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Teaching actors to talk the talk

Fla. native is master of region’s accents

By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / September 5, 2009

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Thom Jones isn’t from these parts. But he knows that in Southie you ride on a hahs, in Rhode Island you ride on a hawse, and in Maine you cahnt get theyah from heyah, but if you could you’d ride a howas.

Jones grew up around West Palm Beach, Fla., but he has mastered this region’s native dialects. At Brown University and Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, his specialty is regional speech. For years he has helped stage actors master the art of accents. Now, with so many movies being made in the Boston area and set here as well, Jones is becoming the go-to guy for film actors who need to master our patterns of speech.

Jones’s credits as an accent coach include the Providence-based television show “Brotherhood,’’ the Southie movie “Black Irish,’’ and the Mel Gibson drama “Edge of Darkness,’’ which was filmed in Boston last year and is set to be released next summer. On the set of “Edge of Darkness,’’ Jones helped Gibson sound like a guy from Roslindale. Jones said Gibson did a pretty good job mimicking our local drawl, despite the fact that his real accent is American with a dash of Sydney.

“He did well,’’ Jones said, adding that some actors have it easier than others when it comes to accents. “It’s like being able to sing,’’ he said. “Some people carry a tune. Some people struggle more before they can hear it. It does require that you have a musical ear.’’

Jones, 40, has been interested in the art of accents since he studied acting at Purchase College, where his teachers sought him out to help his classmates learn to use their voices appropriately and to master dialects. “I started teaching when I was a student,’’ he said. “I started teaching formally at 23.’’ Jones had a short acting career, but his priority was always helping other people sound better. In 2002, he was hired by Brown University, where he now serves as director of voice and speech for the graduate acting program at the Brown University/Trinity Rep Consortium.

Jones didn’t seek out the Hollywood work; it came to him. He was pulled into the Showtime series “Brotherhood’’ in 2006 by a local crew that needed someone to help a cast of international actors sound like Rhode Islanders. The show’s producers found him through the theater. Jones quickly learned the pace of on-set vocal coaching. At Brown, he has time to teach his students the phonetic alphabet, a series of signs that signify different sounds. Once they have it memorized, the students can apply it to words to learn regional speech. On sets, actors need to learn lines fast and often want guidance with specific words at the last minute, as the camera is rolling.

Some actors are open to listening to a tape of their lines read in the appropriate dialect. For “Edge of Darkness,’’ Jones had one of his students record all of the lines in his native Cambridge accent, which Jones said would be similar enough to Roslindale’s. Jones laughed, remembering that he had spent a long time helping the student lose the accent for the theater, only to beg him to bring it back so that Gibson could use it as a tutorial.

For anyone working on doing a Boston accent, Jones brings out the gold standard - Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting.’’ There’s nothing like learning from an actor who was actually raised here. “He sounds so great in that,’’ Jones said. With more movies coming to town because of tax credits the state now offers filmmakers, Jones expects to be called on by Hollywood when he’s not at Brown and Trinity Rep. He’s also moving beyond the Boston accent. This summer he helped Australian Nicole Kidman maintain an American accent in the indie drama “Rabbit Hole.’’

Jones carries a tape recorder with him wherever he goes to capture nuances in speech he might hear at convenience stores and malls. Even so, regional differences in speech dialects are fading fast, Jones explained with sadness. Television and the Internet have trained people to sound like everyone else. “Everyone is listening to the same television and radio,’’ he said. “[Accents] are kind of getting a little more subtle.’’

But in New England, regional dialects still exist. There are still Mainers who sound like that old commercial for Pepperidge Farm. Some of the Kennedys still sound like Kennedys. In Southie, they still drop their R’s - unless the word ends with an A, in which case might they add one. (Get the idear?) Of all of his stage and screen projects, he speaks of “Black Irish’’ with the most pride. That’s because he helped a number of actors with a complicated mix of dialects. The 2007 indie movie required Irish actor Brendan Gleeson and young Hollywood actors Michael Angarano and Emily VanCamp to speak Southie, and American actress Melissa Leo to use an Irish dialect. VanCamp, best known for roles on “Everwood’’ and “Brothers & Sisters,’’ said Jones’s presence on set was calming for the actors. It’s not easy for stars to concentrate on the lines and an accent at the same time. VanCamp e-mailed from her “Brothers & Sisters’’ set in Los Angeles to say that Jones was necessary for the “Black Irish’’ cast.

“When I worked with Thom on the Boston accent, I had never done an accent before and I was extremely intimidated by it,’’ she wrote. “As an actress you have to feel at ease with the language and the dialect so that when filming starts you can focus solely on performance. Thom made sure that I was prepared and confident before walking on to set and I am so grateful for that.’’

Tom Kemp, a Milton actor who has been in a number of local films, worked with Jones on “Brotherhood,’’ “Black Irish,’’ and “Edge of Darkness.’’ Kemp said Jones’s ear is good enough to pick up any discrepancies in an accent. Even though Kemp has lived here for years, Jones has caught him flubbing his local speak. “He’d take me aside and say, ‘I can hear a little New York in there,’ ’’ said Kemp, who is, as Jones suspected, originally from the Empire State. As Jones takes on more Hollywood jobs, he’s feeling more pressure. When local accents are done poorly, New England gets angry. Of course, Jones says that what sounds terrible to us probably doesn’t sound bad to audiences who aren’t from here.

“We know how we sound,’’ he said. “To someone in New Orleans, a Boston accent and a New York accent might sound the same.’’

Still, Jones understands why local audiences are so critical. He has lived in New England long enough to feel just as possessive of our accents as we do. “Rightfully so,’’ Jones said. “It represents who we are.’’

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com.

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