Theron gets it right, out in the cold
FILM: "North Country" stars struggled to master the Minnesota accent - without overdoing it.
BY CHRIS HEWITT
ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS
When Charlize Theron asked Minnesotans their thoughts about portraying an Iron Ranger in "North Country," they asked her to make sure the movie did two things: Tell the truth. Don't overdo the accent.
"It's the hardest accent I've ever had to do," says Theron, a native of South Africa who has played Brits, New Yorkers, an Arkansan and a Swede in previous roles. "It usually takes me about three days to get an accent down, but this one took me two weeks."
Theron did her homework before shooting the film, which opens Friday and is based on the true story of female taconite miners who filed a landmark sexual harassment suit against Eveleth Mines. She made a preliminary trip to the Iron Range to chat with natives.
She listened to tapes of Iron Rangers. She even read "How to Talk Minnesotan." But she didn't feel like she had the accent right until she arrived here last February to shoot the film.
"You know what it was that finally made it click?" says Theron, who plays the woman who initiates the lawsuit. "Being in the cold. That's when I started to understand why people talk the way they do. It's like when you go to the South, you understand why people talk slowly, sitting in their rocking chairs in the heat. It happens that way up north, too. In Minnesota, I stepped off that plane that first day, and I thought, 'Oh, it's cold. I get why people don't open their mouths too wide and why the sound is a little nasal.' "
In part, Theron based her accent on tapes made by dialect coach Nadia Venesse, who hung around the Range recording residents saying lines from the script. She was unavailable for comment, but Larissa Kokernot, who worked on "Fargo" as an actress and dialect coach, says the Minnesota accent is tricky.
Kokernot, a Minneapolis North High School graduate, says the Iron Range accent -- which, like British accents, comes from the front of the mouth, not the back of the throat -- is a holdover from the cold-climate countries that Iron Rangers came here from.
"That small-town, Minnesota accent is close to the sound of the Nords and the Swedes, which is where it comes from," Kokernot says. "That's where the musicality comes from. One thing I talked about with Frances (McDormand, star of "Fargo") was the whole Minnesota Nice notion of wanting people to agree with each other and get along, and that's where the whole head-nodding thing also comes in, in 'Fargo.' "
The "Fargo" accents are exaggerations, but "North Country" director Niki Caro wanted her cast -- which, ironically, includes McDormand as Theron's best friend -- to hew more closely to the way actual Minnesotans talk on the Iron Range.
"I love to go into a real landscape with real people," says Caro, whose previous film, "Whale Rider," set in New Zealand, also captured a sense of a specific place. "I try very, very hard to find out everything about them: what they eat, what they drink, how they speak."
To that end, Caro says she and the actors spent time in bars, trying to get a feel for the people. Sean Bean, a Brit who plays McDormand's partner, says hanging out in Iron Range bars helped him absorb the accent and get an understanding of the life his character would have faced.
"I really got an idea of the sense of humor of the people and their generosity. It's a special place, not like anywhere else," says Bean, who's currently on screens as the pilot in "Flightplan." "Although the humor is very down-to-earth. It reminded me of where I'm from, Sheffield, which is a coal-mining town."
Jeremy Renner, who plays one of the men who mistreats female miners and who says he logged "a lot" of bar time, says the key for him was figuring out how to say the elongated Minnesota "o" sound.
"People I met said, 'You're not going to do that "Fargo" accent, are you?' " Renner says. "But, even though that accent is exaggerated, it's not too far off."
"Fargo" dialect coach Kokernot says the "o" is a good place to start for anyone who wants to do a Minnesota accent. "It's a very strong sound, like in the phrase, 'Oh, God,' " says Kokernot, pointing out that the "o" sounds in those words are different but that Minnesotans draw both of them out. "I also think of words like cool and school, where most people say them as one straight vowel sound, but Minnesotans turn it into two: coo-al, schoo-al."
Having learned all they could about the dialect, Renner says the next step for the actors was to forget it all and try to talk like an actual Minnesotan.
"We did want to show this place and suggest what is different about it," he says. "But, hopefully, after the first few scenes, it's so natural that you don't even notice it anymore."