Let’s Talk About the Accents in The Devil All the Time

Gabriella Paiella
·4 mins read

The new Netflix film The Devil All the Time is a sprawling Southern gothic notable for two things: 1) it’s relentlessly grim, and 2) it contains some truly inspired accent work. Robert Pattinson, in particular, shines as a treacherous preacher who sounds like sexy Foghorn Leghorn in a Tennesse Williams production. (All together now: Dee-LUUU-shuns!)

Last week, director Antonio Campos made headlines after he told an interviewer that the actor refused dialect coaching and didn’t even reveal the accent until the day shooting began. One popular tweet in response joked that Pattinson might as well be “talking in cursive.”

Pulpit-pounding aside, the Southern drawls also stand out because most members of The Devil All the Time’s ensemble cast are not American. Along with Pattinson, there are a few Brits (Tom Holland, Harry Melling), plus a handful of Aussies (Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, Eliza Scanlen) and one Swede (Bill Skarsgård). Just how accurate were they? I called up longtime dialect coach and voice actor Erik Singer, who worked on Mulan and Inferno and the upcoming Harry Haft, to find out.

“Overall, I'd say it was highly successful,” Singer told me. One hallmark of a West Virginia accent in the fifties and sixties that he was pleased to hear is the distinctive “wh” sound, where the “h” is pronounced clearly in words like “what,” “where,” and “which.” “I think the reason why it often gets left out of a film like this is that shows like Frasier and characters like Niles Crane have led to a lot of Americans associating that sound with fancy speech or affectation,” he explained. “It's a more folksy, rural, local thing.”

Parts of The Devil All the Time also take place in southern Ohio, and narrator Donald Ray Pollock—who wrote the novel on which the movie is based—hails from there. I mentioned to Singer that I was surprised to hear the inflection leans Southern rather than Midwestern. “Accents don't follow state boundaries,” he told me. “Accents follow settlement patterns and contact patterns.” He specifically mentioned a dialect boundary called “the On Line” that runs straight through Ohio: above it, people rhyme “on” with the name “Don”; below, with the word “dawn.” “To make it more complicated, about half of Americans rhyme those two words, so there's no distinction at all,” he said. “For the half of Americans who don't, there's pretty major dialect boundary.”

One particular challenge for native British speakers attempting this accent is going from a non-rhotic speech pattern, in which the letter “r” is not pronounced after a vowel or before another consonant, to a rhotic one. (In “car,” for example, or “north.”).“It’s going to have an effect on the entire way that you hold and use your vocal tract, even when you're just making an indeterminate thinking or hesitation sound,” Singer explained. “You need to be in that posture the whole time. People don't let their accents go when they're not talking. It's still your mouth, it's still the same posture.” With someone like Bill Skarsgård, who is starting from Swedish, the issue is the “final devoicing” of the last consonant in a word: a native speaker will want to pronounce the word “rise” as rice or “live” as life, for instance.

Tom Holland as Arvin Russell in The Devil All The Time.
Tom Holland as Arvin Russell in The Devil All The Time.
Courtesy of Glen Wilson for Netflix

Singer diplomatically declined to rank all the accents in the film, but did say that “Bill Skarsgård’s was great” and that “Tom Holland, the Aussies were all great.” Singer also complimented Riley Keough (American and Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) and said that the “most seamless” accent was David Atkinson’s (he’s a Georgia native).

And what about our booming, Bible-thumping Robert Pattinson?

“I mostly loved it,” he told me. “First of all, I haven't seen this noted anywhere, but the character's actually from a different world. He's from down in Tennessee. The fact that he does sound a little bit different from everybody else is in support of the story that they're telling. There are a great many sharply and specifically observed features that are right for the place and time.”

If anything, the only flaw Singer noted was in Pattinson’s opening sermon about chicken livers, in which he was perhaps not completely dialed in. But, in general, he said, “I think his music and rhythm and melody is really fascinating work. It's both of the place and time, but also of the character and his profession, and deeply idiosyncratic.”

And, of course, the part was deliberately over-the-top. “He's a preacher who is absolutely in love with his capacities with language,” Singer said. “He's buying into his own magic, and he's intoxicated by it.” Delusions, indeed.

Originally Appeared on GQ