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.

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Topics include: Literal Research and Poetic Research • Investigate the People, Not Just the Profession • Learn From People in Your Character's Profession


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 ...

About the Instructor

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.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

Helen Mirren

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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