Film & TV

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.

Loved this Masterclass! One of my favourite courses.

Seeing a set was very helpful. Helen Mirren explains things wonderfully, and has so many funny and great stories about her own learning curv.

I am a screenwriter and filmmaker, and it is wonderful to learn about acting and actors from one of the great ones.

Using impeccable English Helen provides a holistic approach wagging. Simple yet profound. Thank you for the excellent advises.


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.


I feel like I am listening to Ms. Mirren talking with a colleague in a very voyeuristic way. These are gifts for the actor. Kinda awesome. Love the anecdote about finding the pulse of Elizabeth II.

Yanina H.

This is probably one of the best lessons of the course, especially this idea that each actor is an artist and that we are allowed for an interpretation, our work is a work of art, it doesn't have to bear the pressure of absolute identification

Raia Jane S.

This lesson was one of the best. You can see her come alive when she discusses the roles she truly loved, or that truly challenged her, and the Elizabeths are her crown jewels. The complete inhabitation of both Elizabeth I and II were stunning to watch on film-she channels them-and after watching this lesson I can understand why. She came to know them intimately, but in her own way, internalizing that information so that it became a part of her and she a part of them. Loved it.

Julian S.

In this lesson, Hellen Mirren proved that the Devil really is in the details. It's amazing how we look at these historical figures living and dead, but we don't really think of them as people. We think of them as artifacts and symbols, what they stand for, what they represent. We don't really think of what they felt, because we can't. Or most of the time, we can't. With living people, you can sort of understand them on a deeper more personal level. If you look closely, you can see the subtle actions that no one else does. Those actions tell so much. It's still not the same as actually knowing them, but it allows you to try. To make that minor connection. And even with deceased figures, though you cannot identify with them, you can create a vision or a portrait of what you perceive them to have been. Like with Shakespeare, there is no right way to portray these people, (there are many wrong ways) but there is so singular vision that is used above all others.