Hollywood is where dreams are made, and legends are born. Actors from all over the world come here in pursuit of their goals and showcase their talent on the world stage. When the stories of these immigrant actors are immensely inspiring, their journey to stardom is not always easy.
The actors, who don’t speak English as their native language, often have to navigate through several added obstacles, including language barriers and cultural differences. They need to pick up the language and work on their accents with the help of tutors and language coaches to get accepted in an industry known to be fiercely competitive.
Here, we share the stories of 11 actors who didn’t speak English when they came to the United States and yet they fought against all odds to achieve success and stardom. Through sheer willpower, dedication, and hard work, these non-native English speakers honed their language skills and accents and made a name for themselves in Hollywood.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Austrian)
Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born actor and former governor of California, arrived in the US at the age of 21 with little knowledge of English. In his biography, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, Schwarzenegger tells the story of how he struggled to learn English and reduce his accent.
Soon after moving to Los Angeles, Schwarzenegger enrolled in English classes to improve his language skill and reduce his accent. Besides, he consciously surrounded himself with native English speakers to practice his English in immersion. He writes, “I made it a rule to date only American girls; I did not want to hang out with girls who knew German.”
Despite facing criticism and ridicule for his imperfect English, Schwarzenegger refused to be deterred and continued to persevere. Eventually, his hard work paid off, and he became one of the biggest names in Hollywood, with a successful acting career and a legion of fans worldwide.
Penelope Cruz (Spanish)
Penelope Cruz arrived in Hollywood at the age of 20 with very limited English skills. Penelope would memorize her lines phonetically without always understanding the meaning.
Despite the language barrier, Cruz was determined to succeed and embarked on a rigorous language-learning program. She hired a personal tutor and immersed herself in the language, practicing every day and perfecting her accent.
Cruz recalls in her interviews how she made some embarrassing mistakes and learned from them. She shares a story where she accidentally made sexual advances at a hairdresser by confusing two similar words.
Ke Huy Quan (Vietnamese)
Vietnamese-born American actor Ke Huy Quan fled to the US with his family as a refugee when he was just eight years old. Four years later, Quan was cast in the role of Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At that time, he was yet to become completely fluent in the American accent but managed to leave a mark with his exceptional acting skill. Soon he got his second break and was cast in The Goonies.
Despite the success of both films, Quan had to take an acting hiatus for almost 20 years before he made a comeback in 2022 with the film, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Quan’s performance in the film was widely praised and won him several accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Quan’s journey is an inspiration to foreign actors, especially those of Asian descent, who may feel discouraged by language barriers and cultural differences.
Antonio Banderas (Spanish)
Antonio Banderas, the acclaimed Spanish actor, signed his first Hollywood movie, The Mambo Kings, in 1992 with zero English speaking ability. Banderas recalls when he went to London for an interview to participate in this film, he knew only three English phrases, ‘Yes’, ‘Of Course’, and ‘I can do that’.
After signing the film, Antonio began taking English lessons in an academy. Despite taking classes for eight hours a day, he found it challenging to make the desired progress. Banderas used to memorize his lines phonetically and recite them. To communicate with the director and crew, he needed an interpreter.
Over time, with sheer dedication and practice, he honed his English skill and became Hollywood's one of the most celebrated Spanish actors.
Sofia Vergara (Colombian)
Sofia Vergara, the Colombian American actress, model, and television personality, moved to the US in her early 20s. Vergara speaks fluent English with a thick accent which she uses to her advantage.
Growing up in Colombia, Vergara studied English as a second language in a bilingual school. In her interviews, she shared that despite knowing English quite well, she did not feel confident in her abilities until she immersed herself in the language and culture of her new home.
Today, she is a successful actor known for her comedic roles in popular TV shows and films such as Modern Family, Hot Pursuit, Chef, and others.
