Brett Tyne '97 is in good voice

Brett Tyne ’97 can seamlessly switch from a Western Texas twang to a lyrical Scottish accent straight from the Highlands. Some might call her a modern-day Henry Higgins, but she’s really a dialect coach, who traverses the world to help actors learn tricky accents for movies and television shows. Tyne recently worked with Renee Zellweger to master the breathy Hollywood accent of the 1930s for her 2019 Oscar-winning performance as Judy Garland in the movie Judy.

“The goal of an accent is to create authenticity, not to be a distraction that takes away from the performance,” says Tyne. “My goal is to have the actor comfortable enough to stop thinking about the accent at all so it becomes part of her DNA.”

Tyne’s approach to coaching is methodical. After meeting with the director to decide on a direction for the dialect, Tyne dives into extensive research. She collects audio samples of the desired accent through movies, interviews, podcasts, radio shows, and recordings of living people. She then teaches herself the accent.

Coaching starts four to six weeks before filming begins. Tyne works with the actor to mark up the script, rewriting words as the actor might hear them in the new accent. “Sam,” for an American, might become “Saym” or “Saem” in an English accent. Tyne adds diagonal squiggly lines to note inflection and markings on consonants to indicate emphasis. If an actor is struggling with a certain sound, Tyne will make up targeted practice sheets of words and sentences to do intensive drilling.

Each project brings its own particular challenges. On Judy, Tyne worked with a dozen actors, many of whom were English but needed a mid-Atlantic American accent. “We had a lot of primary source material since the people in the movie were real,” said Tyne. “But we used those sources as inspiration, not for impersonation.” She studied anything she could get her hands on of both the young and older Judy Garland. She found video and voice recordings of the supporting characters like Liza Minelli in her early twenties and MGM boss Louis B. Mayer.

Tyne also worked with actress Sarah Gadon, who won the Canadian Screen Award for best dramatic miniseries actress in Alias Grace, to develop a light Northern Irish accent that changed as the character aged. “We pitched the voice higher when she’s younger. When she is older and reflecting back on her life, we slowed her pace down. That gave a certain gravitas to that voice. She was not pruning the endings of words. She was not dropping her -ings. Her middle-aged voice was in between. It was casual and fluid, less precise and articulate than her older self. So on top of learning the dialect, we layered different elements in it.”

Tyne was fascinated with accents from an early age. Born in Tennessee, she moved to London when she was nine. There, she was intrigued by the dozens of regional accents and made a hobby of trying to replicate them. At Duke, she began to listen carefully to all the accents she heard and to reflect on her own use of dialect as an American raised in London living in North Carolina.

After graduating from Duke, Brett started as a production assistant on major films. While working on the movie Vanity Fair, she watched the dialect coach work with the actors and thought, “I want to do what she does.” Soon after, she began her master’s in voice studies at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

As an American living in London, Brett finds that her work often focuses on helping British actors speak with American accents and American actors speak with British accents. “I’ve created a general American and Southern accent tutorial,” says Tyne. “It’s a cheat sheet of sorts that outlines the rhythm, tune, musicality, consonant shifts, and the vowel extensions of each accent. It would get an actor through an audition.”

Of course, it’s rarely that easy. Tyne has been known to dance, stomp, and even draw an accent for an actor. “The process of watching an actor inhabit an accent and layer in the performance, so that the two become one, is positively exhilarating to watch,” says Tyne. “I love what I do, and I feel very lucky to do it.”

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