Helen found her love of storytelling in a quite surprising turn of events. She was at a showgirl performance on a carnival pier in the UK…and the moment the feather boas came on stage, she was hooked. The magic of the theatre and live performance enraptured her. A few years after that, she saw an amateur production of Hamlet with her parents, and that sealed the deal for her wanting to be a storyteller and actor.
From Showgirls to Shakespeare, Helen implores us that all types of performing are valid and needed in our world. She puts it so well when she says, “These performances in dark rooms fill up the empty space of our hearts, minds, and lives…and it is all a part of the great tapestry of what is out there.”!
You might know Mirren from her iconic roles in film and television of Catherine the Great, or Queen Elizabeth the II, but her nitty gritty training first came at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Not only is she an accomplished screen actor, but her theatrical roots make her an expert on voice and movement, and what it means to own the tool that is your body.
Here are some acting tips from Helen across a variety of topics:
1. Train your voice – breathing, own your tool, relaxation and acting. Resonate your voice. Not necessarily about projection. Constant and good work – even she says we’re always working on it. Vocal ability, intellectual ability, playing with the material, – taking control of it, magical feeling.
2. You are You – and competition does not exist as Peter Brook taught her. You have to be the YOU that you are to be the actor that you are. Revealing yourself in a role, not hiding behind a role. Quite the opposite. Own your physicality – tall, short. Confronting feelings of inadequacy about ourselves – we are not WRONG, we might be wrong for a role, but we ourselves aren’t wrong. Own who you are, don’t question it.
3. Take the note – If you get a note in the audition – even if you feel it’s WRONG, immediately incorporate it into your performance, show that you’re capable of doing that + you know how to LISTEN. Sides: where does this character sit? Feel free to ask 1-2 poignant/intelligent questions. Beyond the scene “Where do you think this background comes from” “do you think I should do an accent is that appropriate?” “where does this character go after the scene?” Well thought out accurate question to ask, ASK IT! Means that you’re thinking.
4. Be grateful for your roles. Every chance to do that reaching out into the unknown is a gift. Take stereotypical roles and get creative. They are living, breathing beings. Backstory is a valuable tool, that sometimes nobody but us as actors understand…it is essential to the actor.
Here is Mirren’s method for breaking down a script. She urges young actors to be smart about knowing your job in rehearsal or on set and who you are playing:
1. Read the script for given circumstances, who is who?
2. Find your character, pay attention to your scenes – if any ideas pop into your head about your character, scribble it down – your first instincts and reactions to a role are GREAT! Don’t forget those. Little things can turn into big things.
3. Allow your subconscious to do the work – write the quick subtext, underlying story of the scene, what’s not articulated, etc.
4. Get the words in your mouth – discover the dialogue in your month. Also, let the role come at you from left field on the first table read, GO for it–if you make a wrong choice or it doesn’t feel right, do it strong and wrong.
5. Lastly, deconstruct the script. When Helen works, she asks for 4 separate scripts and takes out all the scenes to make sure that she can concentrate on exactly where she is in the story. She works week to week for her scenes and shooting. By holding just the next week’s work in your mind, you don’t have to memorize the whole thing and chunking it down helps it to not get overwhelming.
Go Deep Into Your Imagination
Imagination is an overarching theme in Mirren’s Masterclass. She speaks about how the necessity of your story, character, to focus and tell the story must be the number one thing when portraying a role. When you’re on set, and working with a camera, so often in different types of shots, you don’t even get to look at your scene partner in the eye. Mirren says the key here is to have the camera team as a part of your support team. Sometimes you will be doing a whole scene to a little dot next to the camera, but you have to dive deep into your imagination to make that little dot come alive to the viewer. The energy of the camera crew is just as important as your scene partner–after all, it’s about collaboration between everyone. Everyone is making it work together!
Let’s talk about Shakespeare
It is not hard to tell that Mirren’s favorite playwright is Bill. She shares that the magic of Shakespeare is that you can play the scenes and lines every night for months and months, and almost every night you’ll find a different meaning and a different way of saying it. Mirren talks about inhabiting the words with a different thought, which is so valuable to actors because you HAVE to think. His thoughts are profound and complex, so you must truly engage and live in the words. Mirren says that in the end, that’s where art resides anyway: living in the moment. That is why Shakespeare is a miracle to her and why it resounds with so many audiences worldwide.
With Shakespeare you can find your own meaning in the words – the line lives for YOU – and if it lives for you, the actor, then it will surely connect to the audience.
Helen’s little trick is this: on her first day of shooting, she always goes to the set early. She likes to be in hair and make-up earlier than they need her (about 15 minutes early) and she walks onto the set before they’re ready. She does this to let the crew know that you’re on top of things! Mirren also makes sure to talk to the 1st AD (Assistant Director) and 2nd AD to tell them to come knock on her door when the set is ready for her. Communication is key in this process, because as a smart actor, she wants to know if she’d doing a two shot, close up, wide, what lens is being used, etc. She steps in as a smart actor to be constantly aware of the technical requirements of a shot. Mirren loves lurking behind the camera and watching it all unfold. In her words, “We are all apprentices, so start learning!”
Absolutely check out Helen’s Masterclass! It will be a welcomed connection to your love of acting and provide practical tips you can use right away. Tell us how it goes in the comments below!