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Key to good accent? Not to think about it

Eric Armstrong knows so many accents, it can be hard to figure out which is his real one.

Eric Armstrong knows so many accents, it can be hard to figure out which is his real one.

Since 1995, the 45-year-old vocal trainer has worked in just about every segment of the entertainment industry in Canada and the U.S. teaching actors how to maintain a convincing Southern drawl or master an abrupt Nordic-English accent.

It’s an unusual but not wholly unexpected career turn for Armstrong, a former actor, who got into the field sort of by accident when he realized he could do better accents than the people he worked with.

“It’s one of the most unique jobs. I never really imagined this would be what I’d be doing,” Armstrong said.

An Ottawa native and current York University professor, Armstrong holds Fine Arts degrees from Concordia University and York University and also studied at the Drama Studio in London — studies he completed to pursue a career as an actor. He switched to vocal coaching when he realized he not only had a knack for dissecting accents but also for teaching other people.

“I think I have a natural talent and ear for language and I really try hard to adapt to the learning styles of the actors I work with,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong has coached actors on the CBC show The Border, YTV’s How to Be Indie and recently five actors he coached garnered Dora Award nominations with one of them, David Ferry, winning a Dora. Armstrong also coached Tom Wilkinson in the 2003 HBO film Normal, where he helped the actor nail down the vocal nuances of a man undergoing a sex-change operation.

Armstrong says his primary job as a vocal coach is to help the actor internalize an accent as naturally, and quickly, as possible.

“Actors want to get to the point where they don’t have to think too much about the accent — they just want to do it. My job is to help actors get to that stage very quickly,” Armstrong said.

Case in point: He frequently gets called in the day before or sometimes on the day of an actor’s performance, underscoring the fact that time is at a premium in the entertainment industry.

“There’s almost no time allotted to coaching the actor. Not only do I have to be prepared to do my work at any time but I’m expected to do it in a very short amount of time,” he said.

Armstrong recently coached the young actress Isabelle Fuhrman, star of the upcoming suspense film Orphan. The script called for Fuhrman’s chilling character Esther to pretend to speak in a Russian accent while secretly being Estonian, a complex subtlety that required plenty of research and coaching on Armstrong’s part.

Ultimately Armstrong’s greatest satisfaction comes from helping advance the art of acting itself.

“The most rewarding part of my career is to support artists by developing them to find their own voice,” he said.

 
 
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