Chapter 5 of 28 from Helen Mirren

Breaking Down a Script

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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.

Topics include: Note Your First Instinctive Reactions • Allow Your Subconscious to Work • When to Use Improv and When Not To • Discover the Dialogue in Your Own Mouth • Deconstruct the Script

Helen Mirren

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

Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy, and Tony winner Helen Mirren is one of the greatest actresses of our time. In her first online class, she discusses the dualism that is core to her method: the necessity for mastering technique (craft) and then letting go so that your imagination can take over (art). Learn how to break down a script, research characters, and master techniques so you can transcend them to find freedom in every role.

Helen brings you behind the scenes to show you the secrets of her acting technique.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Helen will also critique select student work.

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Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren Teaches Acting