In the new Coen brothers comedy "The Ladykillers," Tom Hanks trades his California-bred baritone for an outsized drawl that reminded one movie reviewer of a cross between William Faulkner and Maj. Charles Winchester of "M*A*S*H."
But the person behind the hybrid accent has nothing to do with the small-town Mississippi world of Hanks's Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III. She is Liz Himelstein, a native of Fort Wayne, Ind., one of a handful of Hollywood dialect coaches used by Mr. Hanks and other top actors to refine and teach the accents demanded by period or regional movies.
In the past decade, Ms. Himelstein, a former professor of speech at Carnegie Mellon University, has coaxed a Maine accent out of Memphis-born Kathy Bates in "Dolores Claiborne," helped Naomi Watts stifle her Australian accent to play the all-American Betty Elms in "Mulholland Drive," and sculpted the North Dakotan inflections for the characters in "Fargo." More recently, Himelstein worked with Australian-raised Nicole Kidman to hone an upper-class East Coast accent for the Lars von Trier film, "Dogville," also out this week.
At a recent voice session in her home, Himelstein led Brazilian-born Anna Carolina Dias in a workout that combined elements of yoga, primal scream therapy, and baby talk.
Dias, a youthful brunette with a wide smile and eager-to-please attitude, moved to New York as an adolescent. She wants to replace her voice - a combination of Portuguese-accented English and New York street cadence - with a neutral American one favored by casting directors.
After the two women warm up with stretches, deep breathing, and a couple of belly-rattling body shakes, Himelstein walks Dias through vocal exercises:
"MY MY MY MY."
"Budaka budaka budaka."