Talk Dwarven To Me: Dialect Coach Leith McPherson on ‘The Rings of Power’

Leith McPherson and Owain Arthur

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is doing a splendid job at transporting fans back to Middle Earth. And a tremendous amount of technical talent is part of creating that journey for fans.

One thing that made the Lord of the Rings movies so special was the attention paid to every aspect of production – from set design and costumes to makeup and dialect coaching. And when it comes to languages, there are many questions to ask about the accents and dialects used in The Rings of Power. Which languages were they speaking? What was the process for creating those accents and dialects? For answers to those questions and more, we turned to the series’ supervising dialect coach Leith McPherson.

We sat down with McPherson at Dragon Con 2022 and discussed her work on the new Amazon series, The Hobbit films, and more. Check it out below.

You have such a cool job. Can you give an overview of what you do? 

Leith McPherson: The dialect coach on a show, or coaches on a show like this, get to bring the acoustic world to life with the actors. So, you are helping people to literally embody a character, who in some cases might sound different when they speak in English, but might be speaking a completely different language. So, you are trying to build the acoustic landscape to try to complement the visual landscape that has been created.

Walk me through your introduction to Lord of the Rings initially. How did you become a fan of it before working on the properties?

Leith McPherson: Well, I started with books when I was a teenager. However, I started with the wrong book. I started with the Silmarillion and stumbled and fell very, very quickly because we were talking about this earlier. I have a real inability to remember names. That is a big challenge for me. So, by the time everyone in the Silmarillion has three names, and there are so many of them. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to remember Fëanor’s sons. It’s a real challenge.

So, I paused that, went to The Hobbit, and thank you very much… As Bilbo steps out at that door, it felt like I did as well. And the landscape rolls out ahead of you. So, that really helps me, as somebody who is not particularly visually clear with these things, to just start to build the world.

And from that, then Peter Jackson’s work with the films… I mean, now I understand. Now you’ve given me this visual framework to explore these other stories, then reference back and come back to them. It just gives you an insight into how much of this world we will never get to see these shadows and suggestions that are right through all of Tolkien’s work. And that also helps you to feel like you can observe more of the detail of the stories that we do see. Because it’s not everything, it’s not ever intended to be anything other than a path through a rich world. So, from that, that took me to eventually working on The Hobbit and The Hobbit trilogy. And I’ve never really left Middle Earth.

When you’re working on languages like in The Rings of Power, where it isn’t a language spoken every day – or in some part of the world that you can reference… Where are you pulling the accents from? Do you have enough descriptions in the books to pull from?

Leith McPherson: So, with this particular project, it was a really interesting process that could have taken a path like Peter [Jackson] sort of did in the Shire where you’ve got four Hobbits with different accents. So, what have you established there? And people have a sense that they know what a Hobbits’ accent is, which doesn’t really make sense from that little sample.

So, there are suggestions, and I think there are tones in the writing that will point you in a particular direction. But for this show, we have established that when you move from one culture to another visually, you really have a sense of where you are. So, the palette changes, and the visuals do as well. But you feel, especially when you look at Númenor, as opposed to the Harfoots world, the shapes become very different.

There’s a very different visual vocabulary. And so we wanted a feeling that there was a very different acoustic shift, almost like a shift musically when you go from one, even one genre, but certainly one movement of music to the next, there’s a tone change. It should move you acoustically from where you were to where you are.

And so when you are doing that, and you know that you are working with accents of the British Isles, which is very Tolkienian, of course. We are creating another world. Then those accents become a palette to play with rather than a prescription. It’s not. You are then working with a kind of acoustic freedom and suggestions.

So, although there may be qualities that people can say, well, of course, that accent would’ve been Scottish because Scottish people are X. That is your association. And that may come through the tone of the language, through how people feel when they embody the sound changes of the dwarves, for example. But that doesn’t mean, we’re saying, they’re Scottish, they’re Scottish, they’re Scottish. We’re trying to say they are from somewhere else. And this is the palette we are painting with to help shift you into a different sensibility.

How far can you go when creating this sort of linguistic landscape?

Leith McPherson: You do actually reach some boundaries occasionally where you’re looking for a word. Or the writers will have written something, and then it goes to the translators, and we don’t have the language for it. And this means that it was not envisioned or that you’ve deviated perhaps a little too far. And so coming back to the language you have, it can bring you a bit of a course correction or an adjustment, which is so interesting to me.

How much of the language are you able to evolve yourself?

Leith McPherson: I have no desire to evolve.

I don’t want to do any of that. I don’t want to interfere with these languages at all. Fortunately, I’ve managed to make it not my job as well. We have an extraordinary translation team to whom I defer at all times. And I have enough if there’s emergency Elvish, which is a thing! But if that comes up on set, I can assist.

But otherwise, there are people for whom this is their living and breathing – Elvish experts, for example. And so I just want to carry that the water and that vessel as safely as possible from the imagination of Professor Tolkien from page to screen, without spilling a drop. I don’t want to add any part of myself to that. I just want to carry the work through in the best way I can.

For your work on The Rings of Power specifically, what was the most challenging part of your job?

Leith McPherson: Gosh, I think the biggest challenge was the challenge we’ve all gone through over the last few years. It’s isolation, distance, fear, care, love, and hope.

It’s been such a challenging time for all of us. And that was, of course, part of our experience. Even though we had the gift, I had the gift of being in New Zealand throughout the most difficult part of those years. It’s a safe and beautiful country to be in. I felt very, very fortunate.

But so much of your heart is at a distance that I think that was… that’s not the sort of in-camera challenge, but it was part of our lives through all of that. It’s another reason why the release… I just realized the power of that word… Bringing the show to life now… It feels like a release, it feels like we have a safe place. We can now go back to. Middle Earth is there for us to go back to now. And it also feels like a release of all of the difficulties of that time.

Be sure to catch The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on Amazon Prime Video! A new episode is releasing every Friday at 12 AM EDT until the Season 1 finale on October 14, 2022!


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