“We Weren’t Trying to Go for an Exact Imitation”: Dialect Coach Audrey LeCrone on Judas and the Black Messiah
Deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party Fred Hampton was a stirring orator, firing hearts and minds out of slumber and into action against US capitalism. So clear and infectious was Hampton’s guidance against the country’s racist and classist economic system that the FBI and Chicago police department assassinated the 21-year-old as he slept.
In documentaries like The Murder of Fred Hampton, which don’t circulate enough, Hampton is seen delivering his famous speeches at rallies, casually moving fellow Panthers with his warmth in a mock trial at the headquarters, mingling at the Free Breakfast for School Children Program and Local People’s Clinic, etc.. But until Judas and the Black Messiah, Hampton had not been portrayed by an actor in a Hollywood narrative. Daniel Kaluuya had the daunting task of playing the influential, young Chicagoan in a way that did his rhetoric justice in a narrative film. Hampton’s singular vocal rhythm and cadence would be a challenge to embody on its own, but Kaluuya perhaps felt further complications and pressure to do so as a British actor. He entrusted dialect coach Audrey LeCrone, who he collaborated with on Queen & Slim, to help him home in on a voice that was not a beat for beat imitation of Hampton’s, but a voice that let Kaluuya emote himself through it.
LeCrone also worked with other cast members on their respective dialects, and there were often recordings of the people they played to account for. She talked with us about the process of using archival material to collaborate with the cast, creatively maneuvering vocal fatigue and fine tuning the cast’s dialects through ADR.
Filmmaker: What is typically the background of a dialect coach? And how did you get into it?
Audrey LeCrone: It’s a really strange, niche job. Everybody comes to it differently. There’s no union position for it. I came to it out of acting school when I was an English tutor. I was in New York and answered a tutoring call for a Russian doctor and his secretary. His patients couldn’t understand him. I thought, “I could do that.” I took a lot of dialects in college. [laughs] So, I just got a bunch of books from the library and I figured out how I could possibly teach sounds to an adult who was not an actor. Probably immorally, I tried out a bunch of techniques on him. [laughs] I figured out that I loved doing it, and now I’ve been doing it for seven years.
Filmmaker: Do you meet a lot of other dialect coaches?
LeCrone: I’m now a part of VASTA, voice and speech trainers association, so there are a few dialect coaches there. But it’s mostly a very lonely position. [laughs] It’s strange because you’re right in between the video village and the crew. On some sets that are not as amicable, you’re not sure where to go. [laughs] It’s sometimes a strange balance.
Filmmaker: Do you have a research process you do on your own before you start talking with the actors?
LeCrone: I break things down phonetically, figure out where the “vocal posture” of the voice is. Basically, I do things the hard way. Since I’m mostly self-taught, I watch or listen to things like crazy. I’ll take one long line from someone we’re emulating and listen to it over and over and break down the sounds that way. It’s a laborious process, but I find it really fun.
Filmmaker: I didn’t realize you were also involved with the ADR work.
LeCrone: I did ADR work with Daniel [Kaluuya] and Dominique [Fishback] to redo any dialect or sound issues they had, and I think they changed some of the voiceovers slightly. Those actors had to step back into their characters after over half a year, a very difficult thing to do when you’ve played a character so intensely and then put it away. So, I helped them step back into those characters and would be there for the ADR sessions to make sure everything sounded accurate and was in line with the rest of the film.
I also helped the “Fesperman” character put on a southern accent. When we were filming he had actually spoken with a general American accent. He was the guy that was standing in front of the Confederate flag. We actually found a real recording of the actual Fesperman and were able to emulate that for ADR. The actor was Nick Fink. They used that over the footage they already shot and somehow, magically, it matched his lips and still looked fine. I think it actually looks better than it did with the original audio. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Why didn’t they film him speaking in that accent originally?
LeCrone: I’m not sure why he didn’t speak in an Appalachian accent originally. But if you listen to different types of southern dialects, you’ll notice they have a more uneven rhythm where vowel sounds are stretched out quite a bit more than a general dialect. We were worried that this new rhythm wouldn’t match up with the picture, but it did!
Filmmaker: Is it typical for dialect coaches to be involved in the ADR process?
LeCrone: Every film is different. It depends on the actors, the director and the budget. But often I’m there for ADR just to give the actors some ease. ADR is hard enough, so when the actor has to do a dialect it’s nice to have someone there as a security blanket.
Filmmaker: Daniel asked you to watch Queen & Slim in post production, right?
LeCrone: Daniel asked me to watch Queen & Slim before they did ADR to add my notes to it, to see if any parts sounded non-American. On this film, I didn’t really need to watch it, because I knew intimately that every take we did was pretty good. I kicked his butt on set. He asked me to, but it was really intense and he did a really great job with it.
Filmmaker: You were on set everyday. Is that typical?
LeCrone: Usually you’re on whenever the actor you’re working with is on and speaking. For this film, I was expecting to be there for maybe half the days, but they kept adding people for me to work with. So I ended up being on set everyday, which was really fun. I got to work with Daniel Kaluuya, Dominique Fishback, those were gonna be the only two. Then I ended up working with Jesse Plemons, Dominique Thorne, Ashton Sanders and Daryl Britt-Gibson.
