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< Sam Chwat, Dialect Coach To The Stars (And To Us)

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-March 8, 2011 - (Soundbite of music)


-This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When Robert De Niro needed to learn an Appalachian accent for his role in Martin Scorsese's 1991 film "Cape Fear," he was coached by Sam Chwat, a speech therapist who specialized in helping actors learn or lose regional accents for their roles. Chwat's clients included: Julia Roberts, Kathleen Turner, Willem Dafoe, Andie MacDowell, Danny Glover and Tony Danza. Chwat also worked with immigrants who wanted to lose their accents.

Sam Chwat died Thursday of lymphoma. He was 57. We're going to listen back to an interview I recorded with him in 1994, after the publication of his book "Speak Up," about his accent elimination program. Chwat founded and ran a speech center in Manhattan. He grew up in Brooklyn but he lost his accent. I asked him to describe the weather just so we could listen to him speak.

Mr. SAM CHWAT (Speech therapist; Dialect coach): Well, the weather today is relatively humid and muggy, and the sun is out but it's rather damp outside.

GROSS: So how did you used to speak?

Mr. CHWAT: Well, I would say that it's more humid and it was more muggy and it wasn't, it's not so comfortable outside, if you know what I mean.

GROSS: Now, did you work at changing your accent or did it naturally evolve?

Mr. CHWAT: No, I had to work at it consistently. I found that some of my clients were picking up absolutely the wrong cues from me and they were walking out with a New York accent when I needed them to have no accent at all - what I call a standard American accent.

GROSS: Now, I noticed when you first gave us the weather report you said humid.

Mr. CHWAT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And when you did in New York style it was umid.

Mr. CHWAT: That's very clever of you. That's right. In this area, that H disappears before the Y sound. So instead of humid and humor and humidity and human, we have uman and umor and umidity and umanity.

GROSS: Some of your clients are actors and actresses who need to learn dialects or accents for roles they have to play.

Mr. CHWAT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Perhaps the most celebrated example of this was Robert De Niro who needed to I guess lose his New York accent and pick up an Appalachian one for "Cape Fear."

Mr. CHWAT: That's right. We worked very, very hard and long on that one, and he did beautifully in that in "Cape Fear." And I also worked with Kathleen Turner and Isabella Rossellini and Tony Danza. And Julia Roberts and Andie MacDowell both lost their Southern accents with me before their movie careers took off.

GROSS: Now I'd like to play a clip from "Cape Fear" in which we'll hear Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte. And this is early on in the movie where Robert De Niro has come back to haunt Nick Nolte, who was his former lawyer. Robert De Niro has just gotten out of prison.


(Soundbite of movie, "Cape Fear")

Mr. ROBERT DE NIRO (Actor): (as Max Cady) What is the formula for compensation, sir?

Mr. NICK NOLTE (Actor): (as Sam Bowden) How about $10,000 in cash?

Mr. DE NIRO: (as Max Cady) Do I well, let's just break that down.

Mr. NOLTE: (as Sam Bowden) No. No wait. Wait, now wait a minute.

Mr. DE NIRO: (as Max Cady) Well, let's just break it down.

Mr. NOLTE: (as Sam Bowden) You see, that figure just came to the top of my head.

Mr. DE NIRO: (as Max Cady) Yeah. Sure. Well...

Mr. NOLTE: (as Sam Bowden) Let's just say for argument's sake, let's say $20,000. Let's say $30,000.

Mr. DE NIRO: (as Max Cady) You see, I'll tell you what, let's say $50,000 -$50,000 to 14 years. Fourteen years times 365 days is about, I'd say about 5,000 days. Now you divide that by $50,000 and that's like $10 a day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DE NIRO: (as Max Cady) That's not even minimum wage. To say nothing about the family that I lost, the respect that I lost. I don't think you really, really understand what we're talking about here. Fourteen years.

GROSS: That's Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte in "Cape Fear." So what are we listening to there when we hear Robert De Niro speaking that's different from how he'd speak normally?

