Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that takes on an enhanced meaning in Netflix’s new series, “Inventing Anna.” Anna Delvey, nee Sorokin, (Julia Garner) passed herself off as a fake German heiress, imitating the lifestyle of a high-roller when she was anything but. At the same time, audiences watching “Inventing Anna” will no doubt be attempting to perform their own version of Delvey’s bizarre accent, a feat pulled off to stellar aplomb by Garner herself. It’s something the actress is sort of used to. Her Southern twang on the Netflix series “Ozark,” where she plays Ruth Langmore, is also regularly imitated by viewers.
But as Garner told IndieWire, pulling off Anna Delvey’s accent was the hardest thing she’s done in her entire career because of the layers of Delvey’s deception. “I was like, ‘What is her accent?’ I didn’t even know what her accent was,” Garner said. “It’s a hybrid of different accents. This is a girl who said that she was German, and people believed it, but she actually was born in Russia, so she’s not going to have a Russian accent. And then she probably learned English in the British way because she’s European [and] they don’t learn American English.”
Delvey’s accent wasn’t just a mystery to Garner, but to audiences who haven’t heard the real Delvey — currently in an ICE detention center after serving four years in jail — speak. Garner and vocal coach Barbara Rubin were granted access by Netflix to publicly unavailable recordings of the real Anna speaking in prison, as well as New York magazine writer Jessica Pressler’s video and audio interviews. The pair also scoured Delvey’s healthy Instagram presence where they were able to see how Delvey talked to her friends. Rubin, who has worked with Garner for nine years, said the actress came to her with many things she’d already noticed about how Delvey spoke.
“We started talking about what are the things that pop? What are the things that stand out to you?” Rubin said. “Julia trusts her instincts implicitly. She was like, ‘When I do this particular sound’ or ‘this inflection feels like her to me, I can hang on to that.'”
Garner saw Delvey as incredibly gifted with languages, picking up on elements in a musical way. But the challenge for Garner was that Delvey wasn’t playing one specific “character” from one specific state or country. It was the mix of accents that came out.
Garner equated her learning process to dance. It’s not enough to know the steps, she said: If one doesn’t have rhythm, or the musicality of an accent, it won’t work. “With Ruth [in ‘Ozark’] she sometimes talks really fast or she talks really, really slow. Just playing with that music and tonally, the delivery of how she speaks or anyone speaks is really very important. Otherwise, it’s just gonna be like you learned it from a book,” she said.
Rubin said that there needs to be a reliable way of speaking for an audience to maintain interest in a character. In the case of something like “Ozark,” a regional dialect has guidelines — a set of rules that, while an individual performer can interpret in their own way, is bound by the location. “With Anna, and with creating this dialect, those rules are not defined because she’s created her own set of rules,” said Rubin. As Garner points out, Delvey isn’t American but she’d often end things in a question to mimic how Americans speak. Conversely, because she was raised in Germany, Delvey tended to fall into adding a vocal fry at the end of her sentences, as is common in German dialects.
Rubin and Garner explained that if there’s one consistent thing about Anna Delvey, it’s her inconsistency, particularly with her accent. “The audience’s ear trusts consistency, even if we actually are inconsistent in our dialect. Something about a dialect that we hear on screen or on stage is a believable fiction,” said Rubin. The duo found the consistency in being inconsistent in something they noticed while watching Anna Delvey’s interviews: her ability to “code switch.”
Rubin defines code switching as how people change their manner of speaking based on who they’re speaking to. “With her American friends she has a tendency to almost find a little upward inflection at the end. She’s leaning more toward fitting in or sounding more American,” said Rubin. “And then occasionally there will be a touch of something British that kind of keeps her unique, keeps her sounding different.”
Garner had to navigate all these different modes of speaking while acting in a scene, and to navigate Anna’s constantly shifting emotional state meant the accent had to change as well. “The thing that I noticed with foreigners is that when they let their walls down — either they get excited or they get emotional — their accent comes out more. So certain scenes, very subtly, [Anna’s] accent was gonna come out more,” Garner said.
And those accents weren’t all she was balancing: Due to the pandemic, Garner was also working on the fourth and final season of “Ozark” during the same time. “I kind of was forgetting how I sounded,” said Garner. “There were certain things that if I was talking it would be a combination of Ruth and Anna.”
“Inventing Anna” premieres Friday, February 11 on Netflix.