American actors with the best onscreen British accents, from Peter Dinklage to Renee Zellwegger

Oscar Isaac might have failed in his faux-Cockney accent on "Moon Knight" but a few Americans have met success

By Paige Harriss

Published April 9, 2022 12:59PM (EDT)

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in "Game of Thrones" (Helen Sloan/HBO)
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in "Game of Thrones" (Helen Sloan/HBO)

It's the age-old question: Why are Americans so bad at British accents?

After all, the American accent continues to be mastered by other nations onscreen, from Brit Vivien Leigh's masterful Southern accent as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind" to the Oxford-born Hugh Laurie's role as the misanthropic medical genius on "House. Even Aussie Sarah Snook's performance as all-American media heiress Shiv Roy on "Succession" has fooled us all.

American actors, however, fall flat in their attempts at a British accent partly because the Hollywood-based acting market means actors aren't required to master other accents to get roles. "Mastering an accent takes a veritable shite-tonne of work," dialect coaches Bob and Claire Corff told Slate. "American actors . . . 'could do' British accents — but the parameters of their careers usually mean they're 'not as compelled to have to.'" 

Many Americans who try inevitably fail — take Oscar Isaac, who recently garnered considerable flack for his British accent in the new Marvel serires "Moon Knight." In the series, one of Isaac's alter egos is a British gift-shop worker named Steven Grant who speaks with a borderline Cockney accent — not meant, apparently, to be accurate. 

RELATED: With "Moon Knight," come for the MCU but stay for Oscar Isaac's dodgy Cockney accent

As Empire puts it, Isaac's accent in "Moon Knight" is "part Dick Van Dyke, part Dickensian orphan, part soft-spoken-bloke-down-a-London-pub." Though Isaac mimicked north east London accents to prepare for the role, he claims the voice is more a product of Steven's unique heritage than anything else. "It's not an idea of what Brits actually sound like," he joked. No matter how you spin it, apparently it's absolute rubbish.

A few daring Americans, however, have succeeded in their attempts at a British accent, to the point where even the Brits will begrudgingly acknowledge it. Here's a comprehensive list of successes: 

Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady" 

The role: In the film, La Streep plays a senile Margaret Thatcher as the elderly former prime minister spends her time in imagined conversation with her late husband and reflects on her life and political career in snapshots throughout the movie. Streep channels a very meta version of Thatcher's accent, portraying both the vocal-coach -nabled loss of Thatcher's Lincolnshire accent and the airy accent she acquired at Oxford. 

Accent accuracy: Streep's posh Thatcher accent was smashing. "As a British person who lived through Thatcher's prime ministership, it is uncanny to see and hear her voice emerge from Meryl Streep," said historian John Campbell, whose biography of Thatcher was the basis for the film. For her part, Streep seemed nonplussed by the challenge. "You know, that's like the easiest thing I do," Streep said at a panel with "Iron Lady" director Phyllida Lloyd. "The kid part of it is copying a voice I've heard."


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Gwyneth Paltrow, "Shakespeare in Love"

The role: Paltrow stars as Viola De Lesseps, a noblewoman living in 16th century London who aspires to act but is barred from performing as a woman so she takes matters into her own hands, posing as a man to audition for Shakespeare's play. As their romance unfolds, the fraught relationship inspires Shakespeare to pen "Romeo and Juliet." Her accent in the film, according to Paltrow's voice coach, is a "richer" and "more open" version of standard English. 

Accent accuracy: "She's a highly intelligent young actress," Paltrow's voice coach Barbara Berkery said. "She speaks French and Spanish. She understands and has the ability to spend time actually learning the sounds of an accent." Behind the scenes, however, Paltrow struggled to get Viola's voice right. "It was very challenging," Paltrow told Matt Lauer in 1998. "I was playing a woman, who was dressing as a boy, who was playing Romeo and speaking verse with an English accent. It was sort of a lot to keep in the air." All in all, Paltrow was bang on, and the same year even plays a Londoner in "Sliding Doors"

Renee Zellweger, "Bridget Jones's Diary" (and its sequels)

""She came in, and it was Princess Margaret having had a stroke, but a week later it was bang on."

