Celebrity dialect coach Joan Washington dies at 74

Joan Washington, an acclaimed dialect coach who taught Penélope Cruz to sound Greek, Jessica Chastain to sound Israeli, and a whole bunch of British actors to speak like the Jews of Brooklyn, died on September 2 at her home in Aving. , in England. She was 74 years old.

Her husband, actor Richard E. Grant, announced his death on Twitter. He later said the cause was lung cancer.

Over a career spanning four decades, Ms.Washington has earned a reputation as a sort of reverse version of Henry Higgins, the elocutionist who taught the King’s English to Eliza Doolittle in the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion”. She asked the actors to speak not only in national dialects, but also in regional and local accents, even historical ones.

She has taught actors for most of Britain’s major national and regional theaters; if a British artist appeared on stage speaking a thick American dialect – say, in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” – there was a good chance it was Mrs. Washington’s work.

She also worked on a constant stream of movies. She teamed up with Ms. Cruz for “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (2001), Ms. Chastain for “The Debt” (2010), Kate Beckinsale for “Emma” (1996) and British actress Thandie Newton for “W.”, Oliver Stone interpreted in 2008 the life of George W. Bush, in which she played Condoleezza Rice, the former national security adviser to the United States.

The dialect, Ms. Washington said, was not just a matter of mimicry, of reading a script with an accent. It had to be integrated into the heart of a performance.

“A dialect coach has to be there from the start,” she told British newspaper The Independent in 1991. “Otherwise bad habits are set; it just becomes a bandage job. There is enough to undo like this.

Ms. Washington was a sort of performer herself, but never on stage or on screen. She could instantly adopt any dialect she taught, and she claimed to master over 124 vowels – just six fewer than Professor Higgins boasted.

Although she was born and raised in Scotland, Ms Washington used a standard English accent when teaching Americans. She said they have made too many assumptions about what ‘correct’ English looks like and could be confused by its natural Scottish speech.

“The problem for Americans who do English is that they pronounce their consonants too precisely, which makes for a rather acquired and middle-class sound,” she said in a 1986 interview with The Sunday Telegraph. “The bigger we are, the less we rely on consonants. “

Ms. Washington came up with her in-depth research talent. Prior to working with actors, she had taught Standard English Pronunciation at the Royal College of Nursing, whose students came from all over Britain and the Commonwealth. Her recordings of their accents formed the basis of an extensive library of tapes that she kept for reference.

She interviewed and recorded older Brits to capture what Liverpudlian or Geordie – an accent from Tyneside, north-east England – might have sounded decades ago. To show what English looked like in the 1910s, she relied on recordings of British prisoners made by Germans during WWI.

His teaching methods were intense. She often began by interviewing artists to gauge what they thought a Boston Brahmin or Warsaw Pole might look like. She took notes, reams, then handed them to the actors along with copies of her tapes.

Over a series of sessions, she tweaked Rs, tweaked inflections, and removed unwanted whistles until an American actress like Emma Stone sounded like an authentic 18th century English courtesan, as she did. in the 2018 film “The Favorite”.

Ms. Washington has always worked as a freelance, but was more closely associated with the Royal National Theater, where she worked on more than 70 shows. Her first film was “Yentl” (1983), for which she taught star and director Barbra Streisand to speak like an Ashkenazi Jewess in early 20th century Poland.

Ms. Washington had her own theories about accents and where they came from. She said Britain’s plethora of dialects and accents, all crammed onto a medium-sized island, came from its varied geography and climate.

“Cornwall is harder and more nasal than Devon because it is a windy peninsula,” she told the Sunday Telegraph. “If you have the wind in your sails, you have to talk without giving away much. “

Joan Geddie was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on December 21, 1946. Her father, John, was a doctor and her mother, Maggie (Cook) Geddie, a nurse.

At the age of 18, she moved to London to attend the Central School of Speech and Drama. After graduating, she taught speaking, first at a girls’ reform school and then at the Royal College of Nursing.

In 1969, she married Keith Washington; they later divorced. With Mr. Grant, she is survived by her son, Tom Washington; his daughter, Olivia Grant; and his brother, David Geddie.

While teaching, Ms. Washington also got side jobs as a dialect coach. In the class-conscious England of the postwar decades, millions of Britain’s expanding middle class sought to erase all traces of their proletarian origins, beginning with their accents, which provided it with a abundance of work.

Her clients included doctors and clergy as well as actors – the only ones, she said, who went in the opposite direction, seeking instructions on how to appear less chic.

She was teaching at the Actors Center London in 1982 when she met Mr Grant, who was born and raised in Swaziland (now Eswatini), Africa, and was taking her class to be more like an Englishman by birth .

Mr. Grant was smitten, he later recalls, and asked if she could tutor him. She said yes, at £ 20 an hour – around $ 43 in today’s dollars.

“But I can only afford £ 12,” he replied.

“Okay,” she said, “but you’ll have to pay me back if you ever ‘get it’. “

The two tied the knot in 1986, a year before Mr Grant made his film debut in ‘Withnail and I’, which overnight made him one of Britain’s most in-demand actors. . He was later acclaimed for his performances in films like “Gosford Park” (2001) and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (2018), for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Ms Washington learned she had lung cancer late last year and the disease progressed rapidly. She had one last assignment, however: Mr. Grant had been chosen to play Loco Chanelle, a drag queen, in the film version of the musical “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”, and he needed help with the Sheffield accent. of his character.

A few days after his death, Mr. Grant posted a video on Twitter that Ms. Washington had made him practicing for the role, with her, off-screen, giving instructions.


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About Ethel Nester

Ethel Nester

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