Sam Chwat worked for three months with Robert De Niro (pictured) before filming started on the 1991 Martin Scorsese film Cape Fear.
Sam Chwat worked for three months with Robert De Niro (pictured) before filming started on the 1991 Martin Scorsese film Cape Fear. Universal/Photofest
Speech therapist Sam Chwat, a dialect specialist who worked closely with people in business, politics and the film industry who wanted to lose a regional accent — or pick one up — died last Thursday. He was 57. His family told The New York Times that the cause was lymphoma.
Chwat worked with many film stars, including Isabella Rossellini, Danny Glover, Marcia Gay Harden, Willem Dafoe and Olympia Dukakis.
Julia Roberts sought him out, first to lose her Georgia accent and then to regain it for her role in Steel Magnolias. He helped another southerner, Andie MacDowell, after her lines for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan were dubbed by Glenn Close.
Chwat also worked with many business executives who wanted to change their regional speech patterns because they thought it would help their careers. In 1994 on Fresh Air, he told Terry Gross that most clients came to him because they felt that their dialect distracted people from what they were saying.
"People are listening to how they say their words instead of what they're saying," he said. "This could be deadly if you're doing a commercial. It could be deadly if you're giving a business presentation."
"Other reasons people come is because they find that they're stigmatized as being members of a discriminated subgroup. [They say,] 'I sound too black,' 'I sound too 'New York.' ... Or they feel that parts of their speech make them unintelligible or difficult to understand because most people are expecting standard American speech, which is an easier pattern for most people to understand."
Acquiring A New Voice
Some of Chwat's clients needed to learn an entirely new regional accent for their movie roles. Actor Robert De Niro needed to lose his New Yorker sound and pick up an Appalachian accent for the movie Cape Fear. Chwat worked with De Niro one-on-one in an intense immersion course that lasted several hours a day, five days a week, for almost three months before shooting began.
"We worked very hard and long on that one, and [De Niro] did beautifully," Chwat said. "What you're hearing [in Cape Fear] is mostly vowels that are changed. For example, instead of family, you're hearing a more nasal sound in the 'a.' Instead of the vowel 'i,' which never exists in any part of the South, you have [the sound] 'ah.' These are some of the changes that we went through, word for word, in the script and all through the shooting."
Chwat also worked with regional news anchors to develop what he called "unremarkable ways of speech."
"You want to listen to what they're saying and not how they're saying it," he said. "The most important thing about those people or people who aspire to those jobs is that they don't reveal where they're from; their accents are identifiably American, and you listen to their content and not to their style."
For all his work with high-profile individuals, it was mainly ordinary people — New Yorkers and recent immigrants who wanted to sound more assimilated — whom Chwat helped at the Sam Chwat Speech Center in Lower Manhattan. He employed six speech therapists and drilled clients on their phrasing and conversational speech, making sure they knew how to self-correct themselves midsentence. He also advised all of his clients to smile naturally while talking.
"[If] you use your face while you are speaking, [you] reduce the monotone effect that some people have where their voice is very, very flat," he said. "If we help [clients] throw in a smile or some facial flexibility, their voices will sound more colorful and more interesting and more pleasing to listen to."
On picking up an accent inadvertently
"People are adaptable to different degrees. One fact that I'm sure of is that the bulk of your accent does develop between 3 years and 7 years [of age], and is based on where you grow up and among which peers you grow up, as opposed to your parents and what accents they speak. You can think about people in your family or people in your past who were brought up in Europe and have identifiably European ways of speech. If their children were brought up here and were between the ages of 3 and 7, their accents reflect the community they grow up in rather than their parents' accents. People are adaptable after that age, and there is some plasticity and changeability in people depending on how adaptable they are and how long they're in a particular place — and how much they're resisting or trying to blend into the area."
On the pronunciation of humid as 'umid in New York
"In this area, the 'h' disappears before the 'y' sound. So instead of humid and humor and humidity and humanity, we have 'umid and 'umor and 'umidity and 'umanity."
On why he worked hard to get rid of his own Brooklyn accent
"I found that some of my clients were picking up absolutely the wrong cues from me and they were walking out with a New York accent when I needed them to have no accent at all — what I call a 'standard American' accent."