The role: Zellweger stars as Bridget Jones, a hapless 32-year-old who decides to keep a diary documenting a year in which she sets out looking for love in all the wrong places. Zellweger's accent is a standard English accent, known by vocal coaches as "received pronunciation." 

Accent accuracy: Though Zellweger's accent has been described by astounded native Brits as "bang on" and "impeccable," it didn't start out that way. "She came in, and it was Princess Margaret having had a stroke," Zellweger's co-star Hugh Grant said of her early accent. "But a week later it was bang on." Fun fact: Zellweger's vocal coach also worked with Gwyneth Paltrow, Lindsay Lohan, and Kevin Kline. 

Robert Downey Jr., "Sherlock Holmes"

The role: In "Sherlock Holmes," Robert Downey Jr. stars as the famous witty detective, tossed into the world of the occult as he goes after Lord Blackwood, a master of dark arts who has mysteriously risen from the dead. During the film, Downey Jr. slips into a slurred lower baritone voice to effect Sherlock Holmes' unique tone of superiority and sarcasm. 

Accent accuracy: Bloody good! And even more impressive considering Downey is a native New Yorker. His British accent was born out of a fear of embarrassment. "The main reason I became fairly good at dialects is what you said – I don't want to be ridiculed," Downey Jr. told  Jimmy Kimmel. Downey also used a British accent in the role of Charlie Chaplin, which earned him an Oscar nomination. 

Sean Astin, "Lord of the Rings"

The role: Astin plays Samwise Gamgee, a Shire hobbit and Frodo Baggins' (Elijah Wood) gardener and best friend. Though a jolly and simple homebody, Sam undertakes acts of bravery to help Frodo destroy the ring. For the role, Astin adopted a west country British accent to embody the Middle Earth hobbit. 

Accent accuracy: To get all the hobbit actors (hailing from various parts of the world) to adopt the same accent, "Lord of the Rings" hired dialect coaches to teach the cast a loosely based west country British accent. Given Astin is from California, his vocal performance seemed particularly impressive. "They gave me a recording of a farmer and before I would go to work I would listen to this sentence: 'That's a nice shiny apple,'" Astin said, comically drawing out the sentence. "Everything was like 'elongate the vowels.'" 

Angelina Jolie, "Maleficent"

The role: Jolie plays the powerful fairy Maleficent, famous for her curved horns, chiseled cheekbones, fangs and broad wings. The fairy places a curse on King Stefan's daughter Aurora but quickly realizes she needs the princess to restore peace in the Moors. Though the film is set in a magical forest realm bordering a human kingdom, it was shot in the southern English countryside. Jolie adopted the British "received pronunciation" accent for the role. 

Accent accuracy: To perfect the accent, Jolie worked with a vocal coach and studied English theater actresses' pronunciations. It didn't click, however, until Jolie practiced the voice in front of her children. "I think I tried 17 different things on them," Jolie laughed. "They would say, 'What are you doing? Mom, stop talking so weird.' One day I just got really nutty and did [the voice] and they fell over laughing. I did it all night long and I finally found it." Her hard work paid off. Bloody brilliant.

Johnny Depp, "Pirates of the Caribbean"

Depp relied on a combination of Keith Richards and the cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew.

The role: Depp plays the iconic Captain Jack Sparrow, a pirate lord complete with gold teeth, beaded-facial hair and dreadlocks. Too lazy for violence, Jack Sparrow employs wit and occasional bravery to survive on the high seas. The series is set in the British-colonized Port Royal, Jamaica between 1720 and 1750. Depp modeled his British accent after The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who later also plays Jack Sparrow's dad in the films. 

Accent accuracy: To create Jack Sparrow's lethargic drawl in the films, Depp relied on a combination of Keith Richards and the cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew. And Richards was surprisingly cool about Depp's mimicry! "When he found out what I'd been doing, it could've gone either way, but he was very nice about it, like 'I had no idea mate!'" Depp said. "He was very sweet about it." If it's Keith Richards approved, it works for us, mate. 

Peter Dinklage, "Game of Thrones"

The role: Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister, the underestimated Lannister sibling who drinks and knows things. Tyrion is witty and well-read and uses his underdog-status to empathize with other outcasts in Westeros. Given the character's wealthy background, Dinklage takes on the "received pronunciation" British accent, the region's standard "posh" vocal intonation. 

