10 Hollywood Breakthrough Roles Landed By Stars Who Could Barely Speak English

It’s hardly breaking news that the right look is all-important in Hollywood. But sometimes, with enough screen intensity and charisma, foreign actors don’t even need to be able to speak fluent English to land and even excel in their breakthrough American movie roles. Incredibly, some of Tinseltown’s brightest stars started out by learning their lines phonetically or, in some cases, having their dialogue re-recorded by smoother-voiced, less accent-heavy stand-ins. From Jackie Chan to horror legend Bela Lugosi, here are ten big names of world cinema who charmed American audiences despite the fact that they could scarcely speak English.

10. Gert Fröbe – Goldfinger (1964)

When Eon Productions hired Gert Fröbe to play iconic villain Auric Goldfinger in 1964 Bond classic Goldfinger, one thing they knew for sure was that he had the look. What they didn’t know was that the burly German thespian could barely speak any English. In the end, uncredited English actor Michael Collins re-recorded the character’s lines, but Fröbe’s original phonetic delivery was so labored that he had to drastically improve the speed of his speech in order to match the voiceover performance. Apparently, director Guy Hamilton even told Fröbe to utter his dialogue in German so that it would be quicker and easier to sync. Interestingly, though, Fröbe’s real voice was used in the original theatrical trailer, with his dulcet tones warning Bond, “Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr. Bond: it may be your last.” And his muffled vocalization can also be heard in the film when Bond is concealed under the replica of Fort Knox at Goldfinger’s Auric Stud stronghold.

9. André the Giant – The Princess Bride (1987)

French wrestling star André the Giant will always be fondly remembered for his turn as lovable brute Fezzik in classic 1987 fantasy comedy The Princess Bride. What some fans won’t know, however, is that his English was so bad that he had to learn his lines phonetically. In fact, director Rob Reiner put Fezzik’s dialogue down on tape and gave it to André in order for him to practice. Reiner explained that Billy Crystal, who plays Miracle Max in the film, always wanted André for the role, so Reiner set up an audition in Paris. “He read this three-page scene,” said Reiner, “and I couldn’t understand one word he said. I go, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? He’s perfect physically for the part, but I can’t understand him!’” In the end, Reiner confessed that André “got pretty good.” The entertainer carried on acting and wrestling before his death in 1993.


8. Jay Chou – The Green Hornet (2011)

Taiwanese music superstar Jay Chou took on the role of Kato, made famous by martial arts legend Bruce Lee, in director Michel Gondry’s panned 2011 big-screen take on the Green Hornet. When filming commenced, Chou could scarcely speak any English at all, but he soon picked it up. “We were all just floored that he didn’t speak a word of English before he started. He did his lines phonetically for the first week or so. Then all of a sudden he’s just speaking English,” explained co-star Cameron Diaz. Chou – who has sold over 30 million albums and been described as “the Asian Justin Timberlake” – auditioned for the part on Skype, and he then learned English for a month before shooting. On working with French director Gondry, Chou explained, “Sometimes we had to use body language to understand each other.” The celeb is currently back to his day job as a touring musician.


7. Penélope Cruz – The Hi-Lo Country (1998)

Spanish actress Penélope Cruz once said, “I came to Los Angeles for the first time in 1994. I spoke no English. I only knew how to say two things, two sentences. One was, ‘How are you?’, the other was, ‘I want to work with Johnny Depp.’” Her first movie Stateside was Stephen Frears’ 1998 western, The Hi-Lo Country, in which she played Mexican-American Josepha O’Neil. Cruz learned her dialogue phonetically and never fully comprehended the lines she was speaking. “I didn’t have any command of the language and it was very painful,” she remarked. “I was just thinking what I had to say and concentrating on being clear and understood. It was very frustrating.” Still, Cruz went on to win an Academy Award for her performance in 2008 comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona and has worked with Depp twice – in 2001 biopic Blow and 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

6. Jackie Chan – The Big Brawl (1980)

With minimal dialogue and a swinging soundtrack, 1980 Robert Clouse-directed romp The Big Brawl was Jackie Chan’s first American movie. Mostly set in pre-WWII Chicago – despite having been filmed in Texas – The Big Brawl is about mob-battling Jerry Kwan (played by Chan), a man forced to enter the big-prize Battle Creek Brawl to save his brother’s wife-to-be from the Mafia. Fresh from Chinese cinema, Chan performed primarily with his fists – together with conversational hand gestures Charlie Chaplin would’ve been proud of. Behind the scenes, though, the Hong Kong actor learned what lines he had phonetically. Chan believes the reason the cult film was a box office flop is because he wasn’t given creative control over the action sequences. He arguably didn’t find his feet in Hollywood until 1995’s Rumble in the Bronx.