Jesse Plemons’s character, Roy Mitchell, was from Indiana. He worked with another dialect coach, Susan Hegarty, to get that dialect down, then on set I was his ears to make sure he was speaking accurately in the dialect. Everyone was playing historical characters, most of them were playing real people, and there was some footage of most of those real people. Daryl was playing Bobby Rush, which was pretty cool, so we got to see all these young videos of Bobby Rush. Dominique Fishback was obviously playing Deborah Johnson, who now goes by Akua Njeri—mama Akua, they call her. We had to base her entire character’s voice on this one video, because as people age their voice’s change, so we couldn’t really interview her now. Dominique did a great job giving life to her character’s voice with only one video to work from.
Dialect notes are a lot of added pressure on the actors who are already thinking of a million things. That’s why I respect Daniel as an artist even more, because I gave him a shitton of notes. I was really, really tough on him. He told me, “I want to get this perfectly. Be honest. Be my ears. Be tough.” So I said, “OK. You asked for it.” I think we’re both perfectionists so we can work at the level together.
Filmmaker: And that probably feels liberating for your job, where the place and time to wedge yourself in is ambiguous, to know you can be transparent and that your notes are welcome.
LeCrone: Right, and you have to have that conversation with every single actor. Ask them: “How involved do you want me to be? How much can you handle? What do you want my help to look like?” Everyone’s different. I’ve worked with other people who tell me to go away. [laughs] And that’s fine, we can get it in the ADR. The acting is the most important thing at the moment, and if your voice is incorrect you can redo that.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me more about how you use your research material in your collaboration with the actors?
LeCrone: I actually like to edit the videos [of their real life counterpart talking, or of someone with their character’s dialect] so that little phrases repeat, and they can use it sort of like an earworm. For Daniel doing Fred Hampton, we actually slowed down most of his clips, because he is such a fast talker that you can barely pick up on everything he’s saying. Since our plan was to make Daniel’s voice slower, I literally took editing software and slowed it all down. So, when we were working on getting the voice down we were doing it slower to really feel out the sounds.
Filmmaker: You told me that on the first day of shooting you were listening to actual Fred Hampton recordings in one ear and Daniel in the other. Were you listening to your slowed down versions?
LeCrone: No, I was just making sure he had that same feel to his voice. We weren’t trying to go for an exact imitation, we were trying to get the soul of the voice.
Filmmaker: What does your day-to-day look like on set?
LeCrone: That changes with the actors and films. On this film, I would warm up the actors in their trailer and we would do whatever helped them most: vocal exercises, imitation exercises. Then I just listen to them on set, everything they’re saying on the microphone, and notating my script. I would sit right behind [director] Shaka [King]. It was Shaka, the script supervisor Eva [Z. Cabrera], and me. Shaka gave me free reign to go give notes to the actors. If I was being extremely nitpicky, I’d ask Shaka, “Does this bother you?” Most of the time I asked him that, he’d say, “I actually loved that mistake.” [laughs] He flew me out a week early, before shooting, so I could be there for rehearsals. That was probably my favorite part of the whole experience, because it was just Shaka, Daniel and I in a room. Sometimes Lakeith [Stanfield] was there. We would just read through the scenes, and the way that Shaka and Daniel talked through the character and script was brilliant. I knew I was in the presence of greatness. [laughs] I felt so honored to be there. That was probably one of the coolest experiences that I’ve ever had, just hearing them talk about the art they were making at such a high level.
Filmmaker: When do you introduce the actors to the research material?
LeCrone: That week before shooting is just with the script. In the rehearsals we had in the months leading up to shooting, we played with both the script and Fred Hampton’s speeches. I had edited a video of common phrases that Fred would say, that were not necessarily in the script but could be added at any time. So, we were working with those phrases from interviews and speeches.
Filmmaker: Are you ever making any notes to the language of the script itself?
LeCrone: I would be overstepping my boundaries if I suggested actual changes to the script, but I can suggest changes to the pronunciation of words in the script. [laughs] For example, Fred Hampton would say the word “four” as “fuh.” Not always, but in certain settings. I loved that pronunciation, so I tried to slip it in. They did ADR over one of them, but kept one in.
Filmmaker: It seems like there’s a kind of push and pull happening between the desire for the words to be discernible and the desire for them to be as authentic to the person or dialect as possible.
LeCrone: Oh yeah, it was definitely a balancing act between being inaccurate and being understandable. Some pronunciations are so strange that they sort of take you out of the story. It’s very easy for a dialect coach to nerd out and want a strong dialect, but that can take you out of the story, so we were trying to avoid that. You don’t want it to be all about the voice, you want it to be about the story and the characters. When you’re only focused on one thing it’s very easy to go too far. It’s like if I was an electrician and was saying, “We need all red lights!” It would be cool, but does that make sense? It makes it about you.
Filmmaker: You mentioned there was an impetus to slow down Daniel’s take on Hampton’s voice. Were there any other liberties made in adapting it?
