Talking Accents, Acting, and Family with Copper Star ANASTASIA GRIFFITH
By Jonathan Metzelaar
People always say that to be a great artist in any medium you should be like a sponge. A large portion of that metaphor focuses on the process of absorbing things from your environment, but taking what you’ve absorbed and wringing it back out into the world in a way that’s interesting is a pivotal and sometimes overlooked aspect. Fortunately for actress Anastasia Griffith–and for us, as the audience–she’s gifted at doing both.
Having been born in Paris, and also having spent significant portions of her life in both New York City and London, Anastasia had ample opportunity to absorb the culture and the mannerisms of a large and incredibly diverse group of people. And it shows in her acting, the way she seems to effortlessly slide into the characters she plays, adapting each of their unique appearances, desires, and–yes–even accents to her own. With such a large reservoir of experience to draw from, and such a talent for then reshaping those experiences and re-presenting them through her work, it’s no wonder she compares acting to “playtime.” For somebody as talented as her, even the work must be fun.
Jonathan Metzelaar: I read that the producers were hesitant to cast you on Damages because they were wary of having both you, a British actor, and Rose Byrne, an Australian actor, playing the parts of American women. Obviously you managed to quash those fears. How difficult is it to pick up a foreign accent and use it effectively while acting? What’s the process of learning a new accent like? Do you have a coach? Do you just watch a lot of television?
Anastasia Griffith: I am not a vocal chameleon like some people. My brother, for example, can jump from one dialect to another pretty faultlessly, but I need to really hear it and feel it in my head and body before I will be brave enough to utter a sound. Fortunately American was one that I had grown up with, as my dad is from Detroit. In England there are so many dialects that when we train it goes unsaid that you have to be able to be a bit dexterous in that way. They teach you as a young actor how to study accents, so you can approach it pretty clinically. For me it’s mostly about placement: where the resonance or vibration should physically be placed, how the tongue moves, and getting a feeling for that so it becomes second nature. It was funny, with the American accent it never sounded right to me when I was in a higher register–it sounded too nasal and clichéd. But when I dropped the register and pitch, it fell down the back of my throat a little and sounded more natural to me. Now I can be more playful with the register, but that was how I found Katy Conner’s voice.
Damages was the first time I attempted to play an American in an American show; it was pretty nerve-wracking. It took 24 hours of really listening and placing it in my head and throat to know that I could walk into that room, ad-lib, and talk as myself convincingly in the accent. I think I just about managed to pull it off, but it certainly wasn’t flawless. I think now, the accent has become a part of me, and I prefer working with it, although I think it’s time I got a little more specific and starting doing some regional ones. Maybe Boston is next! Or Southern. And for those I will take a session or two with a voice coach for sure; they are so good at hearing differences that you just wouldn’t pick up on.
JM: You’ve been featured in both television shows and major motion pictures. What, if any, are the differences in acting in each respective medium? Do you prefer one over the other?
AG: You get much more time on movies to explore a scene. You can have three days for a scene on a big movie set, while on TV we are attacking up to eight pages of dialogue a day, and making it look like a movie in the process. The new [Director of Photography] on Copper, Pierre Gill, comes from movies, and is so talented that the ante has been upped, and this show is starting to challenge movies at their own game. It looks phenomenal. And we are still making our 12-hour days.
There are pros and cons to each method, but a big difference is budget usually. And time is money in this industry. I like the pace of television. I am a quick-thinking, impulsive person, so I appreciate the gung ho, “let’s get to it” attitude of television. And I think it’s an interesting acting exercise. Acting for television means you have to trust your instincts and just dive in. It keeps things fresh. I do wish we had more time to rehearse or explore at times–not least when I find something interesting right at the end of the process when I am doing the reverse [i.e. when the camera is on the other actor], but I guess that happens in either medium. It’s the nature of the beast.
JM: I read that you have a degree in History of Art. Was acting always what you wanted to do, or did you ever have something else in mind? What was it that drew you to acting in the first place?
AG: I did always want to act, but thought it was a pipe dream. Art history is something I really enjoyed at school, and I wanted to go to university to have that experience and figure it out from there. When you grow up in South West London, you don’t expect to find yourself living and working in Los Angeles anytime soon. My mother was a trained actress, and we had a few family friends in the industry, but they always seemed so glamorous and other-worldly to me as a child that I never imagined in a million years that I could be one of them. And I am not, I don’t think I am glamorous or other-worldly at all. I have somehow made pretty normal work for myself. God knows how.
Acting was really the only thing I have ever been really excited by work-wise. At school it was where I came alive. I wasn’t an extrovert at all, but I really loved reading aloud and giving a voice to the words we had to read. And I loved-loved-loved the rehearsal process. It was playtime to me. Much better than real playtime, when we were forced to go outside in the rain. That was lame!