Mr. CHWAT: Well, what you're hearing is mostly vowels that are changed. For example, instead of family or as he might say family, family, you are hearing the more nasal quality to the A in family, family. Instead of the vowel lost, which is what he would do for l-o-s-t, you are hearing more of a lost, lost, lost. Instead of the vowel I, which never exists in any part of the South, you have ah, ah. The family that I lost. The family that I lost. Instead of what I would say, the family that I lost. Or what he would say, the family that I lost. The family that I lost.

There's also very deep-chested vowels that come in there and disappearing L's after vowels. Tell you what. Tell you what. Tell you what. Instead of tell you what. Tell you what. And the forced R's in the formuler. The formuler. And additional R's as at the end of that word, the formuler for compensation, sir. The formuler for compensation, sir. Instead of what he might normally do, the formula for compensation, suh. The formula for compensation, suh. So these are some of the changes that we went through, word for word, through the script and all through the shooting in Fort Lauderdale at the time.

GROSS: Now listening back, do you think any New York-isms still seep into his Southern dialogue?

Mr. CHWAT: Well, actually, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHWAT: I was sorry you brought that up. But when he says here and years, he's dropping those R's. Whereas, someone from Appalachia would force those R's and would say here and years here and years. But that's about the only fluke in that passage. And he's so consistent through those lines that I don't think anybody would take him for anything but an Appalachian southerner.

GROSS: How did you find the right accent for him, as you often point out, Southern accents vary from region to region?

Mr. CHWAT: Well, they say that accents change every 50 miles because of the isolation of communities, historically. There's been some leavening of that issue of accents overall with people's mobility over time and the influence of radio and television. But the way we identified this accent was we sat down and analyzed the videotapes of Southern prisoners, people who were put in Appalachian prisons for extremely violent crimes, men of about his age, white men of about his age, and we listened to them until he said that's the guy I want to sound like that one right there. And we analyzed his this guy's accent and saw how far De Niro's New York accent was from this, and we worked on sound replacements where he would do one thing and I expect another, that's where we drilled for it.

GROSS: Do you have any idea of why Southern accents differ so much from say, New York accents?

Mr. CHWAT: Oh, absolutely. They all derive from the original colonial patterns of speech. Depending on where those colonial immigrants came from, that's what caused the genesis of these accents. For example, in New York, Southern English people, say from the London area, settled and they drop R's after vowels. So whereas a modern Southern English speaker would drop an R after a vowel in words such as here, there and more and New York; the same pattern developed in New York where we also drop R's after vowels as in here, there, more and New York.

In parts of the deep South, parts of Appalachian South, there was a Scottish-based influence where the bird R, became diluted into more of a forced R that remains today. As opposed to the rest of the South, which borrowed from Southern England, and those R's after vowels dropped in different ways, as in here, there and more and New York.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1994 interview with speech therapist and dialect coach Sam Chwat. He died of lymphoma Thursday at the age of 57.

We'll here more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1994 interview with speech therapist and dialect coach Sam Chwat. He died Thursday of lymphoma at the age of 57. He coached many actors including Robert De Niro.

When you listen to say news anchors on television, do you find that most of them have a very standard American way of speaking or can you detect regionalism in their voices?

Mr. CHWAT: Well, you can always hear Peter Jennings' Canadianisms come out. But by and large, those people are chosen because they have pretty much unremarkable ways of speech. You wind up to listening to what they're saying and not to how they're saying it. And they're very good actors for the limited type of acting that they do. But the most important thing about those people or people who aspire to those jobs is that they have accents that don't reveal where they're from; their accents are identifiably American, very easy to understand, and you listen to their content and not to their style.

GROSS: I used to live in Buffalo, New York and listen to Canadian radio a lot while I was there.

Mr. CHWAT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And picked up what I think is a Canadian O, like instead of about, aboot.

Mr. CHWAT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Is it typical for people when they live in a place with a different accent than the one they were brought up in that they'll just pick up haphazardly on certain things, whether, you know, whether they realize it or not?

