Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s a Hick?! Talking About Accents in Acting

My Internetting revealed to me this morning that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, aka Jaime Lannister, played one of the Deltas in Black Hawk Down. If you want to hear the multilingual actor doing a country-redneck accent, check out the video below.

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Black Hawk Down is an interesting creature. It bears the trappings of a gung-ho American war movie, but it’s a tragic tale of overreach, A Bridge Too Far for the Clinton era. Mark Bowden’s original account of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, which claimed the lives of more than a dozen soldiers and civilians, is a fantastic read. It’s actually lent me a catch-phrase that I use to describe different parts of my personality — “infantry vs. Delta” — but I’ll save that disclosure for another time.

Today, I simply want to highlight the interesting casting in Ridley Scott’s 2001 movie. It’s a grab-bag of European and Australian actors playing a variety of American archetypes. Most notable is Orlando Bloom, whose aquiline good looks translated well to the young (and mostly doomed) country boy he plays. Ewan MacGregor plays a deskbound Army geek who gets thrust into combat. Aussie Eric Bana plays a jaded Delta Force op whose raison d’ĂȘtre is summed up in five words: “The man next to you.”

As a Tennessean, I think Coster-Waldau’s southern accent sounds a little off, a little hammy. It also reminds me of a recent discussion on Facebook about accents. My general feeling is that accurately capturing an accent is part of an actor’s job, but if they don’t quite nail it, it’s a pretty low-frequency annoyance for me. What matters is where their heart is.

Case in point: Jason Isaacs in Black Hawk Down. Jump to about the four-minute mark to see some great acting from him:

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The whole clip — the whole movie — is well worth watching, but I let’s talk about Jason Isaac’s performance. He’s playing a former Army colonel (then a captain), Michael Steele. Steele, a Georgia native, played football for the Georgia Bulldogs back when legendary coach Vince Dooley was at the helm. He’s a big, hulking country boy. Isaacs isn’t a pipsqueak by any means, but he might not be the first person I’d think of if I needed a huge good old boy.

But despite his spotty southern accent, Iaacs plays Steele with tragic sincerity. Steele receives order after order that he either can’t or shouldn’t carry out, and he disobeys many of them, largely to protect his men. (Lest I be accused of lionizing Steele the person too much, I want to drop a portcullis between the Steele portrayed in Black Hawk Down and Steele the person, who was investigated — but never formally charged — for the murder of Iraqi civilians during his career.) Isaacs captures Steele’s heartbreak and shame perfectly. That’s what matters.