As the opening of each episode of Netflix’s latest show Inventing Anna warns us, it’s a tale that’s “completely true, except for the parts that are totally made up.” Complicating efforts to separate the former from the latter is that the story of convicted fraudster Anna Sorokin is often stranger than fiction. Before her arrest in 2017, Sorokin reportedly rubbed elbows with everyone from Macauley Culkin to now-imprisoned pharma bro Martin Shkreli, managing to extract hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and services from friends, banks, and luxury hotels in the interim—all while passing herself off as a German “it girl” with a hefty trust fund.
The series was created by Shonda Rhimes, and stars Ozark’s Julia Garner as Sorokin, though many other elements of the story have been given name changes during the journey from real-life to the small screen. The publication whose feature catapulted Sorokin to the national stage was New York Magazine; in the world of the show, it’s fictionalized as Manhattan Magazine. The journalist who penned it is Jessica Pressler, whose parallel character in the series is played by Anna Chlumsky and named Vivian Kent, but those are questions that can be cleared up with five seconds of Googling. Above all else, I was most curious about the strong accent Garner deploys in the series. It’s not quite Russian, but it also doesn’t seem to hail from anywhere else, either. Did the real Anna Sorokin really sound like a mashup of Angelina Jolie in Alexander and Timothy Dalton in The Beautician and the Beast? And if so, why?
Garner’s Sorokin is the best part of the show. She’s rude and duplicitous but endlessly engaging, asking Vivian if she’s “pregnant or just so very very fat,” and requesting that the journalist deliver her Natori panties in prison. She’s the mean girl who’s cruel to almost everyone, and yet manages to make each person she encounters hold out hope that she’ll grace them with her approval. Garner—who already knows her way around great accent work—speaks with an arch, Russian inflected accent. Luckily, we can compare and contrast the real Sorokin and her Netflix counterpart, thanks in part to TV interviews Sorokin gave after her release from prison. (These days, she’s locked up once again, this time in ICE detention.)
The real Sorokin speaks in an accent that has “a Russian foundation with that sort of continental European influence, meaning that it makes her less placeable,” says speech and dialect coach Samara Bay. Bay, who’s worked with Hollywood stars including Penelope Cruz and Gal Gadot, recalled being asked to train an actor in an “elegant European” accent, “which we know as sophisticated, culturally sensitive humans in 2022, is not a thing,” she said. “But what they meant by that was this sort of unplaceable, continental feel.”
That’s the effect that Sorokin achieves with her accent, which suggests to American ears the kind of border-hopping European wealth befitting a young woman who once claimed during an interview from Rikers Island that her preferred way to pass the year was to live in “L.A. in the winter, New York in spring and autumn, and Europe in summer.” Accents tend to become fixed by age 14, and as Sorokin didn’t leave Russia until she was 16, it would be fair to expect that she might have a more standard Russian accent.
However, as a con artist born in middle class Russian anonymity and pretending to be a German heiress, an unplaceable accent would likely have been a boon to Sorokin’s schemes. “We all know there’s biases that come into play with accents,” Bay said. “But accents that are marked for class, for elitism—the standard British accent being the most obvious example—Americans go gaga.” The class status her accent implies may have helped Sorokin reel in her marks, making them willing to “turn off some of their more critical senses that might have picked up on stories that weren’t quite lining up.” She wasn’t a talented forger or skilled thief; her con was built on an impressively flimsy house of cards constructed out of bad checks and correspondence from fake money managers. Instead, her main talent seems to have been an ability to sell herself. When it comes to a grift like that, how you talk matters.
Netflix dropped a behind-the-scenes look at how Garner developed her characterization of Sorokin, and the actor helpfully broke down the formula she used to create Sorokin’s voice. “I first did a German accent,” she said in the video interview. “You bring in little elements of the Russian accent, and every word is kind of mushed together.”
The resulting accent is stronger than the one Sorokin had—or, at least, stronger than the one she emerged with after spending years in American prisons. Garner’s Anna drops her Rs, and speaks with an accent that seems like a heightened take on Sorokin’s real voice. Just look at the series’ trailer, in which Anna accuses a friend who’s begging for their money back of being “dramatic.” Sorokin would probably say the word “dramatic” a bit more like an American would, without hitting the “T” quite so hard. Even if it isn’t a spot-on recreation, the performance works. We’re in Shondaland, after all, and Garner’s big accent, big eye-rolls, and withering delivery of dig after dig are all wildly entertaining.
When it comes to fraudsters with unusual voices, it’s hard not to think of Elizabeth Holmes, another infamous young scammer whose story is about to hit the small screen in Hulu’s The Dropout. Like Sorokin, she also deployed an affected-seeming speech style during her grifting prime. Holmes’s almost comically deep voice became such a signature that even The Dropout trailer shows Amanda Seyfried, who plays her in the series, practicing it. Each con artist’s style works for the world that they were trying to grift: Holmes, targeting the male-dominated tech industry, tried to sound more like a man. Delvey, who operated in a different sphere, one filled with figures from arts and fashion, instead used an accent that implied peripatetic European money.
They’re far from alone—almost all of us, particularly women, immigrants, people of color, and those from marginalized regional or class backgrounds, enact some sort of speech modification at least some of the time. Black people are well aware of the stigma that African-American Vernacular English speakers still face, and are often able to code-switch. Southerners sometimes try to downplay their accents, and women attempt to shake off high pitched voices, aware that people with deeper voices tend to be seen as being more authoritative. Bay developed vocal nodules from speaking underneath her voice’s “optimum pitch” for too long, and had to see a speech pathologist. She knows other people who’ve had the same experience.
“If you are a woman in corporate America, and you have ever taken an ‘executive presence’ leadership development workshop,” Bay points out, “You are told specifically, ‘Keep your voice low. Don’t use ‘um’ and ‘like,’ and filler words. Don’t gesture broadly. You should probably speak at 70% of your natural pace. Don’t get emotional.’” The difference between the Holmeses and Sorokins of the world and everyone else is, of course, that most of us alter our speech to achieve legitimate goals, not to ply illegal schemes.
When Bay works with actors, she approaches developing accents by determining the style of speech best suited to conveying the character’s story. “That actually ends up being what it is for all of us: What story are we telling?” she says. “That’s the question with Anna Delvey. That’s the question with Elizabeth Holmes.”
If you’re trying to make off with big bucks, you have to be able to tell a pretty good story—and maybe it helps to have an unforgettable voice.