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How Irish, English And Australian Actresses Learned To Talk Like 'Little Women'


Tomorrow night's Oscar ceremonies don't include a category for best dialect coach. But they're on the set of countless movies and vital to films. The wrong accent at the wrong time can distract the audience and break the illusion. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg learned about coaching from a fellow who worked on the dialect of all the actors in "Little Women." Two of his cast members are up for Oscars, one for best actress, one for best supporting actress. And Susan needed a little coaching for one of their names.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: I have a piece of paper in front of me in which I have written capital SIR - SHUH.

SAM LILJA: Saoirse.

STAMBERG: Very good.

The Irish best actress nominee's name is Saoirse Ronan. Saoirse is spelled S-A-O-I-R-S-E. So, of course, I had trouble and wrote it out phonetically. Some of dialect coach Sam Lilja's actors do the same thing. Others learn by listening.

LILJA: I will speak it for them, or I will record their lines for them.

STAMBERG: And then they play his recording over and over to get it in their own mouths. Saoirse Ronan, who portrays Jo March in "Little Women," has a rich, thick, glorious Irish accent.

SAOIRSE RONAN: My gateway into understanding a character - it always inevitably ends up being through the accent and how the character speaks.

STAMBERG: But in this story of four American sisters in 19th century New England, the Irish disappears.


RONAN: (As Jo March) Women - they have minds, and they have souls, as well, as just hearts. And they've got ambition. And they've got talent as well as just beauty. And I'm so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I'm so sick of it. But I'm so lonely.

STAMBERG: None of the March sister actors is American.

RONAN: Eliza Scanlan is Australian. She plays Beth. Emma Watson is English, and she plays Meg. And Florence Pugh is also English. And she plays Amy.

STAMBERG: Pugh is the best supporting actress Oscar nominee. So dialect coach Sam Lilja had the erstwhile British empire to work with. Lucky for him, they had all played Americans before. Still, Sam stayed busy.

LILJA: I was on set every day for every take and would sit as close as I could to the action and give a note between a take.

RONAN: Yeah, exactly. If there was a sound that was coming out more Irish, he would come over. And he'd kind of put that into my head.

STAMBERG: Wasn't that annoying to you hearing notes between each tick?

RONAN: No. The dialect coaches that are worth their weight in gold - and Sam is one of them - comes in, doesn't make a big thing out of it and then get out again.

STAMBERG: Sam says Saoirse Ronan was very good with her American accent. Still, there were long days starting at 4:30 a.m.

LILJA: I was in the hair and makeup trailer with her every morning before the shoot.

RONAN: Talking to her in American, getting her warmed up - some actors spend whole days speaking their foreign language. Ronan could hop in and out of it. But Sam did need to do a few tweaks. The Irish R is heavier than the American R. And with the British actors, a word that to us sounds like a nutritious legume kept popping up.

LILJA: The word been - B-E-E-N - Saoirse didn't say been as a Brit would. But I would have to give that note every once in a while to some of the Brits on the set.

RONAN: Everyone will just have, like, a funny little sound, you know?

STAMBERG: Dialect coach Sam says, in addition to accent, the pace of speech was different, too. He demonstrates.

LILJA: There's more a rapidity and alacrity in the way that the Brits speak with their consonants, as opposed to an American who sort of lives in the vowels.

STAMBERG: Brit speech is peppier, Sam thinks. American is more laid back. And Irish - I noticed a certain un-American lilt from Saoirse every now and then.


LILJA: (As Jo March) Those are just stories, of course. I'm working on a novel.

STAMBERG: Hear the lilt?


RONAN: (As Jo March) Stories.

That's what we wanted to do.

STAMBERG: They didn't want a today American accent. They wanted a 19th-century American accent with a smidge of Europe still in their mouths.

Did you slip up anywhere?

RONAN: Oh, God. I do think there's something. I mean, usually, like, when I get quite emotional, obviously, it'll come out more. But you see. Maybe I shouldn't tell you that because then everyone will know where I slipped up.

STAMBERG: Saoirse Ronan up for a best actress Oscar as Jo March in "Little Women" - her dialect coach Sam left her lilt alone but took care that nobody's obvious mess-up would stick out like a sore tongue. Accent is important.

LILJA: It's a mask that an actor wears. And that illusion can be broken if the mask slips.

STAMBERG: Sam Lilja himself is an actor on Broadway now in "The Inheritance." When he's not acting, he coaches. Steadier work and decent money - more jobs for coaches than actors, after all - but he loves doing both and is lucky to have a steady fallback. OK.

Here's a challenge for you. I'm going to flip things on you now.

LILJA: OK, great.

STAMBERG: I asked Sam to coach me, a New Yorker, to do an Irish accent. Hmm - uh, Sam said. Then...

LILJA: I have a rather vulgar way of getting into an Irish dialect, so I won't do that on the air.

STAMBERG: Oh, come on.


STAMBERG: Don't be silly.

LILJA: So say the word whale.




LILJA: Beef.


LILJA: Hooked.

STAMBERG: Hooked - again. Whale, oil, beef, hooked - now say them all together fast. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.