Film & TV

Case Study: The Queen

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 11:26 min

Helen breaks down two powerful moments of her Academy Award–winning performance in The Queen, illustrating how she reveals the nuances of her character without saying a word.

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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Prime minister. Good morning, your majesty. Sorry to disturb, but I was just wondering whether you'd seen any of today's papers. We managed to look at one or two, yes. In which case, my-- There was a scene in The Queen where she is getting a call from the prime minister asking her to come down to London to be with the people, and to cry with them, and to be a part of this extraordinary-- to my personal mind-- mass hysteria that was building to the royal family, to the queen who'd been through the Second World War. She'd been through major trauma. And the way Britain got through the Second World War was through-- to their mind-- through restraint, through self-discipline, through gung-ho-ness, whatever, a stiff upper lip and all the rest of it. So this was suddenly an alien world for the queen. Anyway, there's this phone conversation where this is proposed by Tony Blair, the great politician who understood what was needed. But it's a foreign language to the queen. It might be necessary. No. I believe a few over-eager editors are doing their best to sell newspapers. And it would be a mistake to dance to their tune. Under normal circumstances, I would agree. Well, my advice is-- I've been taking the temperature among the people on the street. And, well, the information I'm getting is that the mood is quite delicate. I always felt to find a lightly comedic side of it was valuable. So her cleaning her-- in the process of the conversation, I have her cleaning her glasses with her sweater, not with a hanky specially set aside but like we all do, cleaning it with her sweater and looking through the glasses as this conversation's going on-- so little things like that, anything like that that you can add to the scene, to the situation. This is where props are absolutely invaluable. At the same time, in that scene, there's a cut away to her laying in her tension and the inner tension that's going on. You see her laying these pens down in a very neat, precisely spaced row. So to me, that could indicate-- without me having to indicate here-- but it could indicate an inner real fierce tension. So what would you suggest, prime minister-- Some kind of a statement? No, ma'am. I believe the moment for statements has passed. I would suggest flying the flag at half mast above Buckingham Palace. As I said, the very valuable things about research is you can suddenly find really unexpected little things, but very meaningful, I think. So in my research for Elizabeth Windsor, I read this book about her. It's called The Little Princesses. And it's a book by the nanny about them as young girls. And she tells this story of the queen getting up as a young girl-- getting up as Princess Elizabeth-- getting up in the middle of the night. She is angsty every night before she goes to bed. She has a series of little toy horses, of course. And she ...

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.

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

ms. mirren is at ease with communicating essential ideas on acting after gathering together her years of experience. totally coherent and trustworthy information. i am so grateful to have had an opportunity to listen to her thoughts on acting. well done, indeed!

wonderful course with fantastic instructor. I particularly appreciate how she incorporated live action lessons - costuming, props, setting, etc in to the lessons. However I would have gained more with additional examples of her work; it is frustrating to hear her talk of specific experiences, to only see a few of what she is discussing.

Helen Mirren is able to describe her craft with clarity, wit, and self awareness. Useful for actors and directors.


Jess R.

Another wonderful lesson, very true and honest explanation of what it means to be in front of a camera and act.

Michael O.

Even as you explained behind the scenes of your performance as you accepted flowers from the child in the "Queen" scene, I teared up. Of course history and the script are well written for that scene, still your performance is extraordinary.


Playing a public figure that's still alive, especially royalty must have taken a lot more work, but what an honor. I'd like to watch that movie. The clips we fantastic. And yes, being quiet on screen does entail work. More so I am guessing, because as an actor, you have to maintain active listening to stay in character. Long quiet moments on screen isn't something, I ever thought about before... But it's probably common in film, especially for drama roles. Enjoyable lesson.

Kalia D.

Impersonating a public figure of which actual video footage exists is yet another challenge I suppose. Playing the Queen is no longer just a matter of the arts, but of creating National Heritage and Honouring a Hero, with all the pressure that comes with the task. Most people are familiar with meditation and mental training staring at a blank wall or retreating to a secluded place. This is the nirguna, ascetic way. But there is also a saguna, tantric, world-friendly way of training your mind, expanding your awareness. Helen describes it quite poetically. It's a passage uttered so effortlessly, but carying profound meaning and the wisdom of a true master: "The only way to do that is through thought. Shut yourself, shut your mind down, bring yourself into that world, and think your way through it as you're doing it. That requires a particular kind of concentration. Therein resides the absolute kernel, the center of what acting is. It's to do with your imaginative journey into yourself, with control, with technique, but basically you have got to be the kind of person who can imaginatively put yourself absolutely into a position and think those things through, but FEEL them through. Those things have got to wash through you, like a wave on a shore, like a ripple on a pond, and you've got to allow yourself to be an open receptor for that and allow that to be shown on your face. I don't know how it happens, I have no idea! I'm kind of not in control of it."

Karmen B.

Brilliant! Helen Mirren, throught the clarity of her being shares with me the great actor that she is. I am deeply moved by her ability to receive what needs to come through her in order to portray her character. This topped with her indepth research of her character sets her, to my mind, at the leading edge of greatness. Thank you again, dear Helen.

Julia F.

Helen played the Queen so brilliantly! I absolutely agree with her statement that you just have to allow the feelings to wash through you - I thought she put that into worlds absolutely fantastically!


I was having a hard time tracking the distinction Dame Helen was making between thinking and feeling while acting. But I remembered what the poet Muriel Rukeyser once said about poetry: "it tells us what it feels like to think what we are thinking." Feeling without thought is sentiment. It doesn't run very deep. At some point the actor has to work out what the character was thinking, and what feelings those thoughts would have provoked. But then the actor still has to be doing the 2-track thinking about how best to convey all that to the camera or audience without looking too technically calculating. (Is that how you actors understand her metaphor of the wave?)

Kathy M.

There is so much to think about in a scene. The "thought behind the eyes" in this case had to be the those of another living person in a complicated situation, needing to retain composure while flooded with her own emotions. Wow! I detect that Helen grounded herself in the scene by remaining true to the gestures, her costume, and connecting with the other actors. I like the idea of cutting lines. This scene only had a few sentences but communicated volumes. I'll remember that in my future screenwriting attempts.

Alonna S.

"it's alright cutting lines, you might have to replace it with something else." "shut your mind down and bring yourself into that world" the kernel of acting "allow yourself to be an open receptor for the [the thought/emotions]"

maggie R.

brilliant descriptions of acting! she is a woman of great integrity and that quality shows when she describes the skill of acting. so excellent. a true privilege to listen to her speak to acting.