Chapter 24 of 28 from Helen Mirren

Characterizing the Set


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.

Topics include: Personalize Your Character's Space: Part 1 • Personalize Your Character's Space: Part 2

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.

Topics include: Personalize Your Character's Space: Part 1 • Personalize Your Character's Space: Part 2

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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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.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

She's brilliant! I'm not an actor... but as a writer, there is tons of great info in this class that I can still put to good use.

I thank you so much on giving me more knowledge to increase my craft

Amazing she was very informative and she appealed to a lot of us who make things more than they are

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.


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.....

Mia S.

"When you walk on, 90% of what you are doing is you are living in your imagination. To fully realize your character, you have to be fully within the imagination of the character, and the real elements around you all feed into that imaginative journey you're making. Use your imagination. Use the tools at your disposal, but use them with imagination. Think of the scene, think of what you literally, physically - what you're going to have to do in the scene, therefore where your props should be. And much more important - what kind of props they are. All of these elements build up. The audience don't necessarily notice it, as none of us notice the elements in our beings that tell the story of our characters. We don't really notice it until we really study, and start deconstructing. That, incidentally - this has nothing to do with sex - is why you should always watch people, out there on the street. My mantra as an actor is that real life is always more interesting than anything we can make up. So take from real life. If you're stuck in a traffic jam or you're on the bus or subway, just pick one person out - surreptitiously, don't stare. But look at every detail of what they're wearing, everything from how clean their fingernails are to when they last had their hair cut, or what belt they're wearing, how old their jeans are - every little detail, and just start constructing in your mind who that character is. It's amazing how in-depth you can get. There are details within that that are unnoticeable - but it incrementally all builds up to a certain picture."


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 ...