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Actors Who Didn’t Speak English Before They Came To Hollywood

Who learned English for a role?

Mary Kosiarz

15 April 2024

Actors Who Didn't Speak English Before They Came To Hollywood

Those are rare cases, but Hollywood doesn’t solely belong to artists from English-speaking countries. Some actors, actresses, and individuals associated with the film industry, pursuing their dreams, have made impressive careers in the United States, even though they grew up in different parts of the world, not always with access to English language education. In recent years, Hollywood has increasingly opened up to European, Asian, and thus entirely different from the previous, rather repetitive pool of names that often dominated the Oscar season nominations year after year. The actors mentioned in the compilation probably wouldn’t have suspected as children that they would succeed in reaching the true capital of film – the language barrier was a problem, but over time, they managed to overcome it. Which actors learned to speak English only when they got the chance to make it in Hollywood?

Antonio Banderas

desperado antonio banderas

Antonio Banderas’s first Hollywood production in which he snagged a role was The Mambo Kings. The actor had been previously associated with Spanish theater, although he also had a few appearances on the big screen to his credit – always in roles in his native language. When his agent sent him to a casting taking place in London, Banderas couldn’t communicate in English. As he confessed, the only phrases he used were “Yes, Of course” and “I can do that.” However, he managed to convince the director, and thus began his arduous process of learning English. He absorbed new words sometimes for up to eight hours a day, yet he still didn’t make the expected progress. He learned the script by rote, often not even understanding what he was saying. Nevertheless, his broken English and the charm of a lover quickly propelled his career – shortly thereafter, he landed roles in Philadelphia and Desperado. Despite decades of acting experience outside his homeland, Banderas still doesn’t feel confident speaking with Americans. He admitted that every time he comes to the USA, he has to adjust his way of thinking to avoid linguistic mishaps.

Penélope Cruz

Cruz arrived in the United States as a 20-year-old, at a time when she couldn’t even navigate the simplest English phrases. Until then, the new language hadn’t been necessary for her, as her acting career had developed exclusively in Spain – the only phrases she knew were those needed for auditions and perhaps questions about her name or well-being. However, she knew that such a limited vocabulary wouldn’t propel her career forward, especially as frustration grew due to communication difficulties with the directors she collaborated with. So, she hired a private tutor and began honing her language skills. During an appearance on The Graham Norton Show in 2016, she even mentioned one embarrassing slip-up she made early in her Hollywood stay, which made her realize how much she needed to learn English – namely, when she went to the hairdresser and instead of asking for a “blow-dry,” she accidentally requested a “blow job”…

Arnold Schwarzenegger

terminator 2 judgement day arnold shwarzenegger edward furlong

From bodybuilding to the heart of Hollywood, Arnold Schwarzenegger faced numerous obstacles on his journey to Los Angeles, but he considers learning English and shedding his strong German accent as the most challenging. Upon arriving in California in 1968, he knew only a few words and wasn’t particularly determined to learn systematically. Nevertheless, he set himself a very specific goal: he would only date American women, forcing himself to communicate with them without excuses. After his role in Hercules, he faced significant criticism, mainly regarding his accent, which almost no one could understand. Language courses proved to be the solution, making him feel much more comfortable during everyday conversations, and eventually, he landed roles in new film projects that consistently increased his recognition.

Ke Huy Quan

As a mere eight-year-old, Ke Huy Quan, along with his entire family, abruptly moved to the United States, fleeing the Vietnam War. As he often recalls, he never imagined that his future would be tied to acting. However, several years later, when he was much more familiar with the English language, the young Ke Huy Quan and his brother auditioned for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which turned out to be a stroke of luck for him. As a teenager, he was already fluent in English, opening up opportunities for him in the industry. However, the success of Indiana Jones and The Goonies didn’t flood him with new role offers, so he decided to take a break from acting to pursue further education, including studies at Cambridge University. It wasn’t until several decades later, thanks to Everything Everywhere All at Once, that his career was revitalized. In addition to English, Ke Huy Quan also communicates in Vietnamese and Cantonese.

Marion Cotillard

ALLIED Brad Pitt Marion Cotillard

Cotillard, who became the first Frenchwoman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, also worked hard to earn a chance with the world’s top directors. As she mentioned in an interview, her love for the English language, which she always wanted to master at an advanced level, made the task easier. To excel in the film Public Enemies, the actress spent four months working on eliminating her French accent. Today, she is one of the most respected European film artists and admits that without many hours of practice, she would still feel vulnerable, just as she did during her first stay in the USA.

Salma Hayek

She began her artistic career by participating in Mexican soap operas, through which she became increasingly recognizable in her country. Hoping for more serious contracts in the industry, she decided to fulfill the famous American dream and at the age of 25, packed her bags and arrived in Hollywood. However, she quickly confronted harsh reality – job offers were limited to roles of a Latina maid because her broken English hindered her path to more ambitious productions. As a teenager, she tried to learn the new language even from movies, but she always felt embarrassed about her distinct accent, and dyslexia further deepened her lack of confidence and difficulties in acquiring new words. Nevertheless, she took on the challenge, enrolled in English lessons, attended acting classes, and soon managed to catch the attention of Robert Rodriguez, who cast her alongside Antonio Banderas in Desperado, finally opening the doors to her career. Today, as one of the most recognizable Latina actresses, Hayek often gives advice to people struggling with language learning difficulties. One of them is maintaining a distance from mistakes made in conversations and treating one’s accent more as an asset than a liability.

Jean Reno

the last battle Le dernier combat Jean Reno

Jean Reno is fluent in up to five languages, which stems from both his involvement in numerous international projects and his background – as a teenager, he first spoke his native Spanish, and then, with his move to Paris, became acquainted with French. However, he learned English the latest. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that he utilized the services of a language coach for several hours a day, which was necessary if he wanted to establish himself as quickly as possible in American cinema.

Diego Calva

Diego Calva gained worldwide recognition thanks to his leading role in Damien Chazelle’s latest production, Babylon. Critics also appreciated his performance, honoring him with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy Film. The talented Mexican actor shared on Jimmy Fallon’s show about his process of learning the English language, with which he had never previously had any experience – not even in school. To embody Manny and communicate with the film crew, Calva learned vocabulary by listening to music, playing video games, and watching movies with English subtitles. He certainly didn’t develop a perfect American accent – that wasn’t his goal at all – but he quickly picked up the necessary expressions at an impressive pace and ultimately portrayed his character brilliantly, alternating between Spanish and English.

Djimon Hounsou

Blood Diamond Leonardo DiCaprio Djimon Hounsou

His path to success was incredibly winding. The first stop was immigrating from his native country to France with barely a penny to his name, eventually leading the actor and his family to temporary homelessness. A chance encounter with a designer and photographer who took an interest in Hounsou paved the way for him to have a one-in-a-million chance in the fashion industry. He started with photo shoots and appearing in music videos, and then in the 1990s, after another move, this time to the United States, he tried his hand at acting. However, this required knowledge of English – Djimon Hounsou was, as he admitted, self-taught. His main source of knowledge was American feature films and documentaries watched with subtitles. These basic skills helped him land roles in box office hits of the 2000s, such as Gladiator and Blood Diamond. His story is an example of determination, but also of many coincidences that prove it’s never worth giving up on striving for more.

Mary Kosiarz

Mary Kosiarz

Far from keeping her feet firmly on the ground, she has sold her artistic soul to books and cinematography. Fascinated by Meryl Streep and an avid fan of unconventional film endings. In her free time, she educates about mental health and recommends her favorite books and screens.

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