Martin Freeman just nailed a take. But one small aspect of the actor's performance doesn't sound quite right to one onlooker. "Sound" being the operative word.
On the Calgary set of FX's "Fargo," Freeman is shooting a pivotal late-season scene as beleaguered insurance salesman Lester Nygaard. (If we told you what was happening in it, we'd have to throw you in the wood-chipper.) After that virtuoso take, though, he's pulled aside by the show's dialect coach, Tony Alcantar, who's responsible for making sure the actors sound like the Minnesota natives they're portraying. And he wants to tweak Freeman's pronunciation of the word "sound."
"'Sound,' like 'ow,'" Alcantar tells Freeman. The star tries it out once or twice, gets his coach's approval, and heads back in front of the camera. And sure enough, on the next take, there it is: "S-ow-und."
Get a sneak peek at FX's "Fargo" right here:
FX's fresh take on "Fargo" (debuting April 15) is set in the tiny town of Bemidji, Minnesota, and Alcantar is on set every day, giving the actors little tweaks like that to keep them in that Bemidji state of mind. Because, as he tells us, they have enough to worry about. "There's a lot to do in a performance. You have to hit your mark, say your line, shoot the bad guy, whatever it is. A lot of things are happening simultaneously. So I've got to keep my ear on, 'Are they sounding like they're from the region?'"
No one in the main "Fargo" cast is actually from the region — most notably Freeman, who is famously British, thanks to "The Hobbit" and "Sherlock." So it's Alcantar's job to wrangle all of the actors' natural accents and guide them towards Minnesota nice. "Everyone comes from a different background," he says. "Martin comes from England, so he might slip into a Britishism; I've got to keep my ear on that. [Co-star] Allison [Tolman] might slip into a little bit of a Southern thing; I've got to keep my ear on that. It's quite the orchestration."
But aw jeez, what if you want to practice your own "Fargo" accent at home? We spoke to Alcantar and the "Fargo" cast to get a feel for how they developed the characters' accents. And we came away with seven handy tips on how to make your own Minnesota accent "oh yah, real good there."
1. Stay in it all day.
Unless you're incredibly dedicated, this really only applies to Freeman; when shooting "Fargo," the actor insists on speaking in a Minnesota accent "from the minute I get in the car to the moment I wrap." For him, it's the only option, he says: "To get details and to get nuances, it's too hard to just go from London to Minnesota, you know, on 'Action!'"
Alcantar allows that it might be more difficult for a non-American unfamiliar with Minnesota's charms to step right into the accent: "If it's something you've never heard and therefore never practiced, it's going to be hard from wherever you come from. But I think [Freeman is] doing remarkably well."
This isn't the first time Alcantar has witnessed this kind of self-immersion: "I worked with Joel Edgerton [on the 2007 film 'Whisper']. He's from Australia, and he stayed in his accent just like Martin's doing." And by now, he's grown accustomed to hearing a Midwestern accent come out of Freeman's mouth. "I'm completely used to him sounding the way he sounds as Lester Nygaard," he says. "When he steps out of it, I giggle a little bit."
Sometimes, Freeman even forgets to step out of it: "While I'm being wrapped out of makeup, I'm still talking, and, 'Oh, I don't have to talk like this anymore!' [Laughs.]" His teen co-star and Los Angeles native Joey King (Greta) has the same problem: "If you're doing it for hours on end, unfortunately you start to slip into it a little bit. So I'm like, '[clears throat]' when I go home. 'Get back to L.A.! Snap out of it, Greta!'"
2. Start with "yah."
According to Alcantar, the road to mastering the "Fargo" accent all starts with one little word: "Yah." "I would just say, 'Yah,' and [the actors] would repeat back, 'Yah,' and that translates into other sounds and other -isms as well," he says. "There's a certain lilt that they carry that's different than ours."
King took that lesson to heart; she still gets into the accent using the "Yah" trick. "How I always start is, I think about how they say, 'Oh, yah.' And then you kind of go from there. That kind of brings you into where you have to be."
Watch a scene from the original "Fargo" film with lots of "yah"s in it:
3. Flatten out those vowels.
"Really flat vowels are really helpful," Allison Tolman (Molly) offers, revealing another key to cracking the code of the "Fargo" accent. Her onscreen dad Keith Carradine (Lou) explains: "There is a sort of a short O sound that gets flattened out in the northern dialect. 'Off' becomes 'Ah-ff.' … There's a flavor."