Salma Hayek (Mexican)
When Salma Hayek arrived in the US at 25, she barely spoke English. Her English was limited to vacationing. In her own words, she only knew “shopping”, and “eating” English.
She studied in a Texas school for two years at the age of 12 and watched English films with subtitles, which gave her the idea that she could pick up the language in three months. However, soon after coming to Los Angeles, she realized her English was very limited. Her struggle with dyslexia made it even more challenging for her to learn a new language at a mature age.
She further struggled with accents. In an interview, she says, “My accent was horrible. In Mexico, nobody says, "You speak English with a good accent." You either speak English or you don't: As long as you can communicate, no one cares. But the word accent became such a big word in my life.” Hayek didn’t give up, though. Soon she enrolled in English lessons and began working on her accent, which brought her the success that she still cherishes.
Gal Gadot (Hebrew)
Gal Gadot, who is originally from Israel, began learning English in school at a young age. She mastered the language as she wanted to watch Seinfeld and Friends.
She continued to improve her English skills through various methods, such as watching American movies and TV shows with subtitles and practicing with native English speakers. When she was 18 years old, she won the title of Miss Israel and competed in the Miss Universe pageant, which required her to speak in English. This experience helped her gain more confidence in her English abilities and further refine her language skills.
Eventually, Gal Gadot's proficiency in English became an asset in her acting career, which has taken her to Hollywood and beyond.
Eva Green (French)
French actress and model Eva Green spent her time in London and Ireland while growing up. It helped her pick up conversational English. At the age of 17, she enrolled at the American University of Paris. It further strengthened her English language skill. However, she studied at the university for only a year before switching to the Saint Paul Drama School in Paris.
When Green was cast in The Dreamers, director Bernardo Bertolucci advised her to work on her English. Green took English lessons from a coach for two months before the shooting for the film began.
Marion Cotillard (French)
Like many other foreign actors coming to the US in their 20s and 30s, the Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard too had difficulty with English when she first came to Hollywood. However, her love for the language made it easier for her to pick up the language fast.
In an interview with NPR, Cotillard says, "Well, first of all, I love English language, so it makes it easier. And also, when I was in Los Angeles in 2008, and I met with Michael Mann and he — we did this movie together, I really had to work on my American accent. And I worked for four months, every day, with a dialect coach, and I improved my English a lot. I still have a lot of work, but I feel much more comfortable than a few years ago when I got here and I couldn't express myself properly."
Olga Fonda (Russian)
The Agent-X actress Olga Fonda came to the United States as an exchange student when she was 14. Here, she attended Winthrop High School in Maine for a year. During her stay in Maine, she lived with the Auclair family, which became her second family in no time.
When she arrived in the US, Fonda knew little English. Auclairs introduced her to the American culture and helped her learn the language.
Later, Fonda returned to the US to attend the University of Maine at Augusta. By the time Fonda began her modeling career, she was already quite fluent in the language. However, to pursue her acting career in Hollywood, Fonda had to refine her American accent.
Jean Reno (French)
Jean Reno is a multilingual actor who speaks Spanish, French, Arabic, Italian, and English. Reno, known for his roles in Leon: The Professional, The Da Vinci Code, and Godzilla, began working in Hollywood movies in his 40s.
Reno has spoken about how he had to learn English quickly to succeed in Hollywood. He worked with a coach and spent hours practicing his English to improve his language skills and accent. Today, he is one of the most recognizable French actors in Hollywood and an inspiration to foreign actors looking to break into the industry.
The stories of these non-native English-speaking Hollywood actors leave us in awe. From their humble beginnings as non-English speakers to their meteoric rise to fame, they have not only shattered language barriers but have also left an indelible mark on the entertainment industry. Their determination, coupled with their unparalleled talent, has inspired and continues to inspire countless individuals around the globe. As we celebrate their achievements and pay tribute to their perseverance, we are reminded of the boundless possibilities that await those who dare to dream and pursue their passions with unwavering zeal.