Elisa Carlson firmly believes an actor’s accent and dialect are an important part of the role.
“It’s not an exterior thing, like putting on a costume,” said Carlson, a professor of voice and movement at the University of North Georgia (UNG) since 2010. “You can’t just put on a dialect. You have to really live in it believably and helping actors do that is really fun and really exciting.”
Carlson often finds work in Georgia’s booming film industry as an expert and has more than 200 credits for her dialect and text coaching in theater, television, movies, and audiobook productions. She has an entry on IMDb—the internet movie database.
Her expertise has led Carlson to work with many Hollywood stars, including Lily James and Ansel Elgort, who were the lead actors in “Baby Driver.” While working on the 2017 movie that was set and filmed in Atlanta, Georgia, Carlson coached both actors to speak in slight Southern accents, a challenge since Elgort is a New York City native and James is British.
It is not the first challenge she faced. Carlson also worked on the set of the 2014 Oscar-nominated movie “Selma.”
“One of my biggest challenges was working on ‘Selma,’ coaching 40-plus actors with speaking parts,” she said, explaining how she often worked 12 to 16 hours per day coaching the actors on the lines as they filmed each take. “Everybody making the film felt a great sense of responsibility because we were telling a really important part of history, and everyone came into that with a great deal of respect.”
Carlson said she prepared to coach the actors by listening to historical recordings.
“We’ve actually shifted a lot in how we sound in the last 50 years,” she said.
Carlson also read Martin Luther King Jr.’s lines for Tom Wilkinson, the British actor who played President Lyndon Johnson, while filming a pivotal scene when Johnson talks with King by telephone.
“These aren’t just dialects, these are iconic voices,” she said. “People remember the sound of these voices.”
Jim Hammond, head of the university’s Department of Theatre spoke highly of Carlson.
“Not only does Elisa’s professional theater and film work sharpen her coaching skills, but the contacts she provides for our students are vital to their transition into the profession after graduation,” he said.
On top of her prolific film experience, Carlson also serves as a resident director and actor with the Gainesville Theatre Alliance (GTA). She said once a year she takes part in a GTA production as an actor. Her last role was Leonata in “Much Ado About Nothing,” which she also directed.
“It made me appreciate what a dialect coach does; there are so many things an actor has to consider in a role, it’s easy to forget you’re supposed to speak a certain way,” she said,
Having onstage and backstage roles have challenges of their own and require a good support team.
“You have to be very, very prepared as an actor and have a good understudy stand in for you when you’re directing,” she said. “As a director, you need a good assistant director to give honest feedback and act as another pair of eyes.”