LeCrone: We didn’t want to go for an exact imitation of Fred Hampton. Daniel felt like that would take the soul and fume out of the character. We were trying to find Fred’s voice in Daniel, rather than making Daniel like Fred. So it becomes a more complicated process, because we were trying to find the Fred-like voice that lives inside of Daniel. It sounds cheesy saying it out loud. [laughs] But I think, after seeing the film, it works. It doesn’t feel like a robotic imitation, it felt like an embodiment of a human being.
Filmmaker: Were there early variations of the voice that led up to what you both found?
LeCrone: It was a long process. [laughs] It was very daunting for both of us because a) we knew the gravity of the situation if he got this voice wrong and b) it was a difficult dialect to master because it’s so specific to that neighborhood in Chicago. My husband actually grew up a few blocks away from where Fred Hampton is from, so I enlisted his help as well. I made him listen to it and give me his feedback and tell me what he heard. He helped to have another set of ears as a local. I would transcribe Fred Hampton’s speeches and mark every single sound as he said it. I grouped all of the sounds into categories, listed every word in the script containing those sounds, then we worked on perfecting those different categories, so that he could memorize that, for instance, every time he said an “in” sound, it would be “ee-in.” Then we worked on word lists, the rhythm of it, getting the music of it. We worked on the pitches, so I would have him do imitations of Fred’s voice without using words, treating it like music, because Fred had a very musical voice. Then we would work on putting different parts of those aspects together, two at a time. At one point we were thinking, “Let’s push production.” I mean, I knew he could do it, but at times it was like, “Oh my God. It’s too much.”
Filmmaker: Were there challenges with specific sounds or pronunciations?
LeCrone: I feel like everyday was different. Actually, Daniel would lose his voice sometimes, because it was a ton of strain to put on his voice and he was already coming in with a little bit of damage from doing plays. So, that was a huge pressure. We knew that if he lost his voice in the middle of the day on a speech day, that was it. It happened several times, actually. How we would deal with those days is, I would queue the start of his voice going, I would tell Shaka, “Hey, you’ve got about ten takes left of this and that’s it, he’s not going to have a voice.” So, I give him a little warning. Then I would give the sound guys a warning if it started to get really bad. I would tell them, “Hey, you need to record this now. Be ready to have playback so he can mimic the words or speak silently.” They had to do that in the church, in the “I am a revolutionary” scene and in the outside scene where he kind of has a raspy voice. I was running around like a madman that day. [laughs] Again, the sound guys happened to have a PA system with them, so they were able to take one of his recordings and play it over the PA. If Daniel blew out his voice, he could kind of pretend to talk with the PA. It was wild.
I told Shaka, “When Fred Hampton loses his voice this is not exactly how it sounds like.” But Shaka was like, “I think this sounds really cool.” So he did keep one of the takes where Daniel has a raspy voice, and it does sound cool. It also makes sense to the story because Fred is always giving these huge speeches. Fred Hampton Jr. also has that loud booming voice.
Filmmaker: Is there any memory from the set that particularly stands out to you?
LeCrone: I spent my first trimester pregnant on this movie. [laughs] Everyday crafts made different kinds of soup. They were the only ones who knew I was pregnant, because I would get so sick from smelling their soup. I would be in a cramped space with Shaka and Eva. They’d both be eating this soup and I would have to smell my coat or something—oh, it was terrible. Then I would go gag outside. [laughs] That was one of the memories that came back while watching the movie. I remembered the soup they were eating. It was the worst smell.
Jesse Plemons was the first one who knew I was pregnant because the first day I worked with him I was outside, about to vomit. It was a particularly bad soup day. [laughs] He was like, “Audrey, are you OK? You look like you’re about to vomit.” and I was like, “I am! I’m pregnant!” I didn’t want him to think I was sick, so I had to tell him I was pregnant. Anyways, that’s my particular anecdote. [laughs] And everyone was raving about the soup! The better it was the more sick it would make me!
Filmmaker: I can’t remember soup ever being so prominent on any set I’ve been on.
LeCrone: I know, it was a really special set. The craft ladies apparently killed it. People were very, very happy about it. They made homemade soup at least once a day. [laughs]
Filmmaker: As we’ve discussed here, there was a lot of pressure to get Hampton’s cadence right, and evidently you and Kaluuya really put in work here to do so. Can you describe what you felt or were challenged by as a white woman working with a Black British actor to find the voice of a Black American icon? Of course, Kaluuya trusted you in this role, but I’m wondering if this context influenced the way you personally prepared or approached the job?
LeCrone: Helping a British actor play a Black Chicagoan required a ton of research on both of our parts. We made no assumptions and left no stone unturned. When I wasn’t sure of something, I would find someone to ask. I remember at one point on set they added a new line we were both uncomfortable with, so I had different Black American men record how they would say it. Overall, it was a daunting task and the stakes were high. But it felt more like constructing an intricate love letter to Fred Hampton and his fellow Chicagoans rather than boring research. All of this being said, there are definitely not enough dialect coaches who are people of color. We absolutely can use more representation in this field.