Film & TV

Case Study: Prime Suspect

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 12:35 min

Close-up shots are an opportunity to show your character’s emotions and thoughts without putting words to them. Helen breaks down a scene from the first episode of Prime Suspect to illustrate.

Helen Mirren
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When the TV series Prime Suspect came along for me, it was groundbreaking in many ways, although, in reality, in the real world, that particular ground of women trying to break glass ceilings in their various professions had-- it was at least, let's say, 10, 15 years out of date. In an interesting way, that was why the series gained such attention, because I think women of all professions heaved a sigh of relief because finally their struggle was there on the screen. [KNOCKING ON DOOR] Come in. Hello, Jane. This may not be the right time, sir, but under the circumstances, I'm not quite sure when would be the right time. I'm offering to take over the murder investigation. I don't have to tell you that I am qualified to handle this investigation, and that I have been waiting for-- well, I don't have to tell you how long. 18 months. And in that time, I've had to handle more paperwork than I did at Reading for my whole five years dealing with sex cases. I know DCI Sheffard was at a crucial stage of the investigation-- Inspector, I have to see his wife this afternoon. Don't expect me to make any decisions now. It's just not the right time. Well, when is the right time? Look, I'm the only officer of my rank who's continually overstepped, sidestepped, whatever. Just give me the chance to prove that I can-- You don't have to prove yourself to me. In this particular scene, I have to play, you know, the righteous politeness, and because you're in the system, you have to be obedient to the system, you can't make waves. But you want to, you know, make your case at the same time. So it was this sort of double-layered thing that was happening in the scene. And this, of course, is where the close-up is a wonderful thing. You know, because you can play the subtleties of thought, of intention, of emotion, whatever it is, in a close-up. And in that particular scene, I seem to remember a lot of it is in a wide two shot. And then suddenly, as she's realizing that she's failing in her attempt to take over this case, and she's having to deal with her anger, her disappointment, her resentment, and her thought of how am I going to get over this, I'm going to get over this in some way. Well that's not enough, Michael. I'm getting sick to death of this so-called Metropolitan Police survey being thrown at me. So all right, apparently 90% of the time the general public would prefer a male officer. But until one of us gets a chance to prove that that survey is a biased, outdated load of old bullshit-- A close friend, a man who I respected highly, died right there. And now, Inspector, is not the time to thrust your women's rights down my throat. I'll get back to you. And there, the close-up is fantastic, because without any words you can express all of those things. You have to think them, but you can express them. When I was doing Prime Suspect, a wonderful...

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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.

Dame Helen Mirren gave invaluable, practical advice. I appreciated how she demystified the film set, so that we know what to expect. Astonishing breadth and depth of knowledge. Grateful that she shared her experience with us.

It was packed with meaningful information. I enjoyed every minute! :)

I took this class as a screenwriter. I thought it would be helpful to learn more about how actors work. I learned so much that will help me write better screenplays.

There are so many little things that Helen taught that I had not thought about. I love her astuteness. Very happy with the perspective she has brought to me.


A fellow student

In this day and age actors seem to more inclined to create things on their own, technology has provided a different gateway. Also very nice at the end to be able to have a producer to allow writers to have creative freedom on what they do, make things exceptional.

Gisela S.

Very good advice specially the one about creating our own piece of work, I genuinely feel like is a great skill to have to create something!

Michael O.

I don't know how you would keep in character if you were cking out your lines in hidden places. I would truly fall apart if I did not have script memorized. Thanks for the look-see behind the scenes. Only I do wish you had screened a better clip, more recent maybe. This scene is a bit stodgy in script, acting and camera work.

Eden R.

I love the part about the close ups and how you can use them to tell the story simply on your face! I will remember that.


Sorry about your fellow actor passing away. It is important to understand the perspective of your work. Good lesson. Happy 2019!

Paula Lee M.

I wish to thank Ms. Mirren for these episodes. This one in particular hit home on so many levels. As an actor who has enjoyed this profession for many years her take on these subjects validates my thoughts on acting.

Julian S.

