If you're an actor in Hollywood and you land a role for which you need to sound like a Russian hit man, or an Irish boxer, or a South American tycoon, or a backwoods Kentucky moonshiner, it is very likely that at some point you will wind up putting in a call to Bob Corff. Corff, 62, is arguably Southern California's most sought-after voice coach. A former actor and singer himself, he has spent over 30 years soaking up expertise on accents from around the world and has helped train the pipes of hundreds of stars, including Javier Bardem, Samuel L. Jackson, Shia LaBeouf, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Beckinsale, Peter Sarsgaard, Jennifer Aniston, and Jake Gyllenhaal. What's less known is that actors occasionally seek out Corff with an altogether different laryngeal dilemma: They sound too gay, and an ever-so-slight trace of queenliness seems to be slowing down their professional advancement. Corff recently spoke with Details about what sounds straight, what sounds gay, and what happened when Rock Hudson put on a kilt.
Details: How many people might you consult with in a given day?
Bob Corff: Sometimes 14, but usually it's about eight or nine.
Details: That's a wide range of accents.
Bob Corff: Absolutely. I mean, so far we've got a record of, like, 80 different accents that we do, and if something new comes up, I do a lot of research and figure that one out, and then I'm able to do that one and teach it.
Details: If you're working with an actor who needs to speak in, say, Bolivian-accented English, would you do research to figure out what the nuances need to be?
Bob Corff: Exactly. I'll do research, and I will put out word that I need that accent, and, because there are so many actors in Los Angeles from all over the world, I can record somebody and take down all the vowels and all the consonants—we have techniques that we've broken down over the years. And then you have it on CD, and you are able to figure out what's the cadence, what's the rhythm, what are the stresses, and then you study it and pass it on.
Details: And you, personally, can speak in all those accents?
Bob Corff: Yes.
Details: You must have incredible elasticity when it comes to your voice.
Bob Corff: I was a singer, and so I think that that really helps, because an accent is like a little song—it's got its own little ups and downs. Every region has its own little melody.
Details: So I understand that you sometimes work with actors who feel compelled to sound "less gay."
Bob Corff: Well, often they are sent by a manager or a teacher—it's so interesting, because I can tell what it is. Sometimes they come in and it takes them a lesson or two before they finally admit why they're here. Which I knew the first second that they talked. But sometimes they'll just come right in and say, "Somebody said I sound gay." And sometimes they are married and straight but they sound gay, and that's not gonna work for being a leading man in Hollywood at this time.
Details: And so the manager will send them your way, in a sense, to "fix" that?
Bob Corff: Yeah, they say, "I think that's what's holding you back; I don't think that is serving you in getting the parts that you want to get."
Details: What are you hearing that sends off that signal?
Bob Corff: Okay, well, let me start by telling you what it is that sounds "straight." Straight actually turns out to be the perfect word to describe what straight guys do. It's very straight—it has no curlicues, it has no frills or any kind of melodic turns. So they say, "Hi. How are you?" It's simple, and the lines are very straight, instead of "Hi, how are yOOuu?" You know, women are much more melodic—their voices go up and they go down, and they even move their mouths more. There's a lot more animation. A straight guy just goes, "Hey—this is as much energy and animation as I'm putting out for this thing."
Details: So it's a monotone?
Bob Corff: If you're monotone, in either case, you're going to be boring. You don't have to be monotone. It's more about—you can do that straight sound, but you can't keep on starting in the same place. So if I say, "This is what I want you to do: I want you to go down the street. And then I want you to turn left," even though my voice kept going down in this very straight, direct way, I wasn't starting in the same place and ending in the same place on the scale.
Details: Then there's a narrow bandwidth of notes in a straight accent?
Bob Corff: Right. Even in the face—the mouth is very simple, the lips stay close to the teeth, and the jaw just drops down.
Details: And the gay accent?
Bob Corff: There's many levels of this. With some people there's just this little thing that's happening, and it's not much, but it's just this little tiny melody and inflection that tells you maybe there's something there. And then there's some people who are just [Slips into Charles Nelson Reilly mode] com-PLEEEET-ly doing THIIIIS, and you go, "Well, clearly, they're not even attempting to . . . " And listen, I make no judgment. I mean, I've been in show business—I did the leads in three Broadway musicals, so I've been around this all my life, and it makes no difference to me. And I don't think it should to anybody, because it's none of our business what you do in the bedroom.
Details: Of course.
Bob Corff: It's how you deliver doing your job, whatever that is.
Details: And whatever the actor's orientation, he's going to want access to a variety of roles.
Bob Corff: Exactly. See, to me, the gay sound is just like an accent. Because if somebody has an accent, there's nothing wrong with that accent, but if you come from the South or you come from New York, it limits you in the kind of roles you can play, because you can't play the brother of somebody who doesn't have that accent. So often I'll say to people, whether it's an accent from a different country or an accent from this country or having this "gay" thing, I'll say, "This is the question for you: Are you an actor, or are you English?" And then they have to answer. If being English is more important to them than being an actor, then they don't need to do it.
Details: What are some other elements associated with the gay sound?
Bob Corff: Well, a lot of times—not always—but a lot of times there is a sibilant s. I work on that with people, too. You can be a girl, you can be a guy, you can be straight or gay—what it is is that your tongue is too close to the back of your top teeth, so the air has no place to get dispersed. It just bounces into your teeth. [Lisps slightly] Can you hear it on the phone?
Bob Corff: So this is the sibilant s, and that [Slips into an accent in which each syllable sounds like a tiny snake hissing], along with the melody of going up and dowwwn, and having these little curlicues—it's more decorative, it has more colors and stuff like that.
[Below, listen to Corff recite Wall Street's 'Greed is Good' speech in a "Gay" accent and in a "New York" accent.]
Details: You can help change that if an actor wants a role in which he isn't supposed to make that sound?
Bob Corff: Absolutely. I mean, that's something that I do. It's working on the tongue placement. The tongue just needs to come back a little bit so that you're not blowing air so hard right into the top of your back teeth. I mean, I've got people now that I'm working with, and a lot of times they come in and they're not aware of what they sound like. For all of us, it's hard to really be aware of what we're doing because inside our heads it sounds different than it does coming out of us.