Film & TV

Characterizing the Set

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 18:17 min

Actors may overlook details of set decoration, but Helen encourages you to think about what set dressing can say about your character. Learn how changing the dressing of a set can tell different stories about the character who lives there.

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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You know like we were talking before, working with costume designers, and the incredible importance of, really, sometimes very small details, to tell the story of your character that maybe the costume designer hasn't thought of. That relationship with your costume designer is incredibly important in building your character, but likewise, the work with the set decorator can be very, very important. Because the environment-- if your character has an environment-- their apartment, their flat, I don't know. If it's their personal environment, that environment obviously is going to tell the story of the character as much as the costume is. But sometimes there are elements of your character that the set decorator has-- or the production design or with the set decorator-- hasn't quite grasped. And why should they? They're not living in your character the way you are. So your personal contribution to the set-- again, don't be destructive. Don't come in and say, this is completely wrong! I'm going to-- you know. But I think you're entitled to make suggestions. Just say I would love-- I don't know. I see-- I mean, looking for example in this set that I'm looking in. Beautiful. Nice pieces of furniture. A little bit modern, as they say, mid-century. So an older person could have had this furniture from when they were young. Now it's become an antique. This actually happened in my life. My furniture is suddenly antiques. Right? Very upsetting. But anyway, this could be seen-- if you are hip, a hip young person-- in this environment, it becomes hip. If you're an older person, it becomes kind of antique and period. It's what they had from when they were first married. So I'm imagining, maybe, that in this set lives an older woman. She lives on her own. I'm thinking, OK, she lives on her own. This would be the place that she mostly sits, wouldn't it? So I'm going to pitch this area up. And I'm going to ask-- and props are very, very kindly. This is great. That looks like something that she or her mother might have made. This is great. Again, it's got that sort of older feeling. So I'm going to start just making this set just look more like somewhere that someone sits. Maybe in the scene, for example, maybe this is a prop you're going to use in the scene. And if that's the case, it becomes really important that that prop tells the right story. So I'm looking at this. Maybe in the scene it says the character has a cup of coffee. And this is what the props people have brought. They brought it's beautiful, elegant correct period, but elegant sort of thing for her to have her coffee. And you think, no. Someone living on their own-- unless they're a certain kind of person-- my character would never do this. So I'm going to change this out. Please set decorator, do you mind if I change this ...

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 has been an incredible class! So much insight and it was all a joy to learn. Thank you!

Incredible knowledge from the practical side of being an actor. I always thought that I have to practice in front of the mirror, to see how do I look instead of "feel the feeling" and show it. The great sentence about the body, to "own it", and to complete your character like a puzzle, every detail has a meaning and many many more, so many good tips! Thank you so much! That was incredible jurney!

I really enjoyed these lessons: not only I learnt new things about acting, but I have also increased my level of self-confidence!

For me as a director, Helen Mirren's Masterclass helped me to work with actors on a much higher level. As well for creating a believable character. It was also very helpful for screenwriting. Now I use those little tips from Helen Mirren still during writing.



“My furniture is suddenly antiques. Right? Very upsetting. But anyway...” The changing tone of her joking in frustration and then quickly easing out is so funny and so lovely I just can’t stop laughing. I watched it many many times. So addictive. What a shame we don’t get a closer look of her facial expression.

Michael O.

"... so I'm going to bitch this little area up." The first half of this lesson is one of the sexiest scenes I've screened. Not because of text (obviously) or subtext, but because you are so thoroughly engaged in the task at hand, "characterizing the set," so enamoured by every detail, so dedicated to what you perceive as imperfect perfection, all of it coming from your scheming, brilliant mind. Once again, revelations about environment (set) informing performance; about empowering actors to collaborate in prop selection. I've never been introduced to props from the actor's point of view. In the professional theatre, man, one is isolated from the process of set design and dressing, prop making, divorced as it were from all meaningful participation in the choice-making. As a director, it has rarely occurred to me to collaborate with actors in the design process. Your way Helen - so organic, so graceful, so simple. This lesson alone worth the price of tuition.

Ting K.

I didn't know an actor can fix the set to make it more in sync with the character.


A pizza box, I understand. Environments are important to the character. Great class :)


This is all fun if you're doing an independent film or if you're a superstar such as Helen Mirren, but my experience on sets is don't touch anything not used in the scene and you can't really fuss around with the set designers.

Celene G.

I think the audience is very aware of background information on a set and helps to build the stories in their minds, so it's important as an actor to also be a part of creating the atmosphere. This was a good session for us to understand that we can be a part of that process with the set designers. Thanks.

Louanne F.

I just love Helen Mirren! It's wonderful to see her bring the set to life with the little touches that make it an appropriate home for the character. I had a mini film festival this past weekend - watched The Queen, Hitchcock and Eye In The Sky and loved every minute of every film. Like watching a friend at work after all of these lessons. Thank you, Helen!

Kalia D.

It's great if you have the freedom and talent to participate in the decoration for your character's space, because often everything is well researched and discussed through by experts in advance, and your role as actor is to accept the space as it is and start the story from there. It's always a great challenge to decorate a living space, and it's a fun exercise to investigate real life ones. It also shows the importance of creative randomness. If you rely too much on research you might end up just with cliches. Yes, everyone in his period had rooms like that, but this corner was different because he had a polish grandmother and.... like that. You rarely have the luxury to get a hold of props that exactly match your imagination. Creative geniuses often surprise by making seemingly random things fit into a character's story. Life is always a balance of rules and improvisation...

Heather W.

This lesson was terrific for me as a novelist... true, I need to describe rather than physically show, but the details that make up the environment of the character apply equally. Great!

Sylvie B.

Thank you Mme Mirren. I had a little role in a movie and the director gave me a book to read while sitting on "my coach in my home" and I just though, wow I will never read this, It doesn't interest me. I didn't dare to tell him but I had to go over this. Next time I will open my mouth.....