5. Antonio Banderas – The Mambo Kings (1992)

Spanish heartthrob Antonio Banderas landed his first English-speaking part in 1992 drama The Mambo Kings. In a case of art somewhat imitating life, Banderas and fellow lead Armand Assante play Nestor and Cesar Castillo, brothers who relocate to the U.S. to kick-start their careers in music. At the time, though, Banderas wasn’t able to speak English. Director Arne Glimcher even had to use a translator to inform the actor that he needed to work on his English prior to his Hollywood screen test. Impressively, Banderas nailed down his lines for the film phonetically and, what’s more, smoldered in the role. He was soon cast in 1993 drama Philadelphia and has since enjoyed a successful American movie career. “[Antonio] was very responsive, incredibly charming,” explained Glimcher. “I think he can seduce any woman, man, cat, dog or bird in the world.” Interestingly, New Yorker Assante had to memorize his Spanish dialogue phonetically as well.

4. Gong Li – Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Chinese actresses Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi were the subject of controversy after they were cast in director Rob Marshall’s epic 2005 adaptation, Memoirs of a Geisha. As if it weren’t enough simply that non-Japanese stars were playing Japanese characters, certain Chinese viewers felt that casting Chinese women in the role of geishas was particularly insensitive since it evoked Japan’s military actions in their country during WWII. Besides which, some fans were equally perplexed to learn that Li and Ziyi could barely speak English when the movie was made. “I just hoped that I could get the right kind of rhythm and pronunciation and intonation because… oftentimes you don’t get to say such beautiful things in everyday life,” explained Li. In the end, she nailed the part and went on to star in 2006’s Miami Vice and 2007’s Hannibal Rising, still learning her lines phonetically for both movies.


3. Peter Lorre – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Due to his Jewish heritage, movie legend Peter Lorre escaped from Nazi Germany in the early 1930s, heading to Paris and subsequently London. While in the English capital, Lorre was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed 1934 suspense film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, a decision that rested on his mesmerizing performance as serial killer Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller, M. At the time, Lorre could hardly speak any English and was forced to pick up his dialogue phonetically – apparently working into the night to learn his part in German so that he understood what he was saying before memorizing the lines in English. Lorre impressed as the villainous Abbott and worked with Hitchcock again on 1936’s Secret Agent before going on to star in classic films like 1941’s The Maltese Falcon and the following year’s Casablanca.

2. Jet Li – Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)

Chinese martial arts star Jet Li is known internationally for appearing in Asian and American action movies, among them 2014’s The Expendables 3 and 2002’s Hero. However, his debut English-language role was that of Asian crime boss Wah Sing Ku in Richard Donner’s 1998 action comedy sequel, Lethal Weapon 4. Li saw the job as an opportunity to learn about Hollywood, even though he knew it might upset his fans back home who were used to seeing him play the hero. Li explained that the part was his chance “to become an actor,” and he was excited about starring opposite Mel Gibson – whom he was an great admirer of, he has previously stated. The only potential problem was that Li couldn’t really speak English. Still, luckily for the actor, his lightning-quick fighting skills provided the visual excitement and his lines were few and far between, although he did study English hard before filming began.


1. Bela Lugosi – Dracula (1931)

Hungary-born B-movie icon Bela Lugosi is undoubtedly best known for his title role in 1931 horror classic Dracula, directed by Tod Browning. Interestingly, though, there’s some debate about how much English Lugosi could actually speak when he starred as the blood-sucking count. Some sources suggest that he learned his lines by sound, as he did for his first English-speaking stage appearance in 1922’s The Red Poppy. Others claim that at the time he “spoke English as well as he ever would.” In any case, Lugosi was reportedly overlooked for the part of Henry Frankenstein in 1931’s Frankenstein on account of his limited grasp of English. He also declined the non-speaking role of Frankenstein’s monster that made English actor Boris Karloff a star, with Lugosi claiming that he didn’t go to the U.S. to “be a scarecrow” – although the choice was something he later greatly rued.

Bonus: Arnold Schwarzenegger – Hercules in New York (1969)

Low-rent 1969 fantasy flick Hercules in New York has been dubbed one of the worst films ever to see the light of day, complete as it is with hilarious B-movie oversights such as noticeable motor vehicle noises in scenes set on Mount Olympus. However, due to the fact that it stars a blank-faced 22-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger – then billed as Arnold Strong – saying things like “You have strucked Hercules,” it has gone on to become a cult favorite. The Arthur Allan Seidelman-directed film even features an unforgettable man-in-a-bear-suit vs. Schwarzenegger fight scene. Originally, Arnie’s accent was deemed too strong for American audiences, and his lines were re-dubbed by a smooth-voiced American actor. That said, when the film was released on DVD, consumers were given the choice between the dubbed voice and Schwarzenegger’s now iconic Austrian tones.

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