I definitely should watch Prime Suspect. I could learn a lot from it. Definitely important to notice the close-up reactions of characters, as you can read so much from them. This applies to comics similarly. So many thoughts and emotions bottled up, spoken and unspoken at the same time. And when used right, the lack of dialogue is more vocal. Of course, when you are speaking you need to be heard. It doesn't matter if the microphone picks you up. You need your partner to hear what you're saying unless otherwise scripted. This is a conversation and both sides need to know what is going on. Befriending the camera-man is a good benefit. One time, when delivering a speech in a wedding scene, I had all of my lines written down on a piece of paper which I placed on the stand. The camera-man made sure it was not visible. Certain people have certain shooting styles such as Quentin Tarantino. A film like The Hateful 8 has a lot of wide shots where a lot happens from far away. Also, there is a lot of shots where people stay in the same location for extended periods of time. It works brilliantly for the movie. And definitely don't just wait for job opportunities to arise. You need to keep acting. It's a like a muscle; if you don't exercise it regularly, it stiffens. It doesn't matter if you don't make it public. Do it for yourself. It will also make you more confident in making your own productions. As a bonus, you have something for your reel.

Mia S.

"I'm forever begging the cameraman, 'Can I just have a look down the lens?' Now you can go look at the monitor, but to me the monitor doesn't tell the story - it's only really by looking down the lens you can really see what the story is if you like, visually. Just to have a sense of what the cinematographer is creating. If you're lucky enough to find yourself in a position - and maybe you guys will be out there creating your own product; I do advise, as many of you who have the inspiration to do that, do so, because when you're not working and you're not practicing, it's very debilitating. Make your own product, if you can. Find friends to work with, just make your own thing, whether anyone sees it or not. What you will have at the end of that is a little piece of work that you can then show to a casting director. You can do it, nowadays, with iPhones. You're in a much more advantageous position than I ever was, in that respect. There have been whole movies - very good movies - made with iPhones. You are now in a position where you can actually create your own product, and in doing so you will be your own producer. There, for me, the most important things: the writer and the cinematographer. The writer was the very important element - I never wanted Prime Suspect to become kind of a cookie-cutter version of what went before. I wanted each one to be its own thing, and in order to achieve that, I said to each of the writers, 'Make this your own. You can take this character anywhere you like. I want this to be your piece of work. Forget all the ones that came before, those don't exist anymore. This is yours, you tell the story you want to tell.' It gave the writers liberty to invent, to make it personal to them. That was my decision as a producer."

Mia S.

“[The director and cinematographer] created a very specific look for the piece. And that was very much part of why the piece was successful, was this extraordinary - at the time, very challenging - but very interesting way of shooting. He was working with a very long lens in a very low light. Any cinematographers here understand that means you have a very, very shallow field of focus. So if I did *this* - literally that, on set, I'd be out of focus in some setups. He would have a moving camera, this very slow, on a very long lens in very low light, with me moving. I had to hit marks so accurately - hit marks literally on one and lean on one foot and not sway backwards or forwards or in any way whatsoever, but maintain naturalism and the performance and the emotion and all of that. There is a very clear example of the two-track brain you have to have. I had never shot anything with those sorts of intense technical requirements. But of course the result was a wonderful visual because it was very grainy, you always felt like you were sneaking a look at someone, you always felt that the camera was voyeuristic, it was sneaking up on you... it gave it very atmospheric feeling. So it was worth it. The other thing to remember - when you're working with directors or cinematographers - usually it's the director and cinematographer working together on the look - and they have created a very specific kind of way of shooting. Work with that - don't resist it, don't go, 'I can't do this.' Work with it - you always can do it. Use it as a learning experience."

Mia S.

"I say my line... I can't hear him at all - the sound person says, 'Tom, darling, sweetheart, can you just lift it up a bit, be a little louder? It's very difficult to hear what you're saying.' Tom goes, 'OK, yeah, yeah.' He goes down even quieter. The direct result of that is, when you see it on the screen, you can absolutely hear what Tom is saying quite clearly, but I'm kind of talking LIKE THIS because I'm talking at a normal level, but Tom is talking so quietly, the sound guy had to bump up the sound. That was a lesson to me, because I didn't know about that kind of stuff. I didn't realize at that point really how very quietly you can speak on screen, because the microphone will actually pick it up. Some filmmaking is very challenging - you might have a very long take where you have a lot of lines, and maybe a lot of movement and a lot of marks to hit. If it's particularly difficult stuff to learn, which it often is - it's procedural - luckily, if you're working in a police station, there's lots of paperwork everywhere. As the scene was being set up and I began to understand where the camera was, I would judiciously in different places write down little pieces of dialogue that I thought I was a little bit dodgy on. There are many, many tricks of the trade. Be friendly with your cameramen, because you need them."