Helen Mirren: "At one time I tried to become an actress working in France and rented a little garret in Paris... " Photo: Richard Mowe
Lasse Halström’s appetising comedy about competing cuisines and clashing cultures, The Hundred-Foot Journey, gives Helen Mirren a gift of a role as the elegant, haughty and imperial Madame Mallory who runs a three-star Michelin restaurant and suddenly finds a rival Indian establishment in competition with her. At the Deauville Festival of American Cinema, Mirren talks about food, sex, and her love affair with France.
Q: What is your connection to cooking?
HM: My relationship is more as a consumer. I love to eat but I am not a great cook. I am English so of course I am not a good cook! Just in case of criticism I should point out that British food is actually pretty damn good at the moment. So I love to eat, but I can’t cook.
Q: You have a natural elegance and there is even a reference to you as the queen in the film. Do you like to dig below what we see on the surface and to show another side of yourself?
"It was my great pleasure and ambition to play a French woman." Photo: Richard Mowe
HM: I love mixing things up. I like doing different things so if I do one thing then I like to do something completely different. I have never played a Frenchwoman before or even this kind of woman. I am a big fan of France, and I love France and the French. I have lived in France and had a house in France for 30 years. I have worked in Paris. So it was my great pleasure and ambition to play a French woman so finally at this end of my life I managed it.
Q: Samuel L Jackson once described you as the coolest woman in the business. Which actor would you consider particularly cool?
HM: I would have to say Samuel L Jackson because actually he is. Johnny Depp is rather cool too, and so is Ryan Gosling. I have just worked with a wonderful actor called Ryan Reynolds and he was pretty cool too. Manish is very cool (Manish Dayal, her co-star in The Hundred Foot Journey). Actors can get a very bad rap but 98 per cent of the ones I have worked with have been just great guys – easy, funny, humble and good people. I am a very easy fan of many actors.
Q: Did you ever dream of becoming one those English actresses who work in France like Charlotte Rampling and Kristin Scott Thomas?
HM: Yes in my dreams I would have loved to have had their careers. At one time I tried to become an actress working in France and rented a little garret in Paris. I thought, I am going to Paris, I am not going to accept any work in England and I am going to become a French actress. But in the end it didn’t work out that way. I would love to have had that their careers and this role is a tiny step in that direction.
Q: How did you involve yourself in the linguistic aspects of playing a French woman?
HM: I speak French and can wave my arms around quite well. My French is pretty terrible … but I had a coach and he clarified and purified my French but then, of course, I couldn’t use it because I wasn’t allowed to do my part in French which is what I wanted to do. But I did have the benefit of working with this very good language coach.
Q: What was the common language of the shoot because there was such a mixture of cultures?
HM: There was a lot of Indian spoken among the Indian family on the film and there was also a lot of French. It was a wonderful mix of cultures and languages, just as the film is, and it was a true reflection on the set of its themes.
Bon appetit! Helen Mirren as she appears in The Hundred-Foot Journey. Photo: Richard Mowe
Q: The film as well as being about food, is also about the mix of cultures. How did you make the character your own.
HM: Om Puri was in many ways our papa and he did a wonderful thing of preparing Indian food for all the cast. He would make these feasts and brought everyone together. That was a fantastic way of making us in to one family and also offering his personal culture and history to us. That was an important part of making what happens on the screen actually happen. For me personally just to be in that part of France which is so beautiful and iconic and to experience that viscerally every day driving to work was very important in the way I approached the role.
Q: Which of all the characters over the years would you like to revisit?
HM: It would be interesting see what happened to the wife in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover. She would probably be running a nail bar in South London. But it would have to be in a film by Peter Greenaway. I would never go back to DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect – it was wonderful and important series but I would not want to revisit her particularly.
Q: Do you like reading books about food?
HM: I do, especially when I am on a diet, which is most of the time. I love TV programmes about food.
Given your regal status do you have a take on the possible separation of Scotland from the rest of the UK in the upcoming Referendum?
HM: I have absolutely nothing to say about that, except that I do like haggis and if I have to cross a border to get my haggis then so be it!
Q: It is said that the food is the spice of life – do you agree?
HM: Food is very sexual. I would suggest that most of us are on this planet because our parents had some relationship with food. Certainly it was true in my case. My parents fell in love over spaghetti in a restaurant in London’s Covent Garden called Bertorellis, which was the only Italian restaurant that existed in London before the Second World War. They courted over spagetti and without that restaurant then maybe there would have been no Helen Mirren. Of course, alcohol may also have had something to do with it!
The Hundred-Foot Journey is now on release in the UK, US and France.