Chapter 14 of 28 from Helen Mirren

Creating Characters: Hair & Makeup, Part 2


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

Topics include: Makeup and Lighting • Think of Your Face as the Empty Space • When Possible, Freshen Up Before Your Close-Up • Don't Get Stuck in Old Habits

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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Class Info


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

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.


Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren Teaches Acting