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Arts & Entertainment

Case Study: Elizabeth I

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 16:04 min

Learn the two-track thinking required to have an impactful performance on camera: You must play the emotional moment of the scene in real time while knowing exactly where the camera is.

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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I did a piece for television-- Elizabeth I. Well, she was actually very emotional. She wasn't all cool, and calm, and controlled. She was highly emotional. Highly extreme. But if you're doing that kind of stuff, it really helps to, as I say, think fast. I'm out of control, but I've got to pull it back. Sometimes you can't think that fast. And if you can't, as I said, don't think. Just don't think. Just go there without thinking. And then you'll find your feet into what you're doing. There's a scene where I'm encouraging the troops to go into battle against the Spanish Armada. You'll see, as I seem to remember, I start off on a platform making the speech to the people. But I remember talking to the director and saying, I think this should be much more intimate. I think she should be down there amongst them. You know, she's really, really appealing to them as a woman. Obviously, as a leader, but more as a British-- an at that time-- English person. And basically saying, we're all in this together. And if you die, I'm going to die with you. So I thought it was very important that she be right there in amongst with them, not a sort of remote figure making a beautiful speech from a distance. My loving people-- my loving people. And that's where staging is very important. And you must feel free to speak up if you feel a piece of staging is wrong for your character, or your role in that moment of the drama, you must have the courage to speak up. A complaint I always have very often about directors-- especially on television it happens a lot-- is that they decide to do a walk-and-talk in a scene. People are walking along while they're playing the scene. And so often it's so wrong for what these two people are saying to each other. They would never, ever say those words to each other on the move. Directors and cinematographers, obviously, often like that, because it gives movement. Or they know they need to get from this point to that point. And how the hell are we going to do it? Oh, I know, let's do a walk-and-talk. But really be aware of that. And I've personally very often said to directors, I'm sorry. I cannot play this scene on the move. I can move up to this point in the scene. Those words, that intention, I would have to stop, look at the other person in the eye, and play the scene eye-to-eye. In this scene, obviously, I felt very strongly that it would be good to move. You know, it was not a moment to stand still. It was a moment to move amongst the guys. And hopefully it worked. I think the moment of grabbing the earth-- And I remember thinking-- Because we had to shoot that film very fast. We didn't have time for many takes. And we didn't have time for much rehearsal or anything. You were like, moving, like an express train. So finding myself down there, obviously, then I...

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.

Helen Mirren does a great job of analyzing human behavior and taking human experience and bottling the observable nature of humans: a tool for applying the psychology the environment, behavior and gesture into the symbiotic relationship between yourself and your character!

Helen Mirren's Master Class has offered up great wisdom for me to absorb and use as an environmental magician seeking to bring important messages to my audiences.

Very generous with her insights and experience. I enjoyed it.

This course was insightful and worth the hours put into completing it.


A fellow student

Just as in life, one can feel emotions and also think. It doesn't have to be an either/or. Real emotions, real time, technique.

Madeline E.

I'm really loving these case studies-I've getting so much from them. The clips to back up what Helen is saying are great additions!

A fellow student

Never considered that pairing of emotion and technique. From the looks they go hand in hand, very nice

Robin L.

would be cool to have those masterclasses as podcasts too. thanks the MC team for their great work.

Michael O.

Brain on 2 tracks simultaneously - makes sense, but I've not thought of it that way. As I listen to you speak of it, I actually get a sense of it, that you are doing it now as you teach. How does one practice 2 track acting?

Eden R.

So good as always! I hope to be as good of an actress as you some day, Thank you so much, Mrs. Mirren.

R.G. R.

Strong lesson, especially the final point about the timing and playing the moment without 'looking at yourself."

Annet V.

I look at this for lack of having exposure to people of this caliber in my real world. I love how Helen lives consciously through all the options of being...



Julian S.

I am always impressed by the depth of these lessons. Staging fitting the character, is essential and it shows in Helen's role as Elizabeth I. Her speech right there worked because of the way she walked and how she addressed her audience and her surroundings. It is interesting that walking and talking has become so commonplace in film that we don't think twice about it. And yet its true that it does not always work. Finding a modern approach to period language is a must, especially if you're playing a historical figure. But it applies to fictional characters as well. If you want to convince people that you are the sixteenth-century Queen of England, you have to act like you are and believe that you are. Keeping the brain on two tracks is no doubt a lesson that cannot simply be applied through any other way than hard continuous practice. And it must be natural. You cannot show that you are focusing hard to stay on both tracks or you will derail yourself and the scene along with you. Focus on what you can control and what you cannot. What you must let lie and what you can/should add. Reading and Adjusting to the Filmmaking Environment is yet another lesson that can be gained only through years of experience. You must familiarize yourself with everything, including the extras, especially the EXTRAS. They can make a resounding impact depending how you play off of them. And when you do, let your actions take you in, not too deeply or you will lose track, not too softly or you will not be convincing. Get it just right and you have a happy medium. (The Albanians and basketball really cracked me up!) The Pas de Deux (something I was not previously aware of) is something that cannot be understated. Long scenes require near to perfect synchronicity with the actor and the cameraman. One millimetre off course, and the scene has to be reshot. It's moments like these that are the most taxing and the most rewarding. And finally, Playing the Moment in Real Time. So often have I gone through monologues at lightning speed, trying to focus on getting words exactly right and not slowing down. But real people don't talk like that, not all the time. In fact, they rarely talk so perfect and so fast at all. It is imperfections, the flaws of our words that make a scene perfect. Subtle flaws, of course, but flaws nonetheless, which are noticeable to the audience. These moments make the actor human, and they make the scene relatable. Good to be back on track with MasterClass!