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Arts & Entertainment

Breaking Down a Script

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 10:23 min

Breaking down a script is a very personal process. Learn Helen’s tricks for tackling a large volume of material at once, and experience the joy of discovering your character’s dialogue in your own mouth.

Helen Mirren
Teaches Acting
In 28 lessons, the Oscar, Golden Globe, Tony, and Emmy winner teaches her process for acting on the stage and screen.
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So now we've decided to play the role, because it's a good role. And now I start, and obviously the first thing you do is you read the script, trying to work out who the hell is who and where they are and all the rest of it. And I often have to make notes because I forget. You know, Constance is the daughter of the woman who owns the house, whatever it is. And, you know, you work your way through, and then you begin to see where your role fits. So let's just look at the basic way of looking at a script. We just start, and we read it through. And we find our character. Then, obviously, we pay particular attention to that scene, exactly what she says, what it's telling us about the character. And if at that point, any ideas pop into your head about the character, about what's said, about the backstory of the character, whatever, just scribble it down on the page, because I find that the first instinctive reactions to a role are great. And often you forget them. You know, you read and you go, oh, that would be a great idea. Oh, well, what about that? And then you're reading on, and you've forgotten it. So note any of those little ideas, you know, down. Anything that you have that you suddenly think, oh, maybe it's slippers. Maybe it'll be good if she's wearing slippers, in this scene or whatever it is, any little thing. I find the process of writing very important in my work as an actor. I mean, obviously, to have a great script is the most wonderful thing. And everything, even when we improvise, we are in a sense writing, the great kind of writing that's just coming out of our subconscious. And that can be fantastic, or it can be very mundane. It can be kind of stupid and mundane, because improv can go both ways. It can be inspired-- and inspired in that particular way that is, as I say, coming from your subconscious. And it's true and inventive, or it can be mundane and boring and kind of stupid. So improv isn't the answer to everything, far from it. But in a way, what I often do is I will write alongside of a scene, very quickly, allowing my subconscious to work-- just quickly what the underlying story of that scene is or what maybe is not being articulated but maybe in another world would be articulated. It will never be articulated, but that is what is the subtext-- it's the subtext of what's being said. Improvisation is an incredible tool. And, in fact, even when you're playing Shakespeare, to improvise the meaning of the speech in your own language is a very, very good tool, because it allows you access into what is sometimes quite dense language. That's one use of improv. Then, improv, obviously, just to enliven or to elucidate or to complicate or to bring a whole other element into a scene is also a fantastic tool. And it can lead you into a wonderful sort of naturalism, which is what we're all seeking for. But the...

Find freedom in your roles

In her first-ever online acting class, Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren shares the techniques she has learned through the course of her international career that has spanned stage, screen, and television. Her powerful and versatile performances have earned her numerous awards, including the Academy Award in 2007 for her performance in The Queen, a Tony Award in 2015 for her performance in The Audience, and four Emmy Awards.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

It's always great lesson when it comes from a professional, especially sharing their own first had experience.

It was a delight hearing from such a master talking about the small but important things like learning to use your props. Not being afraid to speak up if things aren't right about your character. Well worth watching for tips gleaned from decades of successful acting work.

I'm thrilled that Helen reached into so many different areas of acting. It gave me a great foundation to start. Perfection! Thank you!!

This MasterClass has given me new perspectives on the craft of acting and inspires me to keep exploring acting.


Sabrina Z.

As writer, Helen has clarified for me what actors look for in scripts. I love the concept of filling the empty space. It is my job to leave the acting to the actors - I just need to tell the story and make sure the voice of the story is in the last scene.

Maryam L.

Breaking down a script is personal, since it's the way we have to try and get to know the lines of the character we portray. I love that she showed us her own process, because it might by a process that works for us or it might not. It gives us some time to try and find a process that works for us, especially for new actors such as myself.

Márcia A.

Wow... I'm in awe after this lesson. It was so refreshing and mind blowing even to hear her explain how she reads her scripts and her characters and what her method is. Loving this so far.


This may be a stupid question, but I'm very new to the acting world. When Mirren says "read-through", is that the stage in pre-production where all the actors sit down and read the script together for the first time, rather than reading the script on your own? If so, is this an accurate characterization of the "read-through"?

Madeline E.

This is the most interesting of Helen's that I've watched so far-such great advice in how to tackle the text head on!

Mary S.

I have chosen Hermione from A Winter’s Tale. Why? I reviewed the categories in “Shakespeare The Complete Collection”. I chose the romance category as the other categories did interest me. Of the plays listed in this category A Winter’s Tale caught my eye, and as I had no knowledge of it, I chose it. Again with the same process I looked at the list of characters, and Hermione grabbed me. I then dove into the deep of the play and was mesmerized by the first part of it. I found myself rooting for Hermione and her baby daughter. The latter part of the play found me less interested until I read the Wikipedia synopsis of the play. Then I went back and reread the play with much more enjoyment of the dialogue and not trying to decipher the language. Now I will reread only Hermione’s part and pick a scene to practice.

Diana F.

Just what I needed. Im prepping for a audition. any good Shakespeare monologue suggestions? I love lady Macbeth, but just felt like its too over done. Really wna try something that is originally written for a male character.

Helen W.

Fantastic, am in rehearsal for a play at present and am going to implement Helen's ideas from now on..

Nastasia M.

I like her thoughts on organizing yourself to keep track of the story, being able to focus on what is more important as filming moves along, and to avoid getting overwhelmed.


Deconstructing a script is very interesting...It reminds me of deconstructing many pages of textbook/note to memorize the content when I was a college student! But then, I agree to that idea!