Jodie Foster: ‘He started imitating my accent’

An important character detail in the film The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is the journey of Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, from a rural working-class background to sophisticated city life as an FBI agent.

Take for example this monologue by Dr Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, during his first encounter with Starling (from 4:15 in the clip; transcript below):

LECTER: You’re so ambitious, aren’t you? You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube, with a little taste. Good nutrition has given you some length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed – pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? And oh, how quickly the boys found you! All those tedious, sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars, while you could only dream of getting out, getting anywhere, getting all the way to the F.B.I.

Starling acknowledges its general truth (‘You see a lot, Doctor’), and, though hostile to analysis, agrees to tell Lecter about herself in exchange for insights into the killer she’s hunting. Lecter, like director Jonathan Demme, is most interested in the person who wants to save others. Foster and Hopkins’s few scenes together form the heart of the film.

In Lecter’s monologue we hear him tease Starling about her accent by mimicking it (‘What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner?’), and he does it again, here and there, throughout the film. This was a strategy, in character, to rattle Starling – but it rattled Foster a bit too. In a featurette on the special edition DVD, she recounts its effect:

Foster: There’s a moment in the movie where Hannibal says, ‘You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? . . .’ I can’t think of anything more hurtful than somebody standing there, saying, ‘I really feel sorry for you. You’re really pathetic.’ He started imitating my accent. He would say, ‘Your problem, Clarice, is you need to get a little more fuhn out of life.’ And suddenly, I just— It upset me so much! It like struck a really bad chord in me. Anthony is the nicest man I’ve worked with in a long time, and the difference between that, of course, and the fury and passion of Hannibal Lecter is very interesting.

The line she mentions as an example must have been a different take from the one in the final cut. It occurs later in the film, and Hopkins delivers the word in question without any particular inflection or dialectal modification:

Lecter’s teasing of Starling’s accent is both playful and cruel, and as a professional ploy it had an edge designed to play on her nerves and add a frisson to their scenes. Foster’s interview suggests that it worked as intended. (Both actors won Oscars, as did Demme.)

On the Graham Norton Show decades later, Foster said she and Hopkins ‘never really had a conversation’ while filming, that she avoided him because she was scared of him, but when filming wrapped they met over a sandwich and each confessed to being scared of the other:

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10 Responses to Jodie Foster: ‘He started imitating my accent’

  1. Hopkins is a master of American accents. Other English actors who are great on that score are Idris Elba, Hugh Lawrie, and the comedy team of Matt Lucas and David Walliams.

    The Americans who, to my ear as a lifelong New Yorker, excel at English accents are Seth MacFarlane and also Michael McKean and Harry Shearer from Spinal Tap. (A third Spinal-Tapper, Christopher Guest, is both American and English; he holds a hereditary peerage and is styled as Lord Haden-Guest.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Unless it’s a flagrantly bad accent, I don’t tend to notice – except for Irish accents, which are very tricky to get right but sound awful to me even if they’re just a little bit off. I love Christopher Guest’s work but didn’t know about his peerage.
      All nine of the actors you mention are male, I notice. Are there any women you would rate as highly on the accents front?

      • The first woman who comes to mind is Tracy Ullman, the brilliant English writer/performer who is now best known for having the show on which “The Simpsons” originated. Her American accents are absolutely uncanny. I regret that I failed to mention her in my initial list.

        Then there’s Catherine O’Hara, the Canadian comic actor who rose to fame as part of the cast of the sketch show “SCTV”. I have heard her do a range of English accents from posh to Cockney; and I always marvelled at her abilities.

        It’s a bit surprising to me that you do not tend to notice actors doing other accents. I suppose I would have thought that someone who blogs about language issues would be as obsessed about that question as I evidently am.

        In thinking further about the matter, it strikes me as hilarious how bad the Pythons are at American accents. If you remember John Cleese in the “Superman” sketch or Graham Chapman in the “splunge” sketch, you’ll get an idea of what I mean. These guys are perhaps the funniest and most creative comedy performers who ever lived. Their talents are immense; they are all superb actors who can do a great variety of accents: dozens of English accents, Welsh, Scottish, Aussie, German. But not American, for some reason.

        I must say that I don’t recall any attempts of theirs at Irish accents. Do you have any particular memories of the Pythons doing Irish accents, and, if so, any critiques?

        • Stan Carey says:

          Catherine O’Hara is great. I don’t know her work on SCTV, though, just her film acting. It’s not that I don’t notice actors doing accents: I often do, but I can’t normally tell whether they’re good or not so good, unless they’re really bad. Tom Hardy seems to do a different accent in everything I’ve seen him in, for example, but I don’t know how accurate they are.

          I love the Pythons too; they’re right up there among my favourite comedy groups. The only sketch of theirs that I can think of with potential for an Irish accent is the one with Oscar Wilde and G.B. Shaw, but neither figure had (as far as I know) a characteristically Irish accent, and the Pythons don’t aim at one in either case:

  2. sanseilife says:

    Good post, enjoyed this :)

  3. bakdor says:

    Most interesting article you’ve written on accents. Hits a chord with me. I’m somewhat obsessed with accents. Although born in Canada, I’m aware that I do speak with an accent, but it is not a Chinese accent. Often, other Canadians mistake it for a Chinese accent whenever I stutter or paused too long. My accent is peculiarly that of a Chinese who is born in Canada. Thank you for a thoughtful essay.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re welcome, and thank you for the interesting comment. In my experience, most people are not skilled at identifying accents. I know I’m not. But in their great diversity they’re fun to listen to and wonder about, especially when mixed. My aunt, after years living in South Africa, has an accent that’s an intriguing blend of that country and the west of Ireland; when I met her recently I was struck by the combination.

  4. This brings to mind the “So Bad It’s Perversely Good” accent category – for which Dick Van Dyke’s cock-eyed unCockney Chimney Sweep in Mary Poppins forever takes the ultimate grand prize.

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