Voice coaches help foreigners get visas

From voice coaches to visa experts, savvy specialists are meeting the visa needs of foreign-born artists living in New York...

Andy Flakelar, a native of Sydney, Australia, never thought he would qualify for a U.S. visa as “an alien of extraordinary ability.” He spent a few years working as a production assistant on films like the “Matrix” sequels and Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Kangaroo Jack.”

But Amanda Gillespie thought otherwise. She runs a firm in Manhattan’s Chinatown that helps foreign-born artists obtain coveted O-1 visas, the so-called visa for extraordinary aliens. The O-1 visa is generally reserved for artists who have reached a level of expertise that puts them at the top of their field. When it comes to securing such specialized visas, Gillespie herself is an artist of extraordinary ability.

Flakelar is one of Gillespie’s long list of clients that includes Cate Blanchett’s makeup artist, a Bulgarian puppeteer and a French hip-hop photographer.

Few think of New York’s foreign-born artists as a business opportunity since the ambitions of the artists often outstrip their earnings. But Gillespie and a small number of others in Manhattan have found a way to profit by offering services for international artists in the city.

Gillespie, who is not a lawyer, stumbled into the visa profession when she took a job as a paralegal at a large immigration law firm five years ago. She quickly found a niche for herself working on O-1 visa applications. Three years ago, she started her own practice.

Originally from Ottumwa, Iowa, the 36-year-old Gillespie now employs nine paralegals, but no lawyers. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of California at Irvine and just finished work on a novel. She goes to work in her loft-like office in a Metallica T-shirt, red cardigan and jeans and uses her creative powers to look for the right clients.

“I have used the O-1 visa category for karate champions to directors,” Gillespie said. “I had one client who was a mustache maker,” she said, giggling.

But once a creative individual arrives in America, securing the right visa is only half the headache. Foreign artists also frequently have to contend with language problems. Another category of specialists works with these artists.

Amanda Quaid, 23, a speech coach from a family of famous actors, has been working out of her Upper East Side apartment for almost five years helping clients change the way they speak. She says she can even help a heavily accented Japanese actress sound American. While three-quarters of her clients are actors and singers, she has worked for large corporations as an accent reduction coach and for individuals, including Manhattan socialites who want to sound British.

Quaid would divulge no names, but did say she was not responsible for helping Michigan-born pop superstar Madonna with her recently acquired English accent.

Most of her clients are Russian and Japanese students who want to sound American. But Quaid said one of her most challenging tasks is helping actors who have to play characters from their native country.

“Even if you are a French actor and want to play a French character, they have to play it in a way that is comprehensible to American ears,” Quaid said.

Part of Quaid’s professorial charm is in her ability to switch characters and accents in an instant all the while maintaining the melodic ease of a mother singing a lullaby. She has stock phrases for every accent, including the Midwestern mother’s supermarket shout of “Kids, kids, you better behave yourself or you’re not getting any beef and macaroni!”

She also helps American actors reduce their regional accents so they can act on the Manhattan stage.

Argentine native Fernando Gambaroni helps aspiring actors from around the world adapt to the Manhattan stage. He shuns the title of English language teacher for the more dramatic English vocabulary and diction coach.

“I teach people who know the rules of grammar and have a good vocabulary but really need to own the language,” Gambaroni said. “Acting is another language requiring another level of consciousness.”

Gambaroni said as a teacher to young talent he has high expectations, but admits his job can impose unlikely demands. Many of his students have only recently arrived in the city and are consumed by lofty ambitions that they may never be able to achieve. Two to three times each trimester, he said, students will break down and cry in his classes.

“You get a lot of students who you know will not make it in New York, so you have to constantly ask how they are doing,” he said.