When realities collide
by Alan Smyth
My name is Alan Smyth. I have been an actor for 22 years. I am currently writing this piece in my hometown called Dundalk, Ireland. Apart from sounding like a support group intro, these are the salient pieces of info you need.
In 2007, I make the move to Los Angeles. I’m 4 months in “situ” (i.e. already ensconced) and I’ve already booked a couple of one-off guest spots. My agent calls: ‘Tell me again the name of your town you are from.” I tell him. “You are not going to believe this,” he says. He sends me the breakdown.
Age and physical type? Perfect match. Character description? Yup. Specifically Irish? Check. Incredibly specifically? My actual hometown. Known by only those on the island, certainly not in the U.S. Such a match, it seems, that the network is bypassing me on the ‘pre-read’ and straight into the Head of Casting with an eye to test. The aforementioned Head seems over-the-televisual moon.
“Do you have any questions?”
“Just the one — do you want the actual accent of this small hometown or a more generic one, like the one I now have (after years of vocal training and living in a different cities)?”
“We are all about authenticity.”
7 or 8 lines into this very well-written, authentic scene …”Wait wait wait … what are you doing?” says the Head.
I’m unclear what is meant.
“That sound you’re making. Why are you doing that?”
Eh … that’s the accent.
“No it’s not,” says the Head.
I’m assuring that it really is.
“Nobody talks like that.” I think it might be a joke. It isn’t. OK, let’s do it in a more neutral dialect.
“No no. We’re done here”.
“We’re done here.”
My agent calls to relay the call he received. I’m not from that place, am lying to my agents, I’m an imposter … by the Head’s account. My accent sounded like a poor attempt at a regional American dialect rather than that of the Irish town that I was born and bred in (and am currently visiting). The town my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins still live in.
This isn’t the only time my Irishness has been brought into question. My Irish character on Leverage had 2 ‘Irish’ sidekicks. The showrunner’s blog blew up with disgruntled fans wanting to know why one of these two ‘real’ Irish guys didn’t play my role because my poor accent was a distraction. The sidekicks hailed from Seattle and NYC respectively. I must tell you that these fans have since become fiercely loyal to me and promote everything I do. But at that time, the perception was that I was roguishly undermining their show and they were having none of it. I admire that. I love the devotion of fans.
And when I did a last minute takeover on an Irish play in L.A., the American director instructed me to follow the New York actor to get the accent right!
I relay this without a drop of bitterness. Frustration at the time most certainly, but it’s just one of those things. In the way one often sees the Irish play Americans on screen, one sees Americans portray us. We may balk at the wonky accents, but the deed has been done.
When we are asked for the ‘real deal’ we are often being asked for what is thought to be the ‘real deal.’ It’s perceived authenticity. And if your only experience of Ireland is Darby O’Gill and the Little People, then no one I grew up with will sound real to you.
It cuts both ways of course. When I’ve been asked to play an American role, I welcome the opportunity. And as much as I may hear the flaws in my work, it isn’t for me to judge. I present a version of reality and it is (or not) embraced. TV and film tell heightened stories — stories where folks are outside of their norm. At times, a distorted reality. Nobody wants it real in real terms, but real in fictional, scripted terms.
Authentic to me is something believable. I relate to it, it feels real, therefore it is authentic. So in presenting that realness, it follows that I must remain true to my gut; to what I know is real. Or is it what I think is real? It must be that, because acting is interpretive.
It is based on reading, watching, listening … then, interpreting. Do I compromise my take on believability to get the job? Do I study hard to figure out what is expected and desired and adjust my reality meter? Is my authenticity malleable?
What is authentic to others is anyone’s guess. The real hope (for it is a hope, not an obstacle) is that your reality meets theirs. You do what you can do and if both are in agreement on what this particular reality is, the odds are in your favor. Have faith. Stick to your guns, and do what you know is right.Tags: Actor, Alan Smyth, Auditioning, Dundalk Ireland, Entertainment industry, Hollywood, Leverage, Perfecting the right Irish accent, Television