Performances by Foreign Actors Playing Turkish Characters

Disclaimer: This is not a list that critiques the overall acting capabilities of the actors that will be referred to, it merely evaluates their performance as the character they played in their respective films. I am basing my judgements on their performance in that specific role, its historic and sociocultural accuracy, and their phonetic competence with Turkish or with the Turkish accent. I do realise their performance in these films alone cannot determine their general acting skills, so please don’t get mad when I make a negative remark regarding their performance.

Olga Kurylenko in The Water Diviner (2014)

Olga Kurylenko Interview on TV8 in Turkish

First things first, if you haven’t seen The Water Diviner, I can give you my Turkish guarantee that this is the best foreign made film about Turkey. The way it touches upon the historical and sociocultural scene going on in the background of the main plotline is incredibly accurate and makes me think, why the hell haven’t we done something like this so far. Regardless of that, Olga Kurylenko is my favourite in this list, she is the only one who had a decent voice coach (two of them in fact) since her Turkish was the only one that was believable. But beyond that, her performance as a Turkish woman during the Turkish War of Independence makes total sense. I don’t know if Russel Crowe, who directed the film, made the choice himself or if it was one of the writers, but I had the feeling that she was representing all Turkish women during the war time, like a combination of all their values and characteristics, resilient to the current conflict, seeking a better future for the country and willing to partake in the fight for that. I don’t have too much to say for her performance since she didn’t have so much screen time, but I think she studied her part well and put forth a good performance, not just the accent, but the mannerisms seemed reasonably adjusted for the portrayal of a Turkish woman during early 1920s. On a side note, I think her successful Turkish could be due to her Ukrainian heritage, I’m not exactly sure if it makes it easier to speak Turkish when you know Ukrainian, but either that had an effect, or she simply prepared for the part better than her male counterparts.

Dominic Cooper and Luke Evans in Dracula Untold (2014)

When I first watched the trailer for Dracula Untold, I was already expecting historical inaccuracy and cheesy writing, but somehow it managed to surprise me with additional disappointments. Both of these gentlemen are skilled actors and I’ve seen several of their films and shows in which they were quite enjoyable to watch, so I imagine they must have put very little of their expertise into the making of this film, cause acting-wise, this was quite the disaster. In the film, Mr. Cooper plays the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II and Luke Evans plays the notorious Voivode of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes, both historically existing characters with complex traits and interesting backstories, made into cartoonish flat figures by some sort of a Hollywood effect. Cooper is a generic oriental evil, and Evans is an anti-hero with almost no likability. So far, one can blame all this on a bad script, but there is one thing the writers are innocent for, the accents. Since the characters they play have to speak Turkish every once in a while, we hear Evans and some minor characters speak Turkish time to time, or something they claim to be Turkish. When I first heard it during the court scene in the beginning, I thought it was Romanian since that would also be historically accurate, but no, I was able to pick up some words, that was Turkish! And make no mistake folks, I am Turkish myself, I’ve been speaking this language for the last 24 years and there I was, reading subtitles to understand my mother tongue. Bad voice coaches, maybe, is Turkish hard to learn for English speakers, certainly, did Dominic Cooper and Luke Evans managed to pull these roles off, not quite.

Michiel Huisman in The Ottoman Lieutenant (2017)

I’ve only seen Michiel Huisman in Game of Thrones prior to this film, and he was doing fine there. His performance as an officer in the Ottoman Imperial army was convincing and unlike my expectations, it was well nuanced too. The film had that Hollywood effect where everybody casually speaks English but with an accent when they are from a foreign country, so Michiel didn’t have to deal with the Turkish language, which might be a contributing factor to my consideration of his performance. Although his accent wasn’t quite Turkish his performance as an Ottoman officer was plausible as he was able to show both the soldier and human side of his character, given the film touches upon some historically controversial incidences, it must have been tricky to pull off.

