones where no one owes you any job security.
* My first film gig for which I coached beginning, middle, and end (prepping the actor before we started shooting, on set every day listening in and giving notes, and lending an ear during post-production audio looping too) was one for which I had a great relationship with my actor but dealt with an extremely intimidating Scandinavian director who I’m pretty sure couldn’t tell one way or the other what the hell I was doing there.
By the end, though, there was a noticeable shift. My favorite moment came on our last day: we were re-recording some of the actor’s audio and the director told the sound editor, “that take was good for me. Samara – was it good for you?” AAAH!
* But really… and I’m a mush ball, so bear with me, the career highs are every time my clients book the job after working with me, or even just walk out feeling more confident and playful than they did.
Every time I get word from a former student that they heard a fun dialect and were able to decode it because of the IPA.
Every time an actor sits at my dining room table and lights up when a sound suddenly makes sense for them and a dialect starts tumbling out.
And every time I’m on set and get to make eye contact with my actor after a take when they took my note and they look to me for approval despite themselves and we get to share a little smiley nod because we both know they frickin’ killed it.
What is Something About Your Career You Would Like People to Know?
I just wish I had a short answer to the question “how does one become a dialect coach?” – which is what everyone asks. I guess now I’ll just refer them to this interview. Done!
I took a billion acting, voice, and speech workshops and lucked out with some world-class mentors – Cicely Berryof the RSC when I was 22, Kate Wilson at Juilliard who was a huge influence in the particular way I’m able to teach the IPA sounds (it’s physical and gets actors out of their head), Thom Jones in grad school, and now in LA the doyennes of dialect – Francie Brown, Carla Meyer, and Jessica Drake – have all been insanely kind to me. Shout out to them!!
But the single most valuable thing I did to prepare for dialect coaching was Shakespeare training from a comically young age.
When you’re learning to speak the Bard’s text you inevitably also learn about Standard American (the general accent from which everything else is a deviation) and about the structure of language – sounds, word choice, pitch, and the sort of literary devices Shakespeare used (like antithesis) (I’m on a personal crusade to get every early career actor to relish this concept) that are just as relevant when unpacking a contemporary text.
In my ill-fated pursuit of being a Shakespearean actress I accidentally did all the right things to become a dialect coach.
Here’s something I’m really excited about: a client of mine who’s been coming to me religiously for almost three years, who’s disciplined and badass but was struggling to book, just got a huge job in a huge thing I wish I could share.
I’m wildly proud of her and inspired that she kept frickin’ working at it. More concretely, I coached on a bunch of movies coming out in the next few months and I cannot wait to see the final product!
Joy and the new Point Break both come out Christmas day with my client Edgar Ramirez, Hail, Caesar! and Bleed for This early next year, Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers presumably at some point after it hits Sundance, Arms and the Dudes next summer, an amazing McConaughey movie called Gold hopefully later in 2016, and this one I just wrapped called Loving.