Accent accuracy: For an actor born and raised in New Jersey, Dinklage mimics the southern posh accent well, though professional dialect coach John Fleming noted that he "employs a distinct halt between each phrase" which is typical of the American impersonation of the received pronunciation. One British Reddit user took a harsher stance on Dinklage. "He sort of sounds like he has a lisp, and he over-enunciates a bit, but it's pretty consistent and I think he passes," the user commented. Push that Redditor through the Moon Door.

Chloe Grace Moretz, "Hugo"

The role: Moretz plays Isabelle, an orphan who befriends Hugo (Asa Butterfield) in a Paris train station and accompanies him on his adventure to recover a stolen notebook on how to fix a broken automon that Hugo believes contains a message from his deceased father. Isabelle is mischevious though well-intentioned, using her street smarts to help Hugo during his mission. 

Accent accuracy: At the time merely 14 years old, a young Moretz tricked director Martin Scorsese into believing she was British during her audition for the film, only revealing her American accent at the end of the session. Moretz's five-month stay in London during the "Kick-Ass" filming helped train her ear for the voice. She also watched "Shakespeare in Love" a "thousand times" to mimic Gwyneth Paltrow's accent. Learn from the best. Moretz's cheeky audition move paid off. 

Gillian Anderson, "The Crown"

The role: Like Meryl Streep before her, Anderson also takes on the role of Margaret Thatcher, this time in the fourth season of "The Crown." Anderson embodies the pensive politician's unyielding work ethic and tense relationship with Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). Thatcher's unique voice posed a challenge for Anderson. During her premiership from 1979 to 1990, the politician took elocution lessons to lower her voice to half the average difference in pitch between a man and woman's voice. 

Accent accuracy: Anderson is bidialectical, meaning she can easily switch between an American and British accent thanks to her moves between Chicago, London and Michigan as a child. Taking on Thatcher's unique British accent, however, was no small feat. Decider describes her accent as "deep, diction precise, and delivery borderline camp" in an effort to capture Thatcher's manually altered voice. Anderson was anxious while learning the accent. "What was the most disconcerting was wanting to make sure that the voice was right because you can have the silhouette and the mannerisms, but if the voice isn't there, the audience is going to go, 'Ehhhh,'' she told The Hollywood Reporter

James Marsters, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

The role: James Marsters might be best known for his role in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" as Spike, a leather jacket-clad Sex Pistols aficionado and vampire known to torture his victims with railroad spikes. As the series progresses, Spike's softer side comes out in scenes of palpable chemistry with Buffy (Sarah Michelle Geller) and his evolution into her reluctant ally. During his human life, Spike was a 19th century Londoner known as William the Bloody for his bloody awful poetry. He carried his working class London accent into his undead life, where he got to be much cooler.

Accent accuracy: Marsters originally had a different vision for Spike's accent. The actor used a Louisiana accent in his audition with show creator Joss Whedon but Whedon wanted Spike to embody a British punk rock vampire. Marsters quickly took up a working class London accent with the help of British co-star Anthony Head as his coach. As one reviewer on Quora put it, "He sounds like an American surfer dude that has spent a few weeks totally immersed in watching British television programmes . . . but on the whole one can tell that he has either done a hell of a lot of research or he has a natural flair for accents." You can call him Marsters the bloody for his bloody good accent.

Julianne Moore, "A Single Man"

The role: Moore plays the stunning 48-year-old London socialite Charley who tries to console her ex, English professor Jim (Colin Firth) mourning the death of his partner. Though the film is set in southern California in 1962, Charley is a Brit with a posh London accent.  

Accent accuracy: Moore is no stranger to the British accent. Though she was born in North Carolina, her mother was from the UK ,and Moore obtained her British citizenship in 2011. To find Charley's voice, the actor listened to tapes of 1960s actress Julie Christie. "That kind of very sloppy, very plummy way of speaking is indicative of a certain socioeconomic level of an English person," Moore described of Charley's accent. "Only the very rich can affect that kind of accent, where you don't know if they're drunk or if they're just very posh." 

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