Chapter 8 of 28 from Helen Mirren

Finding Your Character

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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.

Topics include: Go Out Into the World and Look for Your Character • Pack Tiny Roles With as Much as You Can • Root Fantasy Characters in Backstory • Find Your Secret Message Inside the Story

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.

Topics include: Go Out Into the World and Look for Your Character • Pack Tiny Roles With as Much as You Can • Root Fantasy Characters in Backstory • Find Your Secret Message Inside the Story

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.

Reviews

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

It was a delight hearing from such a master talking about the small but important things like learning to use your props. Not being afraid to speak up if things aren't right about your character. Well worth watching for tips gleaned from decades of successful acting work.

I was searching for the right acting class for me. I now know why my insides said do Helen Mirren's class nothing beats authenticity.

I really enjoyed this class. Thanks for bring Shakespeare in this Masterclass. I needed to know bit more about him.

Where do I begin? Wow I have learned so much. I commented after every lesson. There's so much I have learned from this class. She is amazing and I thank her so much for what she has done by teaching this class. This has been my favorite Master Class yet! Thank you so much!

Comments

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."

Mia S.

"I find, if I'm playing just death - where do I start with that? I know I don't want to wear black. Where do I go from there? It was very very difficult to find the image and the kin of character that was right for that role. On the page, it was pretty open-ended, you could go almost any direction. I love just sitting on a bus, and I take the subway because I want to see people, I want to be amongst them, 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 where 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. You start noticing things about what they're wearing and who they are and the way they speak. The world is full of characters. 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. How they negotiate this world, and how they negotiate their own brains and their own imaginations. 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, actors are thought of as narcissistic (in my experience, actors are the absolute opposite - 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. 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."

book E.

Johnny Depp took his idea for the character of Captain Jack Sparrow, not originally written as now portrayed as the staggering character rather than a swaggering pirate.

Rony M.

"Don't be too precious with your ideas, because anybody can have an idea" True

Patricia L.

Some very poignant ideas shared. Like the backstory, substructure of our performance which will lead to FREEDOM! This word reverberates throughout L H's talks. Freedom to invent, improvise, ACT and entertain in an authentic way. I often found, still find, myself "wobbling" and on "sandy ground."during performances ( Have to love how she commands the English language en process) Remind myself that I have to stop, breathe (often forget to breathe in real life too) and let go of ME! Watched a very deligthfull Italian subttled movie last night where this almost off camera cameo chap, stole the scene with a slight offish body and eye movement (packed the role!!) I felt like standing up and applauding him!

Transcript

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...