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Arts & Entertainment

Creating Characters: Hair & Makeup, Part 2

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 10:11 min

For Helen, an actor’s face is an “empty space,” just like a stage, on which characters come to life and tell their stories.

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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Obviously, there's a huge difference between makeup for the stage and makeup for film. And in film, subtlety is all. I mean, it's wonderful in film if you want to make a sudden statement, like pink cheeks. I look like a drunk. Oh, sorry, I shouldn't have done that. Now I'll quit mucking around. But anyway, if you want to make a big, bold statement, it's great. You can in film. And as I said, with Hedda's eyebrows, a little gash of red lips, and you've got a whole character in the face. On stage you have to often make a bigger statement than that. But I'll tell you the other thing that's so important both on stage, and especially in film, obviously is the lighting. Because you can have the most brilliantly wonderful hair, and makeup, and all the rest of it. And if the lighting is not there to help you, you're screwed. So lighting, in film in particular, really is all important. It's not something you can control as an actor. That is out of your control. Unless you're Marlene Dietrich, in which you say, where's my cue light. But those days are past. It's difficult to tell nowadays, when the light is bad, because of digital film. And with digital film you can film in such low light. I'm amazed nowadays, often, when I work on film that there seems to be absolutely no light. And I say, can you see what we're doing? And they say, yes, yes, we can see. And that's because of digital film. So things have really changed in that direction, which is very helpful, incidentally-- you can shoot for longer. Yes, you certainly know if you've got a horrible, straight down, over-the-head light, you know you're going to look terrible. Maybe it's right that you look terrible. Maybe it's right for the character, for the scene, for everything. And that's great, when the lighting is absolutely in synchronicity with the story and the story you're trying to tell. But if it's not, if it's just ugly, that's a problem. But it's very rarely like that, because cinematographers understand light above all, you know. I mean there are nice little tricks that cinematographers can do to help you out, like a little tiny inky above the lens, just kick up a light in your eyes. Or sometimes, a nice little light box all the way around the camera makes you look very pretty. There are various tricks of the trade, that sometimes you're lucky enough to have. But again, lighting, makeup, all have to service the story. Because you're telling a story. And I always say, does it tell the story? Does the wig tell the story? Is this the story I want to tell at that point in time? Is this red lipstick-- is it telling the correct story? So ultimately, everything we do is contributing to telling the story. Sometimes you have to make the decision that you are not going to wear makeup, and you're not going to look very pretty. Because tha...

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.

It was amazing. I learned that being true to my art is going to take me to that next level.

Insightful, Meaningful, Direct, Concise, really a master class from a master Teacher Helen Mirren!!! Thanks so much!!!

Hands-on examples, she is humble, down to earth, and full of wisdom and knowledge. Very practical lessons, very useful tips and wonderful resources suggested.

Helen make me understand so many things and now I can see the theater and the films from a different point of view, which is obviously a better than it was


A fellow student

If you don't like the makeup or wig, but the other professionals do, just "suck it up". they may know something you don't. Support the character and be open to something new.

A fellow student

The part of resheshing your face if you have the ooportunity is a great insight. Real good

Emily O.

(Jay Overton) It's so interesting how my own facial hair adds years to my appearance, as well as adds pounds. I am balding and when I let my full beard grow out I look about 15 years older than without it. I also look about 15 pounds heavier. I suppose that's a character trade off I'll have to face. If the beard is needed I may have to lose 15 pounds just to look the same as I do without it. (Can't regress the 15 years, however, so that is something the director will have to deal with.)

A fellow student

"I look like a clown...oh gosh shouldn't have said that...I was mucking around". *dabs off blush with kleenex* We've all done that, Helen. Helen you're hilarious. British humour at it's best. That's one of the things I love about Brits, their hunour and slang. About the wigs, yes, it does change everything, without changing a lot. The black wig reminded me of Phrynie Fisher in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries and the red wig reminded me of Mrs. Doubtfire....

Conor H.

Some of my key takeaways here: Move the "empty space" to your face. I love the idea of moving a thought form, in this instance the "empty space" from which we create (in my mind, an actual empty stage, the place I go to get into character) to your face and it gives you the power to create from that area. Move the "empty space" to your feet if you're dancing, move it to your hands if you're conducting, etc. Don't get stuck in old habits. Being an actor who is bald, I CLING to my beard like it's my only lifeline. I've even turned down a role (background work for a period piece) when they asked me to shave my beard. I think for the background role it was a good call, but will I be willing to surrender and let go of old habits if a supporting or lead role comes my way. I hope so.



Louanne F.

I am loving the practical nature of this class - all her suggestions and ideas are wonderfully usable!


The idea of being like an empty space is excellent. Something i will always keep in mind and heart from now on, this class will never fade away from my mind. Thank you Helen.

Mia S.

"If you're a young actor on the set and you feel you're being pushed into something that you're really uncomfortable with in terms of the way you look, either by the makeup or hair person, or the costume person or the director or all of them together, that's really tough. I think the only advice I can give you in that situation is suck it up, get on with it, and get through it. I've seen actresses reduced to tears in the makeup trailer because they feel their makeup or wig, the way their hair's been dressed, really doesn't suit them. We all get slightly obsessed with certain looks; what I do is, I give the makeup artist absolute freedom to do whatever they want with my face. What they have to offer might be more interesting than my old habits, and you can get stuck in old habits about the way you look. You see women on the street, they're still wearing their hair the same way they wore it when they were 25. Only now they're 65, and it's really not a good look. They get stuck in that look, and they're all at sea and they don't know who they are. As an actor, your face and your look has got to be the empty space upon which you put elements. To get hooked on your hair always has to be a certain way, it always has to have product in it; whatever it is people get stuck with. Really, I advise you not to get stuck. All the makeup and hair artist to come with their own ideas, take a look at what they're presenting, and then maybe you can have your own ideas and add to it, or take away from it. But listen to them, and be open to having a different look that you're just not familiar with."

Mia S.

"Sometimes you have to make this decision that you are not going to wear makeup and you're not going to look very pretty, because that is the role. It's a terrible thing, nowadays, a lot of actresses I've noticed have fake eyelashes permanently attached. So they all have these fabulous eyelashes, they're gorgeous. But they can't take them off, and for some roles, they're completely wrong. Be conscious of doing things to yourself that is going to really limit you when it comes to playing certain characters. It's much better to have an empty space and add things to it, than to arrive with all of these bits and pieces, and now the makeup artist has to work around them. No makeup, my face just disappear,s, there's nothing there to hold on to. So I need definition, I need definition in my eyebrows. Sometimes if you've been in the same makeup, which you often have, since - say it's 4 in the afternoon, and now you're doing a closeup. You've been in that makeup since 6 in the morning, and both you and your makeup are tired. If you have the time, an this is where it's really good to have a good relationship with the first and second AD to know what the timing of the day is going to be, say, 'Do I have an hour there?' you can go into the makeup trailer. That's where you have to be sensible, have a real understanding of the timing of the day... what you don't want to do is suddenly disappear with no makeup on, when suddenly you're going to be called onto the set to shoot a scene. I've often found myself shooting a closeup at the end of the day. It used to be in the olden days, women's closeups could only happen between certain hours in the day, when they were woken up enough, but not yet tired. Somewhere between 11 and 3 in the afternoon or something. But those days are long gone. There are two valuable things in a closeup: one is powder, the other is sweat. It's always quite nice for certain scenes to have a nice little sweat going on, and then in other scenes, it's really not a good idea to be at all shining."