How did you come to be a language and acting coach?
I started out as an actress, so am used to sets and film shoots. I was taught by Susan Batson, who coached fantastic actresses such as Nicole Kidman and Juliette Binoche. After filming the first season of the TV series Küstenwache, I was suddenly told that I was no longer part of the show. There I was thinking, “What the hell do I do now?” That was when Susan jumped in and suggested that I start working as an acting coach. So I started coaching from the comfort of my own living room.
What was it like being one of the first language coaches in Germany?
At that time, most actors and actresses didn’t want people to know that they had worked with me. People thought that if you needed a coach then you just couldn’t do the job very well. When Simone Bär, an internationally renowned casting agent here in Berlin, came to me with Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, she asked if I felt up to the job of coaching Michael Fassbender. Despite having a German father and being born in Heidelberg, Fassbender is deeply Irish and had been given the task of acting in German. So I thought, why not? Languages have always been my thing. I grew up in India speaking Hindi and English, went to an American school and have lived in Italy. I’m constantly training myself and on the lookout for people who can teach me new things. My sister, for instance, is a speech therapist and she taught me about the anatomy behind human speech. In contrast to my sister though, I had to teach people how to act with a lisp or a stammer.
What does a typical coaching session with you look like?
We usually start with a simple conversation in the intended language, so that I can see what works and what doesn’t. Some are a little shy and only want to speak their lines in the language we are supposed to practice. So I make them read their script without acting and start to pick out which letters and sounds they find difficult to say. Americans, for instance, find the German “ch” in ich, mich, dich really difficult to pronounce. But funnily enough, there is a parallel to this in English at the beginning of the words “huge” or “humour” or “Hugh Grant”, which create the same sound.
What accents or languages do you specialise in and which ones are the most fun to coach?
I think that there is a big difference to the English “dialect coaching”. I am not teaching dialects, of which there are many in English due to how widespread it is. I deal with differences between languages, not with the differences within a single language. I teach German with an English accent, English with a German accent, Italian with a German accent and so on. My field of expertise is people having to act in completely different tongues to their own. How much fun it is depends heavily on the actors themselves.
Do you find it important to put effort into dialect and language coaching out of respect for those who really do stem from these ethnic backgrounds?
Yes, its incredibly important! The way you speak defines you as a person, which is a concept that has been neglected in the German film industry for a long time. Voice actors would just speak over actors in films. Now people think it is nicer to be able to tell where a person comes from by the way they speak. One client of mine, who is of Korean descent but has never actually lived there was always hired as “the Chinese girl” or just “the Asian girl”, so she had to find someone who could speak mandarin so that she could pull off a convincing Chinese accent. She had to change the way she spoke when she acted, only because her looks suggested that she could not speak German. That mindset is changing slowly but surely as people realise that you don’t have to be blonde and blue-eyed to speak German fluently.
Do you think that the film industry should put effort into hiring more people with real accents for films, or does that clash with the “craft” of acting?
Film producers are under a lot more pressure now to diversify their casts, which is a great thing! So I am being hired by more and more production companies as a dialect coach, due to the multitude of languages and accents that come together as a result of these diverse castings. I think it would be great if we could tell where the actors come from – all that matters is that the audience does not find it difficult to understand them.
Lena Lessing is a Berlin-born actor and director turned acting and dialect coach who grew up in both India and Germany. Speaking four languages, Lessing used her knowledge of film sets from her previous acting career and interest in teaching to become one of Germany’s first dialect coaches.