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Arts & Entertainment

Research: Real Characters

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 15:35 min

Learn how Helen approached research for historical roles such as Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II, and Ayn Rand.

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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Ayn Rand, I had never heard of Ayn Rand. I didn't know about her, not being American. But the minute I started reading about her, I realized what a spectacular, interesting individual. Extraordinary character to play, and especially to play her in the piece that was written. It was called The Passion of Ayn Rand, and it was about her emotional journey through this very, very intense love affair that she had. So it was in direct contradiction to all of Ayn Rand's thoughts and philosophies about objectivity because, when it came to love, she was completely unobjective, as we all are. So it was that conflict there that was inevitably going to be a wonderful thing to play. There was a little, tiny-- not much-- tiny piece of film of her. And it was invaluable. With Ayn Rand, you know, such a powerful-- obviously, a powerful woman, that goes without saying. But how powerful? Where does that power come from? There's this dumpy little Russian. You know, not attractive, with a weird hairdo. And yet, powerful. Where? How can I get to that power? Where is it coming from? And in that, obviously it comes from a great intellect. And the thing that was so clear about Ayn Rand was that her brain was like an amazing chess game. You know, Donahue or someone would ask a question, and you could see her mind going, if I answer that, he'll say that, and then I'll say that, and then I'll say that, so I will go to the end game. She went straight to, like, three questions down the road because she knew how that would play out within seconds. And you see that process happening in her mind. And I just noticed the other day-- I was watching her again-- that she doesn't blink, and her eyes just go like this all the time. And her-- she's living inside of her brain. She's not-- you know, her attention is inside always. In Her eyes are looking inward to this brain working away. With Elizabeth I, the only research I could do-- obviously, there's no film, you know, there's no photographs, there's very little contemporary descriptions because everything was so controlled and, if you dared to criticize Elizabeth I, you'd have your head chopped off. So all of the contemporary descriptions are incredibly sycophantic and, you know, just-- you can't take that, you can't read that and believe it. So the only real people that you could believe were the ambassadors-- the Spanish ambassador, the German, Italian ambassador. They were the people who said the truth about her because they weren't invested in saying anything else. So I read the ambassador's letters describing her. And then, now the only thing you have are the portraits. Now, Elizabeth I controlled her image almost like a brand. You know, she was very controlling about how she was painted. You know, everything that she was wearing, her ruff, the kind of dress, the dress she was wearing, thes...

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.

The class was great, but I felt that the workbook didn't offer as many downloadable or viewable clips or pdf documents the other classes had.

She was professional by all means . I hope her advice might help in acting career as well as writing . Thank you Helen

More fuller picture of acting that any body tells you, Great job teaching, Helen! Tnx Staff that nobody tells you, you are learning yourself, on a set. Continuity, relationship with the crew. And things that you can negotiate your set, your look even lines. I did not know it.

Fascinating to see all the complexity behind the actor in a scene and how every roll in the production is just as vital as the next.


A fellow student

Impressive how Ms. Mirren observes and incorporates ways of being into her character. It doesn't have to be literal, but it is to be part of you in the character.


I loved how deep she goes into their past (real characters) to try finding explanations to the character's psychology, and better yet, it made me feel more comfortable when she explained that once you have gathered all this knowledge, you just accept it, rather than consciously showcasing it in the performance. Otherwise, as an actor I sometimes find myself feeling overwhelmed about this particular aspect of acting, because I don't always know how I am going to digest all this newfound information and translate it into an accurate performance, but literally it's just about knowing it and accepting it, rather than playing it.

Mary S.

What wonderful insight into her approach to characters especially of one of my favorite characters in history, Elizabeth 1. I am thoroughly enjoying this class and using her suggestions in my everyday life.

Sasidaran S.

These lessons are getting better and better! I'm just wondering, do you complete the assignments before moving on to the next video or do you do them at the end of the complete Masterclass? I've just been watching the videos without doing any of the assignments with an intention of starting them at the end of the program.

A fellow student

Any rands power actually came from amphetamines. Lol. No joke. Look it up. Docs would rx them back then.

A fellow student

To go back on the earlier clip, I couldn't agree more about women being at the forefront of wars. Nurses on the frontline and the wives/girlfriends/mothers having to make do without a husband/significant other.Eye in the Sky is phenomenal because it does raise that question of can women be in the military and not let emotion interfere with their mission? I can say that most women abhore war, it's aftermath, it's cost to a nation's eocnomy, it's effect on trade and business. But there are women out there who must make decisions based on fact, logic and the reality of fundamentalists who want to ruin lives and cause national threats. I enjoyed it immensely and it was jarring to watch, but it's what our modern life deals with.

Jill N.

How observant Helen is in her study of Elizabeth II! That little detail that tells a lot about a character. Really enjoy how she put it - it becomes part of your skin.

A fellow student

Been making a resume for Hollywood. It is based on the copyright office where i published boobs on God, cancer and Liberty. Royalty is in America too for God is crowned in the heart of the free.


I can't seem to enter The Hub. The Character Study is how the actor learns to understand and believe. Believing makes the acting real as the actor(s) live in the moment(s). Sometime, we can plan but it's not always possible. Historical Figures that I like the best are Mata Hari, Cleopatra and Betsy Ross. They have not made updated movies that I know about.. However, Cleopatra in real life is no similar to her in script. She seemed cold-hearted and very private towards everybody non-romantic in her life. Good class.

Ann B.

The lessons are brief but offer a lot! I really liked Mirren's study of Elizabeth II and finding that one thing that showed Elizabeth's inner pulse.