How did you become a language and drama coach?
I started out as an actress, so I’m used to sets and filming. I was trained by Susan Batson, who has coached fantastic actresses such as Nicole Kidman and Juliette Binoche. After filming the first season of the television series Kustenwache, I was suddenly told that I was no longer part of the show. There I was thinking, “What do I do now?” That’s when Susan stepped in and suggested I start working as an acting coach. So I started coaching from the comfort of my own living room.
What was it like to be 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 if you needed a coach, you just couldn’t do the job very well. When Simone Bär, an internationally renowned casting agent here in Berlin, came to see me with Tarantino Inglourious Basterds, she asked me if I felt up to the job of coaching Michael Fassbender. Although he has a German father and was born in Heidelberg, Fassbender is deeply Irish and was 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 lived in Italy. I am constantly learning and looking for people who can teach me new things. My sister, for example, is a speech therapist and she taught me the anatomy behind human speech. Unlike my sister, I had to teach people how to act with a lisp or stutter.
What does a typical coaching session look like with you?
We usually start with a simple conversation in the intended language, so I can see what works and what doesn’t. Some are a little shy and only want to speak in the language we are supposed to speak. So I have them read their script without acting and I start to identify the letters and the sounds that they have trouble saying. Americans, for example, find the German “ch” in ish, Michigan, shred really hard to pronounce. But curiously, there is a parallel to this in English at the beginning of the words “huge” or “humor” or “Hugh Grant”, which create the same sound.
What accents or languages do you specialize in and which are the most fun to coach?
I think there is a big difference with English dialect coaching. I don’t teach dialects, which are plentiful in English due to their spread. I am dealing with differences between languages, not differences within the same language. I teach German with an English accent, English with a German accent, Italian with a German accent, etc. My area of expertise is people who have to act in languages completely different from their own. How much fun it gives depends heavily on the actors themselves.
Do you think it is important to make efforts in the framing of dialects and languages out of respect for those who are truly from these ethnic origins?
Yes, it is incredibly important! The way you speak defines you as a person, a concept that has long been overlooked in the German film industry. Voice actors would speak right above the actors in movies. Now people think it’s nicer to be able to tell where a person is from by the way they speak. One of my clients, who is of Korean descent but has never lived there, was always hired as “the Chinese girl” or simply “the Asian girl”, so she had to find someone who spoke Mandarin in order to be able to achieve a convincing Chinese accent. She had to change the way she spoke when acting, only because her appearance suggested she didn’t speak German. This mindset is slowly but surely changing as people realize that you don’t have to be blonde and blue-eyed to be fluent in German.
Do you think the film industry should strive to hire more people with real accents for movies, or is that against the “business” of acting?
Movie producers are now under a lot more pressure to diversify their distributions, which is a good thing! I am therefore hired by more and more production companies as a dialect coach, due to the multitude of languages and accents that rub shoulders following these various castings. I think it would be great if we could tell where the actors are from – all that matters is that the audience has no trouble understanding them.
Lena Lessing is a Berlin-born actress and director turned drama and dialect coach who grew up in India and Germany. Speaking four languages, Lessing used her knowledge of film sets from her previous acting career and her interest in teaching to become one of Germany’s first dialect coaches.