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Hollywood Scouts Authentic Spanish Accents

A new TV drama starting next month follows a Florida sugar cane dynasty of Cuban-Americans. The cast of "Cane" went through extensive coaching to make sure their accents sounded Cuban - Cubano, not Puerto Rican or Colombian.

As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, more and more of the U.S. audience knows the difference.

NEDA ULABY: The history of Hollywood is filled with painfully bad Latino accents.

(Soundbite of movie "Touch of Evil")

Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (Actor): (As Ramon Miguel Vargas) The name is Vargas.

Unidentified Man #1: Sure, Mr. Vargas.

ULABY: In the noir classic "Touch of Evil," Charlton Heston plays a border cop from Mexico.

(Soundbite of movie "Touch of Evil")

Mr. HESTON: (As Ramon Miguel Vargas) This is isn't the real Mexico, you know that. All border towns bring out the worst in it's country. I can just imagine your mother's face if she could see our honeymoon hotel.

Unidentified Man #2: Senor Vargas.

ULABY: Maybe in 1958 that could pass in Hollywood as a Mexican accent, but audiences today have a better idea of what different Latino accents sound like.

Ilan Stavans is a Spanish professor at Amherst College. He says most Spanish speakers give away their backgrounds the minute they opened their mouths. People Mexican-born, like himself, are said not to speak Spanish but sing it.

Professor ILAN STAVANS (Spanish Professor, Amherst College): Going up and down, up and down in delivery. Argentines have a very staccato approach to the language. It is often said that the Colombian accent is the clearest of all, whereas the Cubans in particular tend to eat their words.

ULABY: Movies and TV shows are filled with Puerto Rican-Americans playing Mexican-Americans or Colombians playing Cubans. Stavans says not every actor makes the effort.

Prof. STAVANS: I have to say that, by far, the worst is Antonio Banderas pretending to be Zorro, the bandit.

(Soundbite of movie "The Mask of Zorro")

Mr. ANTONIO BANDERAS (Actor): (As Zorro) I said over the hill to the governor's mansion. (Spanish spoken).

Prof. STAVANS: He sounds like a Spaniard that has confused his location. Oy!

ULABY: For the TV show "Cane" to win over the Latino audience that it's intended to attract, the accents must sound authentically Cuban.

(Soundbite of TV show "Cane")

Unidentified Man #3: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #4: (Spanish spoken)

ULABY: They do, says Ilan Stavans.

Prof. STAVANS: There is a very careful and studied approach to the way they speak. All of them know very well the Caribbean Spanish as transposed to Florida.

(Soundbite of "Cane")

Unidentified Man #5: (Spanish spoken)

ULABY: The main character is a man who was airlifted from Cuba as a child. He's played by Jimmy Smits, who's of Puerto Rican descent. Here, he's having a heart-to-heart with his son in a Miami coffee shop.

(Soundbite of TV show "Cane")

Mr. JIMMY SMITS (Actor): (As Alex Vega) I didn't go to college (unintelligible). I went into the Army, and when I got out, (unintelligible) needed me in the business (Spanish spoken).

Mr. MICHAEL TREVINO (Actor): (As Jaime Vega) Did grandpa want you to enlist?

Mr. SMITS: (As Alex Vega) No, I did that on my own.

ULABY: It seems to Ilan Stavans that the actors' attention to the nuances of Cuban and Cuban-American language reveals a shift in the media.

Prof. STAVANS: We are finally reaching a point where Latinos are not all dumped into a single bunch and think that they act, perform, speak, dream, behave in the exact same way.

ULABY: And to imbue their characters with sonorous individuality, actors visit dialect coaches.

Luis Arrieta is a young actor from Mexico about to play an Argentinean in a movie set during the Falklands war.

Mr. LUIS ARRIETA (Actor): (Spanish spoken)

Mr. JOEL GOLDES (Accent Coach): No more. (Spanish spoken)

Mr. ARRIETA: (Spanish spoken)

ULABY: Dialect coach Joel Goldes is not Latino, so Arrieta admits that learning an Argentinean accents from him is a little strange. He says speaking Spanish with an Argentinean accent would be no problem, but it's harder for his ear to catch subtle differences in how Mexicans and Argentineans pronounce English words.

Mr. ARRIETA: (unintelligible) would say Josh, one would say Jotch(ph).

Mr. GOLDES: Right. With the ja.

Mr. ARRIETA: One would say Jotch.

Mr. GOLDES: This ja is made of a D and a ja. So instead we're going to take away that D and divorce the ja to a shh(ph).

Mr. ARRIETA: Josh.

Mr. GOLDES: Yeah, you say shotch(ph).

ULABY: Joel Goldes says his oddest recent coaching request came from a women cast as an Aztec goddess. She wanted his help developing an accent pre-Spanish yet somehow still of the Americas. Another challenge was coaching me in a Cuban accent for three simple words.

Mr. GOLDES: (Spanish spoken)

ULABY: (Spanish spoken)

Mr. GOLDES: (Spanish spoken) The Spanish sound needs to be the tip of your tough. Hara(ph), Hara.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, National Public Radio.

Mr. GOLDES: Radio.

ULABY: Radio.

Mr. GOLDES: Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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