Monday, August 13, 2007


English-speaking foreigners are invading American television this fall, but they’re cleverly disguised. The new wave of Brits and Aussies are impeccably trained to act and sound just like home-grown Americans.

Blame it on Emmy nominee Hugh Laurie, whose first season or two on Fox’s “House” made everyone believe he was a grumpy guy from America. He’s not; he’s a charming, witty Englishman.

Or credit CBS’ long-running “Without a Trace,” which secretly boasts a trio of non-American leads masquerading as New Yorkers. Anthony LaPaglia and Poppy Montgomery are both Aussies; Marianne Jean-Baptiste is a Brit.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it raises a question: Has Hollywood run out of Americans?

Among the out-of-country stars taking on prominent American leads this fall are Damian Lewis (English) of NBC’s “Life,” Michelle Ryan (English) of NBC’s “The Bionic Woman,” Kevin McKidd (Scottish) of NBC’s “Journeyman,” Alex O’Loughlin (Australian) of CBS’ “Moonlight,” Lloyd Owen (English) of CBS’ “Viva Laughlin!” and Anna Friel (English) of ABC’s “Pushing Daisies.”

What prompted this immigrant invasion?

“Everyone is looking for new faces,” David Eick, executive producer of NBC’s “The Bionic Woman,” said in Los Angeles last month. “And the British performers have really nailed the American accent. They are sounding effortlessly American, so I think it’s easier for casting directors and producers to take that leap of faith.”

Networks and studios routinely use casting agents in Britain, Canada and Australia to fill American TV roles. And acting schools in those countries offer extensive dialect training in American accents — which some find easier to master than others.

“My indigenous accent is completely impenetrable. Even I don’t understand it sometimes,” said the Scottish Mr. McKidd, who plays a time-traveling reporter in “Journeyman.”

Mr. McKidd is best-known in the States for his lead role in HBO’s “Rome,” for which he used a mainstream British accent. His route to an American dialect took him from the aforementioned impenetrable Scottish Highlands dialect to what he calls a “middle-class Scottish” accent to the plain old middle-brow English-English used for most of his previous work.

Miss Ryan, who plays Jamie Sommers in the “Bionic Woman” remake, says she’s been working on her American accent for “quite a long time.” She’s well-known in England for “EastEnders” and “Poirot,” but she’s unknown and thus new here. Producers refer to her casting as “just an old-style Hollywood discovery.”

Damian Lewis, who plays a San Francisco cop wrongly convicted (and later reprieved) of murder in “Life,” speculates that the unknown Brits might be desirable on American TV for another reason. Less fame means less money. An English star famous on the BBC commands considerably less money than a proven American star on NBC.

“I can only assume that we’re cheap,” Mr. Lewis said. “But seriously, there are a lot of Brits over here because you keep asking us. … This is the center of the global entertainment industry. People from all over come here because it’s where the work is.”

And the out-of-towners come ready and able to work. Especially in Britain, actors tend to start out in the theater. Many are classically trained and boast a working knowledge of singing, dancing and, of course, foreign languages — including American English.

But after these fine actors are trained, the work available to them at home is limited.

“As an actor, you have to travel where the work is, so here I am,” said Sophia Myles, who plays the love interest of the lead vampire (played by an Aussie) in “Moonlight.”

“In England at the moment our government isn’t putting any money into the film business,” Miss Myles said. “We don’t really have an industry in England anymore. And American television, especially in the last few years, is on a par, if not better than, a lot of movies out there.”

Even as American TV studios fling their casting nets wider, actors crossing the pond tend to downplay the migration. They insist the best person wins the audition, regardless of nationality.

“There’s no fast-track portal at LAX with all these British actors,” Mr. McKidd said. “It’s just coincidence.”

And they downplay their hard-won ability to sound like Americans. Mr. Lewis says he indulges in a couple of quick dialect lessons before each episode begins filming, but he mainly listens to the American actors who surround him.

Viewers seem to have no trouble accepting foreign actors in American roles. The stars of Showtime’s “Brotherhood,” Brit Jason Isaacs and Aussie Jason Clarke, play Irish Americans in Rhode Island and have been welcomed with open arms in Providence. Isaacs plays a gangster and Mr. Clarke plays a politician, both with thick New England accents.

“I was worried about how I would be received when we went back to film the second season, but it was like Norm walking into Cheers,” Mr. Isaacs (the bad brother) said. “Irish Americans in Providence are delirious about the show.”

And Mr. Clarke (the good brother) marched with the mayor of Providence in the city’s July Fourth parade.

The swarm of outsiders is so believably American that no one knows the difference — except maybe the American actors they beat out for the roles.

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