JM: Your brother, Jamie Bamber, is also an actor. What’s that like? Do you guys ever talk shop with one another, or do you prefer to keep your professional and family lives separate? Would you ever want to work with Jamie on a future project?
AG: We actually very rarely talk about the industry, and we certainly never talk about ‘character’. There are so many other things that interest us, and we are only two of a very large family, so it would get annoying pretty fast. We do occasionally discuss decisions we have to make, but we rarely listen to each other’s advice. It’s more of a totally unbiased sounding board. It’s nice though, as there is no competition between us–which is weird, because my brother is highly competitive.
I would love to work with Jamie. It would be weird, as our dynamic is so not about the work that we do, but he is a great actor and a really lovely man, so I’d be honored to get to spend that time with him on set. I guess it would have to be the right project though. My mother was all about adapting Martin Chuzzlewit into a screenplay–as a total pipe dream, you understand–and wanted Jamie and I to play the leads. My sister-in-law had to remind her that we would have been playing lovers, which is maybe not ideal.
JM: You were born in Paris, grew up in London, and lived in New York City. Those are three of the largest, most popular cities in the world. What would you say each city does better than any others?
AG: Paris does breakfast the best, with their coffee, croissants, and cigarettes. London is great for lunch, since you can actually drink at lunch. And New York does dinner the best. It’s a great city for cocktails, dancing, and a slice on the way home.
JM: Your new BBC drama Copper, which is about to enter its second season, takes place in 1800s New York. What does that New York have to say about current New York? And in general what do you think those times have to say about the current times? Would you say the show is a comment on our current situations?
AG: I think there are overlaps for sure. I don’t think we live in a bubble. Human beings have had the same fears, strengths, and interests underneath it all since the get-go. We are still just trying to survive and feel both loved and safe, except now with cell phones and better plumbing. It makes me grateful to be a woman in the 21st century though. That life was hard back then. Whether you lived uptown or downtown, it was even more of a patriarchal world than it is now.
For me the biggest parallel is the war. For my character at least, the war was viewed in very much the same way that I view the Iraq war. I agree that Saddam Hussein was a villain and change needed to happen, but the self-interest with which we–both the States and the UK–approached it, and the way in which it was done, was inexcusable. I think some felt the same way about the death toll and destruction over the American Civil War. War is war, and it is ugly, and lethal, and the country pays.
New York then and now is a melting pot of people from all over the world looking to make a new life for themselves. That has never changed, and I don’t think ever will. I think both back then and now, New York really stands alone as a metropolis all its own, with a sensibility, energy, and identity not shared by any other place on the continent.
JM: Tell me a little bit about Elizabeth Haverford, your character on Copper? How is she similar to or different from other characters you’ve played previously?
AG: She is remarkably similar to many characters I have played. At their core, a lot of my favorite characters have been very contradictory women who balance a strength and a spirit with a deep-rooted sense of fear and insecurity that gets them in trouble. I guess I am thinking of Katie Connor in Damages and Elizabeth predominantly. But also Nancy Carnahan in Trauma. There is an exterior and an interior life that are at odds with each other. They are playing a good game essentially, until they can no longer carry it off. Abigail/Kathryn in Once Upon a Time was a departure for me!
Elizabeth is a funny one. I think she feels and loves very deeply at her core, but she is about survival beyond all else. She needs to be. She is pretty smart, savvy, and conscious, but she is playing with the big kids during a time of huge stakes, and she maybe isn’t as equipped as she hopes she is. I have compassion for her; it must be very scary to know that your entire future lies in the hands of men. They can ruin or make her at their whim. That isn’t an easy reality to accept. No wonder she is afraid.
JM: Do you have any projects or upcoming events you’d like people to know about?
AG: Not at the moment. I have plenty of things brewing, including some further work for The International Childcare Trust, the charity I am a patron of. I am looking to pull a group of people together to trek Kerala in India as a fundraiser later in the year. I also may collaborate with a friend and Lance Bass, who are launching their fundraising project Famous Yard Sale as we speak. Work-wise, I would love to use my downtime to work on a film project and perhaps some theatre in Los Angeles. Not what we are known for over there, but it is home, and after six months in Toronto I want to be with my loved ones and my vegetable garden.
Anastasia Griffith is an English actress who has been featured in the televisions series Copper and Trauma, as well as the film Alfie. She can currently be seen on the BBC America series Copper.
Written and Edited by Jonathan Metzelaar
Photography By Jimi Celeste for PatrickMcMullan.com
Design by Marie Havens
Anastasia Griffith, BBC AMERICA Celebrates the Premiere of COPPER, MoMa, New York, August 15, 2012, Photography by Jimi Celeste for PatrickMcMullan.com