Go West, Young Bloke: British actors are America’s new cowboys

British actors play the main roles in westerns today.

Such a casting can be a boon for dialect coaches, many of whom grapple with issues such as diphthongs – the combination of two vowels – so British cowboys don’t drink barrrrrrr (too American) whiskey. or in bahhhh (too British). By default, some players start with a master key that requires immediate disassembly.

“The British are going straight to Texas,” said dialect trainer Denise Woods, who worked on “The Harder They Fall”. “Is it like you grew up watching ‘Dallas’ on the BBC?” “

Some UK actors who work with Mrs Woods have to repeat the phrase “around the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran” or “here and there and everywhere” to train the tip of their tongue to form the correct “R” sounds.

Mr. Elba had played many Americans before, and Ms. Woods described her cowboy accent coming easily. “It’s not her first rodeo,” she says.

Mr. Elba was not available for comment, a rep for the actor said.

Regina King, Idris Elba and LaKeith Stanfield in “The Harder They Fall”.



Even as westerns insist more than ever on authentic American history – Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t eat raw bison liver in “The Revenant” because he was hungry – Hollywood sues the British who often come with training classic and friendly prestige.

British actors played fur trappers (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter, “The Revenant”), widows (Michelle Dockery, “Godless”), cavalry officers (Christian Bale, “Hostiles”), more widows ( Rosamund Pike, “Hostiles”), sweaty tough guys (Daniel Craig, “Cowboys & Aliens”), and more.

Swapping nationalities for iconic roles is an established quirk of cinema. There is a melee around politics and power: British actor Clive Owen played Bill Clinton and Mr. Bale played Dick Cheney. Americans Meryl Streep and John Lithgow played Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill. And Kristen Stewart is now onscreen as Princess Diana in “Spencer.”

But the British cowboy is a particularly sharp spur on the side of some American actors who say the classic American genre should build on itself.

“I don’t know why we would outsource our own culture,” said David Warshofsky, actor and director of the MFA actor program at the University of Southern California. “Let’s do a cage match with British actors and we’re all going to audition for western cowboys and see who comes out on top.”

He added that he had nothing but love and respect for his British colleagues.

International talent is helping to reshape a classic cinematic tradition that is sinking deeper and deeper into American memory. Supporters of overseas castings say performers who win these roles have full acclaim, regardless of nationality, and that to some extent the material is foreign to everyone. An American actor would need to be over 150 to know what real Western characters looked like at the time.

“It’s not the quintessentially American genre it once was,” said Pete Falconer, British author of “The Afterlife of the Hollywood Western” and film and television scholar. “Over the past few decades it has become closer than ever to a form of period drama,” he said. “And who do you see in period dramas?” British actors.

John Wayne in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, 1962.


Everett Collection

Despite its love affair with Italian directors in 1960s spaghetti westerns, the art form remains associated with American actors such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

The casting of an actor like Mr. Cumberbatch elicits a thrill of intrigue. Would the British character of this classically trained artist shine through, or would his preparation for all things the West achieve the desired effect?

“It definitely adds layers when someone is not from the place they represent,” said Carmen Cuba, casting director for the Netflix film “The Power of the Dog,” who was hired after the casting. by Mr. Cumberbatch. American actors might think they know more about a Western accent than they actually do, she said, but British artists might not understand the cultural nuances instantly available to Americans.

Mr. Cumberbatch’s performance has received critical acclaim. The actor could not immediately be reached for comment.

Michael Hirst, British showrunner for “Billy the Kid,” who is slated to debut on EPIX next year, noted that Billy the Kid came from an Irish family, so Mr. Blyth’s cast makes some sense. “America is a melting pot,” he said, adding that the Americans also auditioned for the role, but Mr. Blyth was chosen on merit. Mr Blyth was not available for comment, a representative said.

Tom Blyth plays the title role in “Billy the Kid”.



For director Jeymes Samuel, the casting of Mr. Elba in the Netflix movie “The Harder They Fall” was undeniable – there was no one else for the role, he said. The British director described an ineffable quality in Mr Elba’s face. “His eyes always look like he’s smiling and crying at the same time,” he said.

He also liked how the distinguished actor faced off against the rough cowboy type, which helped in a final shootout scene when Mr. Elba’s outlaw character begins to cry.

Ms. Woods, the film’s dialect coach, urged the cast to consider the Western accent and vocal impact that might come from, for example, chewing tobacco or squinting in the sun. In addition to Mr. Elba’s research, she put together YouTube samples featuring black cowboy fathers and grandfathers.

Mr Elba and other British actors are transformed by the American accent, Ms Woods said.

“They can replicate it take after take,” she said. “It becomes part of their DNA.”

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com

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