To submit requests for assistance, or provide feedback regarding accessibility, please contact

Arts & Entertainment

Research: Fictional Characters

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 12:15 min

Helen breaks down her two types of research—literal and poetic—and emphasizes the importance of researching the people in your character’s profession, rather than just the profession itself.

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.
Get Started


There are these two very different ways of researching a role. The literal research that you have to do. If it's a imaginative character, like Commander Powell in Eye in the Sky, but nonetheless, a character that you know comes from real life, that's one kind of character. Your research their background. What kind of a woman this would be. And you do all of that research. I guess, the other kind of research is a different thing, and it's hard to articulate. I played a role in a film called, Some Mother's Son, which was about the hunger strikers in Northern Ireland at the time of the troubles. It was an era that I knew quite well because I'd spent time in Ireland at that time. And I was playing the mother of a hunger striker. And obviously, there was a lot of literal research to be done in that film of what was the hunger strike? How many guys were on hunger strike? How long did it take them to die? How did it all work? They would secrete little messages in their teeth and pass it to the IRA outside the prison and inside the prison. Which the mother would have to be aware of because she's visiting her son in prison. There was all of the-- if you like-- the literal research on the subject. But then, I was also thinking, who is this woman? Why is this woman? She was innocent within the context of the story. She wasn't an IRA operative. It takes her by surprise that her son is involved. Nonetheless, she is living in that world so she's aware of it. And I suddenly thought-- and this was where my, if you like, my poetic inspiration came from-- women have always been on the front lines in wars, always. They're on the front m without weapons. Especially when women weren't allowed in the military. And this whole idea, it's the men on the front line. Women are always on the front line because they're the ones in their homes, looking after their children, when the invading army comes. They're the ones who have the bombs dropped on their heads. They're the ones who have to survive, and keep life going. And I suddenly thought about those women, who war is happening all around them. They are not active in the theater of war, but they are absolutely experiencing it, and having to survive it. So if you're like, that was my-- if you like-- poetic research. When I did a film called Eye in the Sky, I was playing a role originally written from man. There are women in the military, and there are very high up women in the military so that wasn't a stretch. But obviously, I've never been in the military. I'm just not a military kind of a person, So I had to learn the kind of woman this would have been. I was very curious in who she would have been, when she entered the military. Very similar-- in a funny way-- to my research and my work on finding the Jane Tennison character. It was a question of going back to when ...

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 started this class about 2 months ago and those 2 months I learned so much from her, can't wait to be on set and experience everything she taught me

I learned a lot about the psychology of being an actor and insights into how to deal with difficult situations. I appreciated that she shared her own experiences very freely and what she learned from them. What an intelligent and generous woman!

Love her, she is so captivating. Incredibly experienced.

Helen's Masterclass was amazing. She gave such detailed and in depth lessons, with advice I will carry with me my entire life.


A fellow student

Doing research and observing to develop one's character: Profession and people

M S.

Profound level of observation, study, and dwelling into the character and life overall. I truly enjoyed watching this episode.

A fellow student

I just love how Helen is trying to choose the right word to describe something. You cаn see the thinking prosses on her fаce. It's incredible!) She is а reаl professionаl аndа greаt teаcher.


This is my favourite lesson so far! I love exploring characters and especially building a character from a "blank canvas" and Helen has cemented everything I do already. 'People Watching' is a fascinating and fantastic way to find the basis of your character. Last year I was cast as "Jack's Mother" in 'Into The Woods' and I really struggled to find "her". The script and lyrics give you very little as to who she is and where she has come from. I tried various characterisations and none of them sat comfortably. I wanted to make her my own. One day I was driving down the road and I saw a lady walking her dog. She was wearing bright red wellington boots and I thought, "That's it!" I decided then that my "Jack's Mother" would show her financial progress through her wellies. So when first the audience met her she was wearing old green muddy wellies with bits flapping off them and a hole in the toe. They were a size too small which added to the way I walked in them. By the end of Act 1 she had a pair of multi coloured spotted wellies and in Act 2, when she'd reached her financial peak, she wore bright red shiny wellies and I loved her for them! Once I had the wellies in place her character grew from the way they made me walk and stand. My voice and accent changed too and everything just fell into place. The lady walking her dog will never know what an inspiration she had been! Thank you lady with wellies and dog!!!

A fellow student

This is porbably the best lesson yet. I loved her body language segment. It's very true. The tips the police told her, it's fascinating. I guess they do a lot of body language analysis courses when they do training. That's a good skill to have to be able to read people and use that information to their advantage in the workplace and as civilians. Although, that could get lead to paranoia if you don't know how to stop yourself from going too far into reading someone who might actually be honest and safe, and no threat at all... .then underread someone who is.

David W.

I learned some of this lesson while working on Tartuffe in Washington, D.C. several years ago. It was one of only 2 times I worked as an assistant to the director so I was constantly watching from the outside so-to-speak. This production had been done previously at the Guthrie and many of the actors had worked in the production. After several rehearsals I began to wonder why the director had cast a certain actor in a role because, well, he just wasn't very good and wasn't getting any better. One day. as rehearsal began, this actor was completely transformed. He had suddenly become the character. I just had to understand what happened. I approached him after rehearsal and explained my experience watching him all this time (by this point we had had many conversations and I knew he would not be offended. His answer was simply that he had gotten his character's eyeglasses that day. That was it, nothing more.

A fellow student

I thought acting was simply memorizing lines and doing prescribed action. But i'm learning more. In my monologue i quote Romeo below the balcony of Juliet. And as i learned my lines i tried to imagine being in love with her then seeing how that makes her radiant to me.


This lesson provides yet another extremely helpful set of paradigms ; regarding a great actor's approach unto granting Life and Physicality unto a character's existence. .. Also, to their psychological persona.


Body language is important. We don't think about it, but I think research helps us (the actors) more than we even understand. Thanks!


Now we are getting somewhere. These last three lessons are great. Packing in layers to your character, costume, breathing life and story into your performance, looking at the world around us for inspiration. This is good stuff.