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.

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Topics include: Ayn Rand: Discovering a Character in Video Footage • Elizabeth I: Accessing Inaccessible Historical Characters • Elizabeth I: Reading History as an Actor, Not a Historian • Elizabeth II: Painting a Portrait • Elizabeth II: Studying the Character as a Child • Elizabeth II: Discovering Quirks on Film • Don't Apply Your Research Literally


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...

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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