I am a huge Outlander fan. Ever since a friend and fellow actor loaned me her copy of the first book of the series, so I had something to read offstage during the run of Hamlet (the rock version), I’ve been absolutely hooked. If you aren’t familiar, it’s an epic story of a woman named Claire who accidentally travels through time in Scotland, and meets her soul mate, Jamie. Recently, Starz premiered a new series based on the book (also called Outlander), and so far they’ve done a great job bringing this story and these characters to life. Part of bringing the time period and location (1740s Scotland) to life onscreen is through the use of Gaelic. While the main character, Claire, is English, many of the people she encounters speak and understand Gaelic.
For the actors, this means mastering several words and phrases in an unfamiliar tongue. In an article about Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, there’s a brief discussion about how the language is handled in the show, particularly the mention that the Gaelic won’t be translated via subtitles as a dramatic device to tune us in to Claire’s feeling of being outside her comfort zone. But what about the actors? In this great post from Anna at the Language Trainers Blog, she talks about several actors who’ve learned lines in unfamiliar languages and done an amazing job, dramatically (she mentions the performance of Samira Wiley in Orange is the New Black, who learned German for her character’s flashback episode). As anyone who’s ever performed in another language, or even Shakespeare, will tell you: it’s not enough to say the words—you have to understand the intent behind the words to convey the deeper message.
The author goes on to talk about actors who are bilingual in real life, and how the different languages can affect how the actors approach their roles. Much like how language can affect decision-making based on logic versus intuition, at least one bilingual actor (Javier Bardem) has said that he connects in an emotional way with one language (Spanish), and in a mental way with another (English).
So the next time you see a movie or tv show where there are scenes in different languages, take a second to do some online sleuthing to find out if the actor is bilingual. Who knows—it may win you a round of trivia someday!