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Profile: Tanera Marshall teaches actors to talk the talk

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Tanera Marshall
Tanera Marshall coached Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard on losing her French accent for the film “Public Enemies” by assigning her a sentence to repeat: “It appears that poor Homer isn’t up to par.”

Photo: Kathryn Marchetti

When she watches the Academy Awards show Sunday, dialect coach Tanera Marshall likely will be reminded of her work with Marion Cotillard, winner of last year’s Oscar for best actress.

Marshall taught Cotillard, a native of France who won an Oscar for “La Vie en Rose,” how to talk like an American for the upcoming film “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp.

The French speak the “r” sound from the back of the throat, while Americans bunch — and use the sides of — their tongues, says Marshall, assistant professor of performing arts.

To help Cotillard practice, Marshall assigned her these drill sentences: “It appears that poor Homer isn’t up to par” (Homer is a character in the movie) and “The tired old prince took a detour toward the tower and stared at the park.”

She coached the actress two hours every day for two months before filming started in Chicago last March, with additional tutoring between takes.

Marshall made Cotillard practice while striking yoga poses because, she said, “Getting physical gets one out of one’s head.”

Britons or Australians present different challenges, Marshall said. When they say “fear,” “far” or “fair,” for example, the “r” is inaudible.

“They can say ‘red’ or ‘truth,’ but those are consonant r’s,” Marshall noted. “The vowel sound they don’t pronounce.”

Brits and Aussies also complete words that end with consonants, unlike Americans. When they pronounce “complete,” a plosive “t” comes at the end.

To sound like us, they must also eliminate the “Liquid U” — the purse-lipped “you” sound — from words like “duke,” “news” and “Tuesday.”

Marshall has been coaching the two Australian leads — and one Norwegian actor—in the “Dirty Dancing” cast, which just moved to Boston after a Chicago run.

She traveled to Boston to advise them when the show opened there, assisting with volume and rate of speech, which change with the differences in acoustics between Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre and the Boston Opera House.

In another assignment, Marshall taught Canadian actress Rachel McAdams how to acquire a Nashville accent for the movie “The Lucky Ones,” which recently came out on DVD.

Her services are in demand because a lot of British actors are playing Americans these days.

One reason is the collapse of their film industry. Another is the popularity of TV shows like “ER” and “Friends” in England, which “makes it easy for them to acquire an American dialect,” Marshall said.

She has a cousin in the north of England who “does a great Southern accent” from watching “Dallas.”

Marshall majored in English, not theater, at Oberlin College, but took acting classes and performed in student productions.

After graduation, when “it became clear that theater was not only what I was passionate about but good at,” she attended DePaul University’s Theatre School, earning a master’s degree.

Marshall acted with the Greasy Joan and Co. theater group and in the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and TV commercials.

On the side, she taught voice as an adjunct faculty at UIC, Northern Illinois University and Columbia College for several years.

Then UIC began offering a bachelor of fine arts degree — “I was part of that wave,” she said — and her teaching post became full time four years ago.

The agent who finds Marshall her dialect coaching jobs in the movies got Marshall’s name from her UIC predecessor as voice teacher, Cynthia Blaine.

Marshall teaches three voice classes and a Shakespeare acting class. If need be, she sees students individually.

She also works with her students in UIC theater productions. Marshall is voice and speech coach for every show, including the current production, Lanford Wilson’s “The Hot L Baltimore.”

When not working, Marshall said, “I love to cook and play Scrabble.”

She lives in Rogers Park, but was born in Pittsburgh.

“My friends and I would put on plays in the backyard,” Marshall said. “I was Tinker Bell when I was 7.”


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