Elisa Carlson spent so much time in Macon when she was growing up, she could have applied for residency.
Her parents, Ashley and Mary Leonard Hurt, now make Macon their home. When the family lived in Griffin, they would drive down every other weekend to visit her maternal grandparents, the late Emory and Ida Mae Leonard.
Elisa would listen to the voices around her. She was fascinated with how the dialects changed from the hills of north Georgia, tumbling along the fall line, down through the wiregrass and across the marshes of Glynn.
The South was a place where syllables were stretched like a corset, the words rising and falling like a breathing chest. Georgia was a land of butter-soft vowels and hand-me-down twang, where the letter “r” often vanished from “father” and “church,” and the “g” fell off the deep end of the “swimming” pool.
“My grandmother had a wonderful ear,” Elisa said. “She could tell you where people were from in Georgia. If she went to a United Methodist Women’s event around the state, she could listen and tell you so-and-so was from Cochran. Or Savannah. Or Augusta.”
Elisa became quite the mimic herself. Influenced by her father’s fine singing voice and her grandmother’s sharp ear, she found her calling as an actress and director, using her gifts as a keen observer of the way people talked and why.
She got plenty of practice when they tried to pronounce her name. She was forever correcting them. It’s Elisa (Ah-leesa) and not Ah-leesha or Ee-lie-za. And she got her first name from her Aunt Madrid. But it’s May-drid, not Muh-drid, like the capital of Spain.
She became a student of cadence and phonetics. At Leon’s BBQ in Griffin, “this” often came out as two-syllable “thee-iss.” In her father’s hometown of Bainbridge, the inflections were shot like fireworks at the end of every sentence. In her mother’s hometown of Macon, there was the non-rhotic influence of only pronouncing the “r” before or between vowels.
“There is a harder ‘r’ where people have to speak more through their noses so they don’t have to breathe in the cold, mosquitoes, gnats and dirt,” she said, laughing.
Elisa now lives in Atlanta, a virtual melting pot of language. She is an associate professor of theater, voice and movement at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville.
She will have more than just a passing interest in the 87th Academy Awards. She served as a dialect coach for the movie “Selma,” which has been nominated for Best Picture.
Four years ago, “The King’s Speech” took home the Oscar for Best Picture. Elisa is proud to have been part of another King’s speech.
The filmmakers misspelled her name in the closing credits -- she is listed as Elisa Carlton -- but she shrugged it off. The experience was life-changing in so many ways.
She worked at the side of director Ava DuVernay. She spent countless hours with Carmen Ejogo, who played the role of Coretta Scott King, and David Oyelowo, an actor she said “was as close as I will ever get to being with Martin Luther King Jr.”
Elisa had heartfelt conversations with Oprah Winfrey, who was one of the film’s producers and played the role of civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper.
She worked through the challenges of having actor Colman Domingo, a native of Philadelphia, slow his pace with the accent of Ralph Abernathy, and getting Stephan James, a Canadian actor, to inhabit the voice of John Lewis.
She spent time almost every day with veteran British actor Tom Wilkinson on the verbal gauntlet of President Lyndon Baines Johnson -- an Englishman cast as a Texan -- so as not to make him sound like an “imitation of a bad ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit.”
It was an incredible journey, traveling back 50 years in time and hundreds of miles in geography. The John Lewis of today sounds different than the young man from rural Alabama, the son of sharecroppers. And the private MLK Jr. didn’t always project his words in the same manner as the public figure who delivered some of history’s most powerful and eloquent oratory.
“On my iPad, I bet I had 100 different examples keeping track of more than 30 historical voices,” said Elisa. “It was real people getting into the rhythm of sound and place. It didn’t matter if it was Klansman No. 3 or Marcher No. 2. Ava was a real stickler on how people sounded.”
Elisa had previous experience with African-American voices when she was brought in as a dialect coach for the film “The Good Lie,” starring Reese Witherspoon and filmed in Atlanta. It’s the story of four young Sudanese refugees coming to America. When she worked at the prestigious Guthrie Theater in Minnesota, she had been involved with the play “Lost Boys of Sudan” and was familiar with the Dinka tribal language.
“It’s not that I could speak it, but I could understand how the dialect sounds when they speak English,” she said.
Elisa also worked as a dialect coach on “Sabotage,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and five other movies.
Sunday night, though, her eyes will be on “Selma,” an important movie about an important time.
“I am so happy for everyone who worked on the film,” she said. “It’s the most amazing script I’ve ever read. It’s a glorious piece of filmmaking, made lovingly, with care and with the best of intentions. Its heart, mind and soul are in the right place.”
Contact Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.