Film & TV

Finding Your Character

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 12:08 min

Real life is one of Helen’s greatest inspirations—she says it will always be better than anything we can invent. Learn how to find your character in the world around you and the importance of having a secret story that drives you in every role.

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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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Preview

I find, if I'm playing just a death-- playing death in Collateral Beauty-- that was like, where do I start with that? I know I don't want to wear black, that's first one. And I'm not going to carry a scythe and I don't want a hood. Where do I go from there? So it was very, very difficult to find the image that I felt, and the kind of character, that was right for that role. On the page, it was pretty open-ended. You could go almost in any direction. And luckily, I was in New York at the time, and New York is just so full of extraordinary wonderful characters. And I love just sitting on a bus. And I take the subway because I want to see people. I want to see them. I want to be amongst them. Looking, just watching people. A mantra of mine is, real life is always more interesting than anything we can invent-- always. If you walked out of wherever you are watching this, into the road and stopped the first person you see on the street and asked them about their background and their family, incredible stories will come out. Incredible stories. And then, you will also then, start noticing things about what they're wearing. And who they are. And the way they speak. And so the world is full of characters. And part of our job, as actors, is to reflect the world around us. That's what we do. Human beings have an extraordinary constant fascination with themselves. And how they belong in this world. And how they negotiate this world. And how they negotiate their own brains and their own emotions. So we're fascinated with ourselves. We paint ourselves. We write about ourselves. And we act ourselves. And I think it's fascinating that actors-- actors are profoundly mocked by the media and so forth. In England, we're called "luvvies." It enrages me, that. And actors are thought of as narcissistic. In my experience, actors are the absolute opposite of narcissistic. A tiny, tiny few of them are, but the vast majority, are not. They are not narcissistic people. They are shy people. They are thoughtful people. They are vulnerable people. But they're not narcissistic. They're in it for something else. And the world wants what they're in it for. We want to be told stories. Of course we want to be entertained, it's fantastic. But we also want to be told the more serious stories. The more profoundly reflective stories of who we are. Why we are. And those stories can be told fantastically or poetically or literally, as in docudrama or in the wonderful early Italian films of Visconti and De Sica, and Pasolini. There are so many ways, but we are all in the process of telling the human story. And that's why we are what we are. When you're starting out as an actor or actress-- male or female-- inevitably, the roles that you're offered will be insubstantial. Will not be enough...


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.



Reviews

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

Great to learn screenwriting tips by exposing myself to great creatives around the camera. Thanks very much. Cheers!

You get a lot of inspiration watching this masterclass. Helen Mirren seems to really know what she is talking about and you can only be amazed by all the small thoughts she puts into all her work. It was the masterclass I have watched so far.

Incredible actress and incredible teacher! I'm very satisfied for having studied with her!

So far so good. I like her simplicity & authenticity. I am seeing how she is connecting with me, eventhough she is speaking to lights in the dark


Comments

A fellow student

Many of us want to tell a story through acting or writing, but it has to be meaningful. Think about the level of authenticity it has to have. Is it a story worth telling or is it not. The complexity of real people is what you want to portray.

Bianca A.

I find it fascinating to see how Helen’s words just fall into place with our journey, how we are all wanting to tell our story and we have all we need out there in the world... beautiful lesson, thank you

Patricia L.

TY, Helen. I have to go and strut my 10 line "lady at a wedding" (GLADYS) audition today. This chapter helped tremendously. After an acting hiatus of many years, I have to regain, establish my precious confidence. I shall rely on that strong substructure that is mine uniquely.

Allie G.

I thoroughly enjoy her perspectives. Very articulate. A great teacher. I love the 'how do I play Death ?'

A fellow student

Great lesson. It's very much like novel writing. You are telling a story on pieces of paper, rather than a stage/screen. As Helen said. you are finding the complexity of people. Their psychology, their background, their wishes, their likes, their desires/ dreams, etc. Even what they fear, what they struggle with, who/what they hate and human evilness can be examined on film/stage and on paper. These types of communication vessels can be scaled to look at an individual or as a bigger picture at society/time in history as a whole. Both of them can be vessels of philosophical meaning as well.

AIDAN S.

Once again, The Great and Extraordinary Helen Mirren, guides us all within her deeply personal journey [and pattern] of granting "voice" to any character that--initially--exists upon the page. ---She presents to us, the first steps toward bringing said character to life.

Ann B.

Another great lesson -- Real life is more interesting than anything we can invent.

T S.

As a writer, I'd like to know if actors prefer a deeply detailed backstory they can enrich and magnify; or if they would rather have minimal detail on the page - just the 'parts and pieces' - so they can build their own understanding of the character?

Mia S.

"As we travel through life, with our psychology, with our backstory, me, my mom and my dad, my schooling, my dreams, my desires, the me - and I travel through life now, doing whatever I do - your character must do exactly the same thing. So it must have a foundation that is really pretty deep. The more you know and understand that foundation - it's not on the screen, and you never share it with anyone, but you know it - that gives you the freedom then to invent, to improvise, to act. I've always had my secret story - *my* secret story - about a role in a film. This secret story is the one I guard very closely to my heart - I don't share it with the director, or my fellow actors, or the producer, the distributor, or the marketing people - no one. It's my private, personal story. And in many of my roles, I love to find my secret message within that story. It's really within the story, not the character. I would say to you, again, remember - that we are telling a story. We're not indulging ourselves in emotional journeys that's all about us and our ego. We are telling a story to the audience. That's why we don't do it on our own, in our bathrooms. I'll get into the whole business of marketing because, that actually is a very important part of that process. We need audiences to watch what we do. See yourself, see the words you say, see the costume you wear, see your sets, see the way you move - everything must be about telling a story."

Mia S.

"When you're starting out as an actor or actress, inevitably, the roles that you're offered will be insubstantial, will not be enough for you to really strut your stuff, really engage - really make that journey you want to make as an actor, which is a journey into your imagination. Is the Boy on the Bus interesting? He's got three lines, 'can I borrow your headphones?'Think about that little tiny role and just pack it with as much information as you can. Where has he come from, where is he going to? Why does he need headphones? It'll all come from your imagination, but do that. Now maybe it's not Boy on the Bus anymore, it's Harold, behind the Starbucks, and he's got a name, and a mom. How can I pack it with as much, without twisting the lines or exaggerating anything - and if you have a great idea, do not be afraid of going to the director and giving him your idea. 'I've got this idea that Harold, the barista, is really bad at making coffee. And he's a real klutz, and he just can't help dropping things.' Don't worry if your idea gets rejected - it probably will - sometimes your ideas is accepted, and that's great. Don't be afraid of your ideas, and don't be too precious with your ideas. Because anybody can have an idea. Sometimes people treat their ideas like this, 'Oh my god! It's an idea, it's so fantastic to have an idea!' It's not, you can have a million ideas. You can have 30 ideas in 30 seconds. Don't be precious with your ideas, but allow them to come and allow them to be a part of your invention. I think if you find yourself cast in something that is basically a fantasy, you have an empty pallet, an empty canvas, in which to put your colors. You can now make this character almost anything you like. You can find a lot of subtext, or backstory, or intention. It's very important -to my mind -to have those thoughts in your mind, because that's what will always bring you back to the basis, the substructure of your performance. It's very important that that's solid - that sometimes, you find - in the theater as well -that your performance, when it comes down to it, is kind of on a sandy base. The whole thing is kind of wobbling, and nothing is quite making sense. The way for any performance to make sense is for this base to be very solid. The base is your backstory, is your understanding of the psychology of the character. And once you've got that secure, really you can go almost any direction with it."