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Film & TV

How Helen Mirren Prepares To Play Queen Elizabeth

Written by MasterClass

Oct 31, 2018 • 4 min read

Written by MasterClass

Oct 31, 2018 • 4 min read

Dame 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 British actor did not attend 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.

Helen earned mainstream acclaim for her role as detective Jane Tennison over seven seasons on the BBC show Prime Suspect. She is well known for her portrayals of historical characters; most notably, she’s played both Queen Elizabeths— Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II.
Helen won the Tony for her Broadway portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, while her screen portrayal of the monarch garnered her her first Oscar for Best Actress.

For Helen, one of the greatest challenges of playing royal characters is accessing their emotional worlds. Much is written about a monarch’s outward persona, but little information is available about their inner world. In her preparation for these roles, she developed the following tactics to portray royals as three-dimensional people.

Helen Mirren’s Advice for Playing Royal Characters

1. Read history as an actor, not a historian.

Helen encourages you to read history as an actor, not as a historian. You will become closer to your characters through the research process—consider it another way into their psyche. Depending on the character, you’ll have different types of primary source information about them—video footage, historical accounts, and portraits are just a few examples.

If you are able to access footage of your character, pay close attention to their behaviors, down to the most minute gestures. However, remember that all this research is purely informative— there is no need to ever reference any of it literally while performing. If you’ve done this work, your performance will naturally reflect it

2. Research the Whole Person

When you play a character based on a real person, your process must change to encompass concrete biographical research. Depending on the character, you’ll have different types of primary source information about them—video footage, historical accounts, and portraits are just a few examples.

The less information available about a character—as Helen’s experience with Elizabeth I—the deeper you may have to dig and more creative you may have to get in your approach. Research will also help you determine where a character holds their power, and you will become closer to them through the research process— consider it another way into their psyche. For example, Helen realized when watching Ayn Rand on Phil Donahue’s show that Rand’s power was in her speed of thought, which was reflected in her unblinking eyes.

When preparing to portray Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s film The Queen, the drama that follows the royal family in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, Helen found that video footage of Queen Elizabeth II as a child in England offered a way into the private lives of the monarch. Observing young Elizabeth’s gestures as a child helped Helen understand her as a whole person—not just a figurehead.

“The queen, Elizabeth Windsor, seemed to me like a submarine,” Helen says. “She was like a submarine, moving through the water, but with this periscope looking, looking all around. But inside the submarine—her—were all these feelings, these emotions, this history. Everything that she was as a human being. But that was underwater and the only thing that was out was these eyes, looking out the surface at everything that was going on.”

3. Don’t apply your research literally.

After you’ve done deep research, remember that it is purely informative and should not be applied literally. It should be in your bones, but not in your head when you are acting. For example, through Helen’s research about Queen Elizabeth II, she learned that the monarch had an obsession with neatness, starting from a young age. This personality trait manifested in the scene in which the Queen is speaking with Tony Blair on the phone, Helen conveys a sense of unease in this moment through slightly obsessive gestures—she gingerly touches the paper, cleans her glasses with her sweater, and lines up her pens on the desk. These choices, rooted in research, reveal the Queen’s human side.

4. Find where they hold their power.

Research will also help you determine where a character holds their power. For example, Helen realized when watching Ayn Rand on Phil Donahue’s show that Rand’s power was in her speed of thought, which was reflected in her unblinking eyes. When portraying Elizabeth I in the HBO costume drama of the same name, Helen found her power in the way that she moved and her energy.

For her, Elizabeth I was not a solemn, reserved character. In a pivotal scene in which the queen is dealing with the threat of war with Spain caused by a betrayal by her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, she rallies her troops as they prepare for the possible arrival of the Spanish Armada.

Through her research, preparation, and character analysis, Helen decided that her version of Elizabeth would come down from an elevated, physical position of power and instead speak to her troops at ground level. She also believed that the moment called for movement, rather than delivering the speech from a stationary position. These aspects of the scene’s choreography came from Helen, as did the tone in which Elizabeth delivers the speech. Helen firmly believed it was not a moment for Elizabeth to be solemn; instead, she wanted Elizabeth to energize the troops.

5. Remember your artistic license.

The less information available about a character—as Helen’s experience with Elizabeth I—the deeper you may have to dig and more creative you may have to get in your approach. When researching Elizabeth I, Helen found that portraits were a helpful reference. Studying portraits allowed her to realize that she, too, was just another artist doing a portrait of the queen, which freed her of some of the intimidation she felt.

“I suddenly thought, ‘Ah! That’s what it is! I’m doing a portrait. I’m just another artist, doing a portrait,’” Helen says. “It’s not her; she’s much better at being her than I am. But it’s my artistic interpretation. It liberated me.’

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