Mr. CHWAT: Well, people are adaptable to different degrees. One fact that I'm sure of is that the bulk of your accent does develop between the ages of three years and seven years and it's based on where you grow up and among which peers you grow up, as opposed to your parents and what accents they speak. You can think about people in your family or people in your past who were brought up in Europe and have identifiably European ways of speech. And if their children were brought up here, between the ages of years, and seven years their accents are resemble the, reflect the community they grow up in rather than their parents' accents. People are adaptable after that age, and there is some plasticity, some changeability in people depending on how adaptable they are and how long they're in a particular place - and how much they're resisting or trying to blend into the area.

GROSS: You know, a lot of women now, especially I think younger women, have the problem of speaking in a kind of high uncertain voice. And going along with that is often that the end of sentences end as if they were questions.

Mr. CHWAT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I'm wondering if a lot of women come into your office asking you to help them deepen their voices or sound more assertive.

Mr. CHWAT: Mm-hmm. We do hear this rising sort of inflection that goes up as if they're questioning everything that they were saying and can be talked out of it. We are hearing habitual uses of higher parts of their ranges and people do want deeper pitches which are held to sound more assertive.

GROSS: Are there exercises that you give people who want to deepen their voice and take it out of the nasal cavity and bring it back down into the diaphragm?

Mr. CHWAT: Oh, sure. In the tapes we have all sorts of tonal exercises which will help you explore your overall range. We help you understand that all of your range should be used, but that some parts should be used more habitually than others and we have exercises that put you in touch with your lower pitches.

GROSS: Can you like give me a sample of one of those exercises - help me kind of place my voice deeper down?

Mr. CHWAT: We can help you identify the more nasal range of your voice by speaking more through your nose, by forcing your speech more through your nose and by comparing it with the most open mouth posture type of speech you can come out with. So for example, instead of saying my name is Sam and I'm at New York Speech Improvement Services, more we have you contrast that with...

(Soundbite of exaggerated speech)

Mr. CHWAT: My name is Sam and I am at and we have you compare and contrast the feel and the sound of it. Usually what happens is that the feel is incredibly odd to the person as he's doing it. It does sound distorted but we're looking for the greatest variation from your normal way of speech. Ironically, the nasal way, for people who speak nasally, usually feels best but sounds worse, especially when you're comparing it on a tape recording. And we have exercises that help you narrow the gap between the two so that you wind up with a comfortable way of speaking intelligibly with a non-nasal way of speech.

GROSS: Say you were doing that exercise, how do you find the nasal part of the voice and how do you find the deep part?

Mr. CHWAT: The nasal voice is achieved by speaking with the mouth in as closed a position as possible, by keeping your teeth locked, gritted, and your lips parted to the smallest degree possible that will allow intelligible speech.

(Soundbite of talking with gritted teeth)

Mr. CHWAT: So you could almost feel that my teeth are grit now and that I'm forcing my voice out through my nose.

The voice, remember, has only two routes out through the body. It could come out of the mouth or it could come out of the nose. It would rather come out of the mouth because that's the closer exit point from the voice box from the voice box's perspective. The other voice is achieved by keeping your mouth in as open a position as possible and you can even augment the sensation by putting your fingers on your sternum - your breastbone and feeling that vibrate. It won't vibrate as much or it won't vibrate at all while you're doing your nasal speech. And, in fact, if you put your finger on your nose while you're doing that you will feel more nasal vibration. So the goal is to have no nasal vibration and as much chest vibration as possible. It's what's called the difference between nasal voice and chest voice.

GROSS: You have another interesting exercise to find the nasal versus the chest voice. And one is to keep your mouth closed and go mmm.

Mr. CHWAT: Mm-hmm. Which is the most nasal sound you can produce.

GROSS: Because everything's coming through your nose. All the air is coming through your nose.

Mr. CHWAT: Correct.

GROSS: And then your nose really vibrates when you do that.

Mr. CHWAT: Right.

