Film & TV

Film Acting Technique, Part 1

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 12:15 min

For Helen, mastering on-camera technique allowed her to find freedom in her roles and to have moments of pure, out-of-control inspiration. She shares how she found inspiration in this vein from a surprising source: an abstract painter.

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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There is such a huge difference between acting on stage and acting on film. And yet, ironically, it's actually the same process that you go through. You're going through the process of imaginatively putting yourself into a situation that you are manifestly not in. On stage, you know, you're playing-- I don't know, I played Phaedre, for example, on stage. A Greek queen who is in love with her stepson, and you're in ancient Greece. But I'm not in ancient Greece, I'm on the stage at the National Theater and in front of me is an audience. But we are all engaging in this wonderful, miraculous active imagination together that is going to take us on this journey, the journey of telling a story, that we all want to go on. Likewise, when you're on a film set. Here you are, I don't know, Excalibur. I'm Morgana the enchantress. But I'm not. I've just struggled into my costume and my makeup is hot, it's falling off me, and my hair is uncomfortable. And there's noise on the set, and many, many people. You're manifestly not where-- so anyway what I'm saying is the central essence of what you are doing is the same. You are engaging in an act of imagination, profoundly, in order to tell a story. Having said that, there is a world of difference between acting on stage and acting on in front of a camera. The wonderful advantage that you have on camera is you have the closeup. And you can tell-- you don't need a three page speech if you have a close up. You can do it all here if you are allowed or if that's required. What happens in film and television is that you're edited. Your performance is created for you by the editor, by the director, by all the other elements that come in in post-production. On stage, you are editing yourself. You are in control of the editing. You can bring the attention to yourself if you want to. Or you give it to the other actor when the moment is right. You can choose when to be still. You can choose when to be fast. You can choose when to do this and not look at the camera at all. Or the audience. The back is a very important thing for actors, I think. So there is an absolute world of difference between the two techniques. And both are highly technical and you have to learn the technique for both formats. But as I say, in the absolute essence of what you are doing, which is going on this imaginative story, its the same thing. This is a book called Interviews With Francis Bacon. I can't find-- I can't find the bit that I will tell you about. It's a wonderful piece. He talks about-- he talks about the necessity to learn technique. And it is something that I have come to understand. And he talks about it in terms of painting. He says all five-year-old, six-year-old kids are brilliant painters. They're brilliant because they're painting purely out of instinct and they're not concer...

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.

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.

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.

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

I improve very much in acting I know the technique now . In early stage iam confused about what is mean by acting and how iam going to act in front of camera. Thanks to Helen mirren .Giving details to very little thing in acting


Emily O.

(Jay Overton) There is no way to give how-to advice on the various topics she touches on in this lesson. She can['t be specific. The scene, itself, would dictate a different approach to manifest a real performance from an actor. To think that Helen Mirren is going to give us the steps to master a particular role or scene is not realistic. Learn the film or stage techniques that work for you, practice them, get them to be 2nd nature, then find the freedom to explore the role/scene without worrying about the technique. That's the takeaway.

Cyril M.

While I understand that some may not have found this lesson valuable, I thought it helpful even if it was many small topics and tips lumped together. Any one of these is valuable.

Michael I.

It all sounded all so arbitrary. I don't really think Helen prepared for these vignettes.

Devin M.

Probably the worst lesson so far. She just spoke about her take on behaviors, not how to do it. And, "listen to your stunt person." Really? Some of us Indy actors aren't so lucky to have a stunt person. Once again this whole HM masterclass might be for the 1% of actors who are in A films and are series regulars, not for the aspiring actor. Hope it gets better...

Carolyn S.

This was a fabulous lesson. But it also made me want to know more specifics about the techniques and how they are employed. Actual examples, demonstrated for us.

Kim B.

Although I am not a theater actor, I totally understand everything Helen Mirren is teaching. I'm appreciative to have this opportunity to learn from her experience.



Kalia D.

So at this point it's at least five layers of awareness: the empty space inside, the story you fill it with, the real surroundings like location of camera, distractions, lighting etc., your own skilled body-awareness, and the spectators view of the scene. If your acting involves an aspect of entertainment, there is a sixth layer: the reaction of and interaction with your audience. So it's definitely not trivial. Another aspect particular to film acting is these endless retakes I suppose. On stage, the actor can trip and the audience will kindly overlook it. I wonder whether she favours a particular school of technique? I gather there are many different traditions around the world and throughout history....

Mia S.

"I could see a reason for learning technique: that eventually you will be able to let it go. But you can't let it go until you have it - you can't say, as a 19, 20-year-old actor - 'I'm going to be an actor without technique It's all just going to be improvised and absolutely brilliant.' Well, it won't be. It'll just be a mess, actually. If you're a young actor and you get a the chance to do a long-form series or something, somewhere where you're going to be on the set every day, watching, working with different directors, cinematographers, camera people, dolly pushers - just working on a film set with all those incredible expertise technicians that you are privileged to work with - that's very valuable. I work with actors who have had that experience, and how extraordinarily adroit and free they are, therefore, on a film set. I learned if a siren's going off, it's going to spoil the take and you're going to have to do that take again. I learned how to give off-camera lines to actors in such a way that it keeps their energy going, that gives them something. I learned when to shout, when not to shout. I learned all those technical requirements of film. On top of it being second nature to them, they are utterly free within it - we actors, we love Al Pacino, because there is this body, this platform of incredible technical knowledge... but on that platform, he dances like a free spirit. Never betraying the technique, but utterly free within it. That is what we all aspire to."

Mia S.

"Then he talks about the moment where your technique is so deep within you, now you can start letting go of it because it's second nature to you. 'I simply didn't know in the end what I was doing. And suddenly this thing clicked and became exactly like this image I was trying to record - but not out of any conscious will, nor was it anything to do with painting. What has never been analyzed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration' - and here we could be talking about acting perfectly. That moment of inspired reality as opposed to beautifully performing reality. 'I suppose, because it has a life completely of its own, it lives on its own. Like the image one's trying to trap, it lives on its own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly so that the artist may be able to open up. Rather, I should say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.' What a perfect description of a brilliant, inspired take is that? When, as they say, inspiration strikes you and you're out of control, and yet you are totally in control because if you've got technique, then you can afford those out of control moments, because you're in focus because you're on your mark, or your eyeline is right. In terms of painting, he's talking about the inspired accident and how you can't tell - because there are bad accidents and there are good accidents, as in acting. Moments when you do something that's not planned, but actually, it's not very good either; then other moments when you do something that's not planned but it's fantastic. He says the whole point of learning technique is to be able to recognize what is a good accident and what is a bad accident."