Arts, Culture & Media

Why is the Boston accent so wicked hard?

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It’s “hahd” to use Rs in a Boston accent (Danielle Fox/Studio 360)

Julianne Moore on “30 Rock.” Jeff Bridges in “Blown Away.” Laura Linney in “Mystic River.” Half the cast of “The Departed.” The litany of botched Boston accents is vast and cringe-worthy. For many very talented actors, the Boston accent is their Waterloo.

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Boston native Angela Peri has seen plenty of actors fail at imitating the Boston accent, which is part of the reason she decided to open “Boston Casting” — a casting company Peri is hoping will be able to supply Hollywood studios with the authentic Charles River flavor they're looking for. Recently the company had an open call. Hundreds of locals lined up to audition in a nondescript part of town full of row houses and warehouses.

All they had to do to be considered was say their name and where they were from — something that was enough to let Peri know whether they sounded authentic or not. 

“Bostonians tend to stand different, walk different,” Peri says, “There's something about our persona that the Bostonian has when they walk in the room. We're real. We're not New Yorkers, we’re not L.A. people. We're real and that's — as well as the tax incentive — I do think that's why producers from L.A. keep coming back here.”

But why do Bostonians talk the way they do? Stephen Gabis is a dialect coach who’s worked with many famous actors to hone their Boston accents. “These are the accents that came over with the [Puritan] settlers, from East Anglia,” Gabis says. In the 19th and 20th centuries, this accent got reinforced by an influx of Irish immigrants. This combination resulted in the peculiar — or wicked natural, depending — “r”-less dialect you hear today in coastal Massachusetts.

Still, dialect coaches like Gabis get annoyed when they’re told that the Boston accent is the only one an actor can’t learn. 

“All the Boston natives say, you know, you can't do it, you guys you never do us right,” Gabis says, “ Shut up. I mean, there’s really some good work on Boston accents."

There are a few tricks Gabis has found that have helped him teach actors to create a realistic Boston accent. 

“We found little things. Just enough to give you a dropping some Rs here and there but not all the time,” Gabis says, “What I would I try to do with Michael [Keaton in 'Spotlight'] was to squeeze the air out of it, make it quick.”

“Bostonians used to be wary of being reduced to a funny accent,” Studio 360 producer Eric Molinsky says, “Now they’re welcoming the attention of Hollywood and the world, because they see that their accents can be valuable natural resources, like maple syrup — or lobstahs.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.