GROSS: How can you figure out what's coming - how to get a chest tone?

Mr. CHWAT: Well, you can do the vowel ah with your tongue as flat in your mouth as possible, your mouth as vertically oval as possible and your jaw as low as possible. We call it the dental valve because it's the one that the dentist wants you to use. To say ah is about as non-nasal as you can get.

GROSS: Good. So that should be useful in just helping people to locate their voice.

You know, one thing I learned reading through your material is that you'd think I would have thought of before but I actually hadn't is that whether you're smiling or frowning will affect the way you sound. As you put it in your booklet, you can tell on the radio when somebody's smiling because their voice sounds different.

Mr. CHWAT: Oh, and they absolutely are smiling. There's a peculiar brain mechanism that's actually traceable to a part of the brain that controls vocal emotion and it's right next door to those cells in the deep brain which account for facial expression. So if you manipulate your face frequently your voice will change.

One funny exercise that we have is we have people grin while reading into a tape recorder a bloody, bloody story, a really grotesquely bloody story from a tabloid newspaper and then play it back. It's not even their language. And all they were doing was grinning while they were reading the story and they will sound like the most psychotic thing going as a result on the playback.

The purpose of these exercises in helping you use your face while you're speaking is so that you can reduce the monotone effect that some people have where their voice is very, very flat; you can be sure that their faces are not being used much at all. And if we help them throw in a smile or some facial flexibility their voices will sound more colorful and more interesting and more pleasing to listen to.

GROSS: You know how some people have a phony smile?

Mr. CHWAT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Is there a phony voice that accompanies that kind of phony smile?

Mr. CHWAT: Sure. Because if the smile looks non-genuine there's almost a sarcastic edge to the voice. As much as you can hear me sort of falsely smiling now while I'm speaking, there's a false pleasantness that comes into the voice as a result. And people who overcompensate by using those types of facial expressions while they speak, those people are also coached by us to look more natural and to sound more natural.

GROSS: I know a lot of immigrants come to you wanting to pick up English accents or to improve their English accents. Is there a group that you're seeing most of now?

Mr. CHWAT: We see well, being New York, we see lots of people with Spanish accents, Indian accents. Russian accents are on the rise. These are people who are trying very difficult - with great difficulty to assimilate into American society. They want to sound like Americans and they have a very firm idea about what American accents should sound like and they want to be taken as Americans rather than as an immigrant group.

GROSS: Let's look at the Spanish accent that you see a lot of. Are there particular sounds that people from Spanish-speaking countries have trouble saying?

Mr. CHWAT: Oh, absolutely. One of the sounds is the th. Statistically, of all the sounds in this language - the one that comes up more than any other is the th. If you distort this one you sound different. And Spanish frequently substitutes a D or a T for these th's.

For example, instead of saying these, this, them, those, they're more likely to say dese, dis, dem, dose. The Z sound does not occur in Spanish at all and we have it quite frequently in words such as is, was, has, always, goes, please which they pronounce routinely as an S. So they may say es, was, has, always, goes, please.

We have a different kind of L from Spanish. So whereas I would say all and he'll and I'll, they're more likely to say all, he'll, I'll and they will give a very nasal L to what we do quite non-nasally.

GROSS: How do you teach somebody to change the L or change the th, just repetition?

Mr. CHWAT: It's a matter of teaching them to hear the difference, showing them how to produce the difference, showing them how it varies in different spellings, drilling them in phrases and drilling them quite intensively in conversational speech, or teaching them how to self-monitor in conversational speech so that every time they hear it they can self-correct. They know exactly what they're going for, exactly what they should be doing and the more they learn to self-correct the more they can re-habituate the way that they speak.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. CHWAT: Thank you. You've made it very easy today.

GROSS: Speech therapist Sam Chwat, recorded in 1994. He died Thursday at the age of 57. He founded the Sam Chwat Speech Center in Manhattan.

Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews trumpeter Marcus Printup's new album.

This is FRESH AIR.

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