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MediaJune 20, 2018

A desperate search for a single good New Zealand accent


Has there ever been a good pretend Kiwi accent on screen? Like, ever? Madeleine Chapman searches far and wide for one, just one, decent New Zealand accent.

What’s in a name? Not a lot of vowels if the name is New Zealand and spoken with a New Zealand accent.

The near absence of vowel sounds and the tendency to speak without moving our mouths has made the New Zealand accent an Everest for actors all over the world (there were a lot of bad accents in the 2015 film Everest, which makes this a good and funny joke).

Our accent is hard. I’ve lived here my whole life and I still can’t do it. Thanks to growing up with an American dad, there are a few words I recently discovered I pronounce weirdly. Did you know the word ‘always’ is supposed to be said ‘all-ways’? I didn’t, and have been strutting around confidently yelling ‘ole-ways’ like a right fool.

Comedian Melanie Bracewell was in Los Angeles the other week and shared an Uber pool ride with a man who claimed to be an accent coach. According to this expert, Bracewell didn’t have a very good New Zealand accent. In a chilling account shared exclusively with The Spinoff, Bracewell broke down her ordeal.

“I said I was from New Zealand. He said ‘really? Have you spent a lot of time in New Orleans? You have a mixed accent, definitely not a normal New Zealand accent.’ Then he did a mixture between South African and Australian saying, ‘New Zealanders talk more like this.’ He talked about how he trains accents and launched into a ‘Russian’ accent which kinda sounded like Gru from Despicable Me.”

It’s a grim tale and goes some way to explaining why everyone sucks at imitating our voice.

Almost every attempt from foreign actors, no matter how respected they are in Hollywood, has been a Bad Accent™. Part of it is that hearing a recognisable voice pretending to have another voice is hard to accept. Ever seen Cider House Rules? Michael Caine does a bad impression of an American man doing a Michael Caine impression. Meanwhile, Kevin McKidd had me convinced for six seasons of Grey’s Anatomy that he was American. And then I watched one interview, realised he’s Scottish, and now hear his natural accent coming through occasionally on the show.

That’s part of it. The rest of it is that they’re Bad Accents™.

And so, let us travel the world in search of the elusive New Zealand accent. Below, the valiant attempts – and the actual country’s accent they land on.


Jason Clarke in Everest

Keira Knightley in Everest

Alexis Arquette in Jack Be Nimble

Lots of people think the Australian and New Zealand accents are one and the same. So it’s only natural that attempts at the truncated sounds of our country frequently morph into the long vowels of our neighbours. Keira Knightley in particular managed a flawless Australian accent while playing a New Zealander in Everest, and the consistency at least must be commended.


Matthew McFadden in In My Father’s Den

British actor Matthew McFadden has been applauded for his supposedly understated accent in In My Father’s Den. It kinda just sounds like he didn’t even attempt it. And there’s nothing New Zealand loves more than a famous person from overseas who puts little effort in [see: Obama].

Matthew McFadden in this movie is an aspirational New Zealand accent. He sounds how we all think we sound until we hear our gross voices recorded for the first time. No wonder it was well received.


Emily Watson in Everest

Everest offered up a smorgasbord of not-quite-nearly-there accents and Oscar nominee Emily Watson provided the Irish flavour. Delicious.


Ben Kingsley in Ender’s Game

Aside from sounding like he took one third of the daily recommended intake of breaths for humans, Ben Kingsley in Ender’s Game channeled some South African realness in his role as a Māori war hero (not enough time in the world to go into the issues with that). In the rare moments when he actually nailed the accent, it was the wrong one. It was a white accent and, believe it or not, there are different accents within New Zealand.


Martin Henderson in Grey’s Anatomy

I thought local hero Martin Henderson was doing a bad American accent when he appeared on Grey’s Anatomy and I was sad. Then it was revealed his character’s from New Zealand and I was sadder. Someone told me that he was told to tone down his accent because it was too jarring when surrounded by all the American voices. At least, I think someone told me. I may have imagined it to make myself feel better.


This is so bad that it has circled back around and is maybe the best clip I’ve ever seen.


Kate Fleetwood in The Widower

Anthony Hopkins in The World’s Fastest Indian

Bruce McGill in Live From Baghdad

Anthony Hopkins may be receiving some belated praise for his polarising take on Burt Munro’s southern drawl in The World’s Fastest Indian, but he’s not the only one to navigate the more obscure New Zealand accents. American Bruce McGill put in a good hybrid attempt when playing New Zealand-born journalist Peter Arnett in Live From Baghdad.

Kate Fleetwood played a real person, though not one whose voice is widely known. In The Widower – a mini-series following convicted murderer Malcolm Webster – Fleetwood plays New Zealander Felicity, Webster’s second wife. There are some slip ups (her A’s in eg ‘asking’ are ‘aye’s rather than ‘ah’s) but overall she manages to get the cadence mostly right. As so often happens in life and television, a crime drama mini series has provided the goods.


Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake

Look, it’s not perfect. In fact, it’s not even that close. But given Moss is American, had just been on a popular American show for seven years, is *famous*, and still made me believe, at least at times, that she was an ordinary New Zealand woman with no sense of humour, it’s an impressive feat. Her character having lived in Australia for years certainly helped to explain the lapses into Aussie sounds but overall it’s passable, and that’s all we ever want, isn’t it?


It’s infinitely easier to imitate one person saying one sentence than it is to play a character for an entire movie, so unsurprisingly the best attempts have been short. Enjoy. And then enjoy hearing an American accent coach saying ‘good’ correctly in a New Zealand accent. It’s strangely satisfying.

Kate Winslet as Jane Campion

Tom Hiddleston as Korg

Catherine Tate as Random Audience Member on The Project

Amy Walker doing a good accent

Keep going!