Where I lead: Helping actors find their voice

Elisa Carlson
has taught voice, speech and movement classes at UNG since 2011 and is a resident director and actor with the Gainesville Theatre Alliance.
She also finds work in the movies these days, it’s usually through word of mouth. Which is fortunate, considering that she works as a dialect coach in Georgia’s booming film industry.Carlson is a UNG professor who often works 12-hour days on movie sets as a dialogue coach to insure actors find their character’s voice.

She has more than 200 voice, dialect and text coaching credits in theater, television, audio book productions, and movies.

Carlson is so good at placing accents that she can spend just a couple of minutes with someone and decipher what area of the world they’re from.

How important is accent and dialect in an actor’s role?

One of my biggest challenges was working on the set of the Oscar-nominated movie “Selma,” coaching 40-plus actors with speaking parts. I spent anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day listening intently during filming and then coaching the actors between takes. I also read Martin Luther King Jr.’s lines for Tom Wilkinson, the British actor who played President Johnson, during the filming of a pivotal scene when President Johnson talks with King by telephone.

We had to listen to a lot of historic recordings because we’ve actually shifted a lot in how we sound in 50 years. It’s not an exterior thing, like putting on a costume and suddenly you’re in 1960s Selma. You can’t just put on a dialect, you have to really live in it believably and helping actors to do that is really fun and really exciting.

What was your latest challenge as a dialect coach?

I recently finished working with actors Lily James and Ansel Elgort, the two leads in the movie “Baby Driver,” set and filmed in Atlanta. Lily is British and Ansel is from New York City; I coached them to speak with subtle Southern accents.

There were some scenes where a hint of Lily’s British accent would creep in, but [British actors] for the most part are very disciplined and focused on the accent of the character they’re playing. I think it’s mostly because there are more roles for them over here in America, and dialect is important to the role.

What other roles have you had besides dialect coach?

I just finished “Shakespeare in Love” at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, serving as the assistant director. About once a year I take part in a production with the Gainesville Theatre Alliance as an actor. My last part was the role of Leonata in “Much Ado About Nothing,” I also directed. It made me appreciate what a dialect coach does; there so many things an actor has to consider in a role, it’s easy to forget that you’re supposed to speak a certain way.

Directing a play and acting in it has its own challenges. You have to be very, very prepared as an actor and a have a good understudy stand in for you when you’re directing. As a director, you need a good assistant director to give honest feedback and act as another pair of eyes.