Vancouver actors with accents want their voices heard

Sabrina Furminger

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Al Miro has spent upwards of $13,000 trying to rid himself of his accent.

The bulk of that money has gone to dialect coaches who have instructed him on how to rein in his Italian accent so that he can sound more American. Al is short for Alessandro and, like nearly seven million Canadians and 50 million Americans, he’s an immigrant.

The Vancouverite is also an actor, and over the last 10 years, he’s diligently chased that elusive American accent in order to be considered more castable in American productions, many of which shoot up here in Hollywood North.

But in the wake of discussions around inclusion and diversity in Hollywood — and perceptible gains made in the quantity and quality of roles for people from marginalized communities — Miro is no longer willing to shell out big bucks to lose his accent without pointing out what he considers the absurdity of it all.

“America is a land of immigrants, and there are a ton of people who sound different,” says Miro. “This is what the industry doesn’t understand. They assume that the standard American accent is the only accent that will allow it to be believable. There are over 40 million immigrants in the States alone. Many of them have accents. They are still American.”

Miro is joining a growing chorus of local actors with accents calling out the film and television industry for what he calls “accent phobia.”

“We’ve always been told that we’re the ones who need to change, that we need to be more American in order to fit the industry,” says Miro. “They’re not trying to be mean or racist, but there is a definite lack of understanding about how accents work or even what America sounds like.”

Immigrant experience

For the most part, Miro has accepted this accent phobia as par for the course. It’s an extension of his experiences as an immigrant, living just outside the dominant culture.

“A lot of immigrants feel ashamed, and one of our main goals is to turn that shame into pride,” says Miro.

Vancouver actress Andrea Stefancikova moved to Canada from Slovakia when she was in her late teens, and she says it’s hurtful to be constantly told that your accent is unappealing.

“We were unable, even at that age, to integrate with the kids who were born in Canada because of the way we sounded,” says Stefancikova. “We were bullied. I used to tell my parents, ‘Please don’t speak when my friends are around, I don’t want them to hear you.’ It makes me so sad just to say that.”

Changing attitudes

With Hollywood seemingly changing its attitudes about other marginalized communities, Stefancikova and Miro decided it was time to use their voices to draw attention to a practice that’s long been accepted as status quo.

“We’d like to see the fair representation of all demographics,” says Stefancikova. “Right now, we see more ethnicities [on our screens], but everyone sounds the same.”

Miro and Stefancikova accept that some roles require a specific accent, but the bulk of roles do not.

“We can be the best friend, the spouse, the doctor, the lawyer,” says Stefancikova. “We don’t just have to be the gangster or the prostitute or the cab driver.”

“We can be the lead,” says Miro.

Their first step is identifying the issue, which they did at a recent UBCP (Union of B.C. Performers)/ACTRA meeting. Next, they want data: statistics to work with and anecdotes to illustrate the human and cultural toll. And finally, they want an industry plan moving forward.

“It’s a brand new subject, and it’s a subject that a lot of people are scared to talk about because there’s a stigma around it,” says Stefancikova. “Some people have said, ‘You’ve got to be careful, do you need this kind of attention on yourself, what are you trying to do?’ They say we’re risking our careers.”

But Miro and Stefancikova see what speaking out has done for other marginalized communities. They’re also motivated by their work as acting teachers.

“I have these students who come into class and do great work, and it breaks my heart that I know that it’s going to be so difficult for them,” says Miro. “No agents want them. If we don’t speak up, then nobody will. This is the time for change. I don’t want other people to go through what we went through.”

This week, Miro launches the comedy web series “How to Make it in Hollywood When You are Foreign AF.” Much of the series is inspired by his experiences as an immigrant actor with an accent.

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