Since she made her television debut more than 60 years ago, fans have had questions about Julia Child’s voice and where her accent comes from.
Julia Child, who was born in 1912 and died in 2004, is a chef, cookbook author and television personality who is credited for popularizing French cuisine among the American public with her 1961 cookbook, Mastering the art of French Cooking
. The cookbook—which released a second volume in 1970—has sold more than 1.5 million copies since it was first published. Along with her 16 bestselling cookbooks, which also included The French Chef Cookbook and From Julia Child’s Kitchen, Child was also known as a television personality with more than 13 cooking shows and specials throughout her lifetime. Child was best known for her first cooking show, The French Chef, which aired from 1963 to 1973 on PBS. The program is seen as one of the first cooking shows in the United States.
Since Child’s death, there have been several shows and movies inspired by the chef, including the 2009 Oscar-nominated film Julie & Julia (in which Meryl Streep plays Child) and the 2022 HBO Max series, Julia. Sarah Lancashire—who plays Child in Julia—revealed at an HBO & HBO Max Television Critics’ Association panel in 2021 that she didn’t know who Child was until she watched Julie & Julia. “The benefit of the film was for me was, it was the first time that I ever heard of Julia Child, because she did not have a presence in the U.K.,” Lancashire said. “And so the marketing around the film is the first time that I became aware of her. Other than that, it didn’t really play any part in my preparation or participation in this piece at all.”
Though Lancashire didn’t know who Child was before Julie & Julia, she told Vanity Fair in 2022 about how she was immediately drawn to the chef.“Because she is so elevating and she has such warmth and sunshine in her soul, you have to find that within yourself in order to play her, to capture that spirit, which is so genuine,” she said. “She makes you feel good about yourself and about the world.” She continued,“She had quite an extraordinary impact on me because she is a buoyancy aid. I am now at the stage where I will not have one word said against the woman.”
So what does Julia Child’s voice sound like and how does it compare to Lancashire’s impression in Julia? Read on for what we know about the origin of Child’s accent and how much of Julia is authentic to Child’s real voice.
What does Julia Child’s voice sound like?
What does Julia Child’s voice sound like? At an HBO & HBO Max Television Critics’ Association panel in 2021, Sarah Lancashire, who plays Child in HBO Max’s Julia, explained that she didn’t want to “mimic” Child’s voice but capture her “vocal eccentricity.” To do so, Lancashire worked with vocal coach and watched hours of videos of Child speaking on her iPad. “There’s such an awful lot of source material available online, so that was a starting point to reference her, plus reading the books about her and the letters between her and Avis. But at some point for me, I actually put the written material away. It didn’t necessarily make sense with what we were trying to do, which was a drama as opposed to a documentary,” she said. She continued, “I worked with a vocal coach for a very short period of time who, we were looking at accent, really. And then for me, I pulled away from that and started looking at trying to create a parallel voice, really, that would essentially create the essence of her vocal eccentricity and her singularity but was harmonized with the physical. And that’s important to find a place which is comfortable. That’s just a matter of time, really, of playing around and trying to find something which works.”
Lancashire also told reporters about why she couldn’t impersonate Child’s voice, even if she tried. “I’m not a mimic. I can’t impersonate. And, also, she did have this extraordinarily complex vocal change, which I don’t share with her. And, therefore that, unfortunately, wasn’t an in for me. I had to find something which worked in parallel and was comfortable,” she said. “But really, I spent many, many hours just watching her. There’s so much source material available and really that’s what I was doing. But that’s not a hardship. She’s a joy to watch. You kind of want to be in her company and, yeah, she makes you feel better about the world, really. She’s a tonic.”
Though Lancashire had a vocal coach, she credited her own research—which also included talking to Child’s former friends and collaborators—for how she honed the chef’s voice and persona. “The immediate thing that you notice about her is what a free spirit she is. She’s in Technicolor, like a bird of paradise—she’s unlike anybody I’ve ever encountered before,” Lancashire told Vanity Fair in 2022. “She’s pioneering. She’s a frontierswoman.” While Lancashire worked hard to re-create Child’s accent, she also acknowledged the distinctiveness of Child’s voice and how the chef’s physical vocal range “unfortunately wasn’t an in for” her.
While Child has never talked about the origin of her voice, Distractify reported that the chef’s accent was likely a mix of where she lived throughout her life. Child was born in Pasadena, California, on August 15, 1912. Her father, John McWilliams, Jr., was born in Illinois, while her mother, Julia Carolyn Weston, was raised in Massachusetts. They married in Colorado. According to Distractify, while Child was raised for the most part in California, her voice may have been inspired by Mid-Atlantic accents while attending Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Julia also lived in Paris, France; Sri Lanka and China, while on assignment with the Office of Strategic Services, her job before her cookbook and television career.
Julia is available to stream on HBO Max. Here’s how to watch it for free.
My Life in France by Julia Child
For more about Julia Child, read her 2006 memoir, My Life in France. The New York Times bestseller takes readers through Child’s pivotal years in France—from how she arrived in 1948 with her husband, Paul, with no knowledge of France or its language to how her life changed forever as she dove into the French culture, took classes at the Cordon Bleau and shopped at local markets. The book also takes readers through Child’s unexpected career as a cookbook author and cooking show host at 49 years old, from her conflict with the head of the Cordon Bleu and the dozens of rejections she received from publishers before she sold her now-famous cookbook, Mastering the art of French Cooking
. The memoir also dives into Child’s 50-year-long marriage with her husband and how their journeys around the globe inspired her as the chef the world remembers today.
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