Alcantar says the state's name is a good way to practice: "Just the word 'Minnesota.' If I'm from Minnesota, I'd say 'Minne-sohhh-ta.' You get that little 'sohhh.'" Carradine hears it in musical terms: "Every accent has its own kind of music, and as a musician myself, I hear that. It's a form of singing, in a funny way."
4. Remember, less is more.
The original "Fargo" film is somewhat notorious for its over-the-top accents, which many native Minnesotans felt were cartoonishly inaccurate. (See: the clip above.) And Colin Hanks (Gus) says the FX series is dialing that back a bit. "We're probably not hitting the accent as hard as the film, which is not to say that we're taking it easy. It's really just about trying to keep it as realistic as we can. … Sometimes just the power of a few well-placed words said in the right way actually goes a long way."
Alcantar says dialing it back was a conscious decision from the start. "Before we went into production, the producers explained that they didn't want that exact sound [of the film]. They wanted it, say, maybe 20 percent less. I kind of figured a way to shave off some of the obvious sounds that are, in my esteem, too much. So we're approaching it, we're hinting at it, but we're not saying, 'Oh, look at us, we're playing the accent.'"
5. Have something (or someone) to listen to.
"Every one of us works in our own way, but for me, I hear it before I say it," Carradine says, and he and his co-stars have found a variety of ways to drum the Minnesota accent into their heads.
Freeman says he hasn't gone back and watched the original film ("I don't really want that in my head"), but he does go online to "watch actual Minnesotans talk on YouTube. … Once you've got certain vowel sounds, you know you're not just in Standard American, whatever that is. [Laughs.]"
Hanks reveals his own secret: "I've got a file on my phone that's got a couple of different dialects. I listen to that every now and again, just to make sure I'm doing it right." And if he needs a real-life person to listen to, shooting in Calgary pays off, too: "Surprisingly enough, being around Canadians kind of helps. I don't say 'eh' or anything like that, but sometimes that kind of helps."
6. Put a twist on other accents.
Some "Fargo" cast members already had similar accents in their acting repertoire, which gave them a leg up. Tolman, who trained at Chicago's comedy mecca Second City, says, "The sort of North Dakota/Minnesota mom voice is a voice I've done for years, just because of sketch comedy. Whatever sketch I was doing anywhere, that's what the mom sounded like. So for my audition, I just sort of took that voice and tried to make it not ridiculous."
Tolman had another weapon in her arsenal, too — which turned out to be a double-edged sword. "The other accent that I have actually studied and can do pretty well is an Irish accent, which [is] weirdly similar," she says. "So there were many times where [Alcantar] would be like, 'Yeah, take that lilt out and make that 'I' sound flat, because you sound like a wee bonny lass right now. Stop it.'"
Alcantar does credit Tolman (a Texas native) with being the fastest among the main cast to pick up the Minnesota accent — but even she's not perfect. "One day, she slipped into a little bit of a twang, which really knocked me for a loop," he says. "I said to her, 'Hey Allison, what are you doing, roping some cattle out there?' [Laughs.]"
Hanks was already prepared when we walked into his "Fargo" audition: "I told them my accent was somewhere between Chicago and Canada, and if I got the part, I'd whittle it down to Minnesota. And I like to think we're there."
[Photos: Check Out More Pics From FX's 'Fargo']
7. Actually being from Minnesota helps.
As we said earlier, there isn't a native Minnesotan among the main "Fargo" cast, but the show does cast Calgary locals for some smaller roles. And Alcantar says they're given a little more leeway with their speech: "Some of the day players, the roles that are filled with locals, they're allowed a little bit more of an accent, just because they carry the local color of the location."
"We did have a girl come in, one actress who they actually cast out of Minnesota," he adds. "She was amazing; she came in for a one-day role. And she was playing what some would consider an over-the-top accent, but she's from the region. She was accurate." Well, at least that's one accent in "Fargo" that the people of Minnesota should appreciate, dontcha know?
Watch the first 7 minutes of FX's "Fargo" right here:
"Fargo" premieres Tuesday, April 15 at 10 p.m. on FX.