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Film & TV

Helen Mirren’s Top Film Acting Tips

Written by MasterClass

Oct 31, 2018 • 5 min read

Written by MasterClass

Oct 31, 2018 • 5 min read

Helen Mirren is one of the greatest actresses of our time—not to mention an Academy Award winner, Emmy Award winner, Tony Award winner, and Golden Globe winner. Though the English actor did not take traditional acting classes at a drama school, she underwent intensive training at the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company in London, and also spent a year traveling the world in Peter Brook’s experimental theater company. She is known for her work both on stage and on film.

What Is the Difference Between Stage and Screen Acting?

Imaginatively, acting on stage and on screen are the same; but there are two big differences that affect which acting techniques you use when acting on camera. One is the close-up—you can use your face as a more nuanced instrument when you’re working on camera. On stage, the audience sits at a distance and cannot read the nuanced changes in your facial expressions in the same way that they would be able to on screen. On film, you are afforded more control over the subtleties of expression or shifts in vocal tones. The other is control over your performance. When you’re in a play, you are in control of your performance entirely—how you move, when you move, when you command attention, or when you choose stillness. In filmmaking, you cede some of your control to a director and editor, who builds your performance through a series of shots.

The Necessity of Learning Film Acting Techniques

The most versatile professional actors will devote themselves to learning film acting techniques to the best of their ability. The process of learning technique can be hard work, but it’s necessary in order to let go and find creative freedom. During Helen’s process of learning film technique, she found inspiration in the book Interviews with Francis Bacon, in which Bacon discusses how having a mastery of technique affords you the ability to have moments of pure, out-of-control inspiration.

The Best of Helen Mirren’s Film Acting Tips

Here, Helen shares her top four film acting tips for screen actors, reminding you that your most brilliant take will only be usable if you hit your mark.

1. Understand the Different Camera Shots

In order to be successful on camera, you have to understand the ways in which you’ll be shot. Gain a deeper understanding of how frames and angles inform your performance with some of the more common camera shots:

  • Close-up: a tight shot that zooms in on a specific aspect of a character or scene, usually facial expressions or hand gestures; subtlety is key with the close-up. Most often used to provide a sense of emotional closeness, though can also be used to reveal subtext or create confusion by limiting the audience’s access to the broader scene.
  • Mid-shot: a comfortable shot that fills the frame equally with background and subjects. Usually used to portray small groups of people engrossed in dialogue, or a waist-up shot of a single person in action.
  • Wide shot: a long shot that is pulled far back so as to show an entire scene, usually accomplished with a wide-angle lens. Think of scenes where entire armies march, or crowds of people fill the streets, or a car winds down a scenic road, or an actor runs through a forest.

To practice your on-camera acting skills, invite a partner over to help film you performing your monologue using these three different shots: a wide shot, a mid-shot, and a close-up. Perform your monologue in each shot to the best of your ability. Notice how doing a wide shot allows you to utilize your physicality and the space that you’re in, while the mid-shot and the close-up shift awareness of what’s happening in your eyes and on your face. Notice, too, how some of your body posture and mannerisms disappear in the close-up. Study each one. How do they differ? What would you change?

2. Keep Track of the Story

Films are often shot out of sequence, so it’s essential to maintain a proactive awareness of how your scenes or shots fit into the overall film. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the script supervisor, who is in charge of tracking continuity, and they can keep you informed of where you are in the story. It’s helpful to have an idea of the shot order at the beginning of your day, and don’t be afraid to ask what the next shot is if you’re lost.

3. Balance Technique With Emotion

Film requires your mind to be running on multiple tracks at the same time: the emotional track and the technical track. The epitome of film technique is being able to balance an acute sense of where you are emotionally with an acute sense of where the camera is in relation to you. Throughout your acting career, there will be instances where scenes simultaneously require intense emotional expression and technical ability; this is where the two-track thinking will help you play both the emotional moment of the scene in real time, while knowing exactly where the camera is.

4. Develop a Ritual

Film sets and theaters can be overwhelming and distracting places. To give your best performance, find a way to shut out the distractions and stay grounded in your own personal process.

“This is what happens just before a take: You’re in your world; you’re in your character; you’re in your environment,” Helen says. “Wherever that is! it may be ancient Rome, you know—it could be anywhere. But, at this point, you have to cut all this stuff out of your world. You have to maintain your concentration, re-find your character; re-find your environment. And now, maybe you’re ready to work.”

If you’re feeling lost or anxious, try developing a ritual to drop into your character or the moment in the story—maybe it’s a meditation or single word that you repeat to yourself, or maybe it’s as simple as reminding yourself of your intention before the scene begins. You can also look for inspiration in babies and dogs, as Helen does. They are so simple and so present when they are on camera that they’re always mesmerizing. Look for that state in yourself.

“When the director calls action, you don’t have to start acting straight away,” Helen says. “If you need a little more time just to pull yourself down from all this amazing distraction you’ve had to deal with in preparing to come on the set and then coming on the set. A set is an incredibly distracting environment, and it’s all about maintaining concentration.”

5. Hone Your Personal Creative Process

It’s important to remember that you are unique—all actors are, so be honest with what you need so you can do your best work. You might have a completely different way than your costar of getting prepared for a take. Stay true to your process, and don’t let other actors throw you off of this. If you’re struggling with a challenge on set, such as a co-star you don’t connect with, try to channel your feelings into your performance—use them, don’t fight them.

In the end, there are no rules. You will continue to learn as you go, and so much of what you do on set will come with experience. Surrender yourself to that fact, and continue to find the joy in your work--whether you’re aiming for a role in a short film or in a Hollywood blockbuster.

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