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Vocal Coach, Denise Woods, on How She Helps Actors in Motion Pictures

Internationally renowned Vocal Coach Denise Woods served as Dialect Coach on the Netflix #1 hit film, “The Harder They Fall.” She worked with award-winning actors Idris Elba, Regina King, and Zazie Beetz to shape the nuance and complexity of their dialects for the groundbreaking movie. Woods says she did extensive research studying many African-American, African, and Caribbean dialects that would best help these gifted actors bring their characters to life. “My job is to give you (the actor) examples, support what you want to sound like, start where you are, and get you where you want to be in the sound, rhythm, and consistency of your speech,” says Woods.

Woods likens being a Dialect Coach to working with a teacher to help you master the notes to the music. She says, “I give them the pedagogy behind what they are doing.” While Woods does international dialects because she knows the International Phonetic Alphabet, “I love the dialectics of the African Diaspora.”

Woods has been a Vocal Coach to Will Smith, Halle Berry, Kirsten Dunst, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, and many more of Hollywood’s A-List. In her book, The Power of Voice, for the first time, Woods shares the secrets, tips, lessons, and stories that have helped the biggest film stars to become confident, effective communicators. In The Power of Voice, Woods helps readers change their lives by learning to articulate clearly, gain confidence in any situation, release tension and stress, become powerful public speakers, and find their most authentic form of expression.

She has trained executives for public speaking at corporations and prepared NBA and NFL athletes for on-camera commentary. However, she also wants to help everyday people in their business and personal lives to use their voices and express themselves to their best ability.

Chicago Defender: How did you determine the dialect for the characters in “The Harder They Fall”?

Denise Woods: I allowed the actor to take the lead in their choices. The wonderful thing about these choices is that the director gave them leeway because everybody was from someplace else. Everybody was forging a new trajectory in their lives for a better life. In African American history, there was quite an enclave of blacks. When I say black, I don’t just mean African American. They were African and Caribbean people forging their way west, and not all of them were slaves or ex-slaves. For example, the actor that played Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) was a mixed-raced gentleman whose father was white Irish, and his mother was African American and enslaved. While on the plantation, he met his wife, bought her freedom, and moved her to the Midwest. They went on to have 12 children, one of them being Jim Beckwourth. Beckwourth eventually forged his way west.

He (Beckwourth) is not credited, but he has one of the trails going from the Midwest to California. This was all done by a black man. This information from history gave the actors leeway to determine where they came from.

Chicago Defender: In addition to having a love of language and words, you seem to need a knowledge of history. When developing or coaching actors who use different dialects, is researching history a large part of the development process?

Denise Woods: Yes, it’s huge, and thank you for realizing that. I call myself a cultural anthropologist because it’s culture. People sound the way other people sound in their community. It’s not just geographic. It’s educational. There are so many components to making up the way we sound. It’s not just phonetic sounds on a page but a rhythm thing. There’s so much that goes into the making of dialect.

Chicago Defender: Your book, “The Power of the Voice”; who is this book written for?

Denise Woods: This book is for anyone who has felt marginalized, pigeonholed, or has felt less than because they could not put themselves into a room comfortably. It transcends education and socio-economic status. This book is for anyone who feels uncomfortable expressing themselves.

I have seen women gravitate to this book more, however. It resonates with women, especially those who feel less empowered in corporate spaces, women of color, and transgender women.

Chicago Defender: After all of the work, practice, and research, what does it feel like to watch a film you have worked on and see those words come to life out of the mouths of the actors you work with?

Denise Woods: I cried. I’m getting emotional now, particularly actors for whom this work is not easy. But, when I hear them open up their mouths and speak, it feels like my baby.

I worked on Halle Berry’s new film, “Bruised,” and after the film premiere, Ava Duvernay hosted a Q&A. Ava asked Halle. “What was it like starring in her directorial debut”? Halle Berry said, in a room filled with my peers, “There is a woman by the name of Denise Woods, who would come to me when I would switch from director to actor. She would whisper in my ear, “Okay, Miss Director. It’s time to act. You’re an actress now.’

Then she made me stand up, and everyone started clapping. Some so many people came up to me after and told me that they had read my book. It was a full-circle moment for me. It makes me proud that I can be of service in a huge way like that.

Denise Woods was recently honored by The Society of Voice Arts and Sciences (SOVAS) and Backstage Magazine with the Vanguard award for Exceptional Achievement in Arts and Communication on November 20.  Academy Award Winning actor, Mahershala Ali presented Woods with her award.

Danielle Sanders is the Managing Editor at the Chicago Defender and National News Director at Real Times Media. Find her on social media @DanieSandersOfficial and @DanieSanders20.

 

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