Mina E. Mina and Josef Altin in Eastern Promises (2007)

Eastern Promises (2007) Trailer. See if you can detect which characters are the Turkish ones.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you are not able to recall Turkish characters being in this film, it was hard to tell if they were Turkish or just from somewhere in the Balkans. To be fully honest, when I first watched the film, it took me until the Turkish Bath scene to realize they were from the Turkish mob in London. This is mainly due to the way these two characters are depicted, they don’t distinctively look like they are Turkish, which is fine, it’s London, nothing is what it seems, but also, they didn’t sound like they were Turkish. Their accents were not distinctly Turkish and similar to the problem in Dracula Untold, their Turkish was almost incomprehensible, so much that I was only able to understand what one of them was repeatedly saying in one of the opening scenes (the barber scene) with the help of subtitles. Which is kind of weird, because I asked one of my Russian friends about Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel’s Russian accents and she was very satisfied with them, which means they either worked with a very good accent coach or Viggo and Vincent already had perfect Russian accents, or maybe it’s easier for Danes and French to replicate Russian accents, in either case, they paid attention to getting that right with the main roles, but definitely not with the side characters. Of course, Eastern Promises was a really well-made film with or without well portrayed Turkish characters, but in my humble opinion, although I can accept as a viewer that they were mob members, their Turkishness was just written on the script, and it never made it to the film itself.

José Ferrer in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1967) interrogation scene.

I think I can agree with how Denis Villeneuve puts it, “Lawrence of Arabia, is to cinema, what pyramids are to architecture.” It is a masterpiece of a film with an incredible cinematographic narrative. Although I am not entirely familiar with the original material that inspired the screenplay, it felt like it has a well-adapted script, and acting wise, everyone was at their top game.

Unfortunately, due to my relatively young age (24, efendi) I haven’t seen any films starring José Ferrer except Lawrence of Arabia, not even the 1951 adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac for which he got an Oscar. My shame aside, José Ferrer’s character, although it was well nuanced, due to the nature of the film, functions as a point of persuasion for the audience to perceive the Ottomans as malicious, evil doers who would do anything to defeat the Arab revolt which leads to the portrayal of as a quasi-fascistic military commander. Now, before I get lynched for my opinion, let me clarify that I think José Ferrer’s performance was as good as Omar Sheriff’s and Ben O’Toole’s even though he was a minor character. Accent wise, I think Mr. Ferrer’s Turkish accent was quite accurate, but I am not entirely sure how Turkish sounded during the Ottoman era.

I realize the film was heavily influenced by the titular T.E. Lawrence’s 1926 novel Seven Pillars of Wisdom in which the British Army colonel gives his account of the time he served as an advisor to the revolting Bedouin forces against the Ottomans. Hence, one can claim the film adaptation to be historically accurate. Yet that would be ignoring the fact that this book was written by a belligerent of this war, not a historian or an unbiased observer, but a British army officer, fighting the Ottomans and helping the Arabs with the revolt. Thus, I believe, to completely omit and disregard the possibility that his writings were tendentious against the Ottomans would be rather fallacious.

Before I read the chapter LXXX of Seven Pillars of Wisdom my initial verdict regarding Jose Ferrer’s performance was that it achieved what the film was trying to say about the Ottomans, “these are bad people, and they do bad things” played quite accurately by José Ferrer as the inquisitive, harsh, and meticulous Bey of the Ottoman Empire.

After reading the chapter LXXX where T.E. Lawrence mentions his time as a captive of the Ottoman Bey it started feel a lot more homoerotic of a scene, “He began to fawn on me, saying how white and fresh I was, how fine my hands and feet, and how he would let me off drills and duties, make me his orderly, even pay me wages, if I would love him.” (Lawrence, LXXX) this is how T.E. Lawrence describes his encounter with the Ottoman Bey, when taken into consideration, it leads me to think that Ferrer’s interpretation of the character is impressively accurate but toned down for the general audience. In his memoirs Lawrence gives a detailed account on how he is tortured after his refusal of Bey’s offers. Film chooses to present this fragment of the memoir in a briefer scene and hence, we end up with a more condensed character who could have been deprived of depth if it wasn’t for Jose Ferrer’s scrupulous performance.

Conclusion:

A non-Turkish actor to play a Turkish character in a film or a show is a bold move, our language is not easy to learn for English speakers and the Turkish accent is hard to imitate. Anyone trying to learn the Turkish language can have an accent or fail to speak fluently, but in a high-budget film, I usually expect more accuracy. Similarly, to portray a character of a foreign origin an actor must have an idea about the cultural surroundings and background of that character, but without delving into linguistic and cultural theories I think I can claim that some of these actors managed to pull their parts very well, and admittedly, ones who didn’t have to speak Turkish did a better job since they were able omit the language barrier. All things considered, although some of these performances weren’t quite there, it was nice to see the broad range of Turkish characters in foreign films from Ottoman officers to Ottoman soldiers, to Ottoman warlords to the Ottoman Sultan himself…