Helen Mirren’s fascination with wanting to be a French actress leads to a bold and captivating performance in The Hundred-Foot Journey as Madame Mallory, the exacting chef proprietress of Le Saule Pleureur, a fancy Michelin-starred French restaurant in the south of France. Her icy protests against Maison Mumbai, the new Indian restaurant across the road from her own establishment, escalate into a heated competition between the two restaurants until she recognizes her culinary rival Hassan Kadam’s (Manish Dayal) gift as a chef and his passion for French haute cuisine. Opening August 8th, the film directed by Lasse Hallström also stars Charlotte Le Bon and Om Puri.
At the film’s recent press day, Mirren talked about the improvisational set, the pleasure of acting opposite the renowned Puri, what they share in common, how she approaches a role, what she looks for in the projects she chooses and why the director is important, how she likes to change things up and alternate between big movies and low budget films, her fascination with French culture, her favorite French film, Woman in Gold, which she’s currently filming with director Simon Curtis, and her upcoming biopic, Trumbo, with Bryan Cranston about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Hit the jump to read the interview.
Question: Dame Helen, your character in this film has the most amazing capacity for “le mot juste,” the perfect thing to say. You have this wonderful line, “You’re a chef. I don’t pay you to burn things.” Is it nice when a script makes you that little bit cooler than you are in real life?
HELEN MIRREN: Of course. Why do you think we become actors? It’s for that very reason. We get our best lines written for us. And you know, we look intelligent, and we look witty, and we don’t really have to do anything but say the words. But having said that, although that line was absolutely scripted, and as you rightfully pointed out, a wonderful line, in fact, we did improvise quite a lot of this film as well, because Lasse likes to. I think that’s his magic as a film director. As you all know, film is a very lumbersome, technical, heavy medium. It’s very hard to make a soufflé of a film, which is hopefully what this is, a well risen soufflé. But it’s very hard to maintain that sort of lightness of touch. We would shoot the script, and then we would always improvise and throw it around a bit. So, the set was a very improvisational set, which was lovely.
To what degree was it a pleasure for you to work with Mr. Puri, who is so renowned in a different cultural tradition?
MIRREN: Yes, different, but very similar. The interesting thing is, especially the generation that Om is from, there was a great appreciation of English, British English, because of the connection, obviously, the Raj and so forth. But there was always, and there still is, a great tradition of classical theater. I think it was partly why the Brits and the Indians, on certain levels, got on very well together, because especially in the world of theater, there is this classical tradition. Both of us have done a lot of theater. So, in a way, Om and I have more in common with each other than maybe I had with Manish, or Charlotte, because they come from a very different sort of acting background. Having said that, I have to say, they were both just so wonderful to work with. But Om and I just naturally fell into a rhythm together. That was very easy for both of us, because we knew of each other’s work. We had enormous respect for each other. And also, it’s a great shame Om isn’t here, because you would fall in love with him. He has this wonderful warmth. He was the guy who would have the big feasts. He would cook Indian food for everyone, and make a family feeling on the set. He created his family, this little family who come to France. Off the set, he created that family. He was brilliant.
MIRREN: Oh, I can imagine him being terrifying. I can imagine. I haven’t seen that, but I can imagine he would be brilliant at that, too. But his nature is not that. His nature is fun, funny and unbelievably warm. I hate to use the word teddy bear, but he is like that. You just want to hug him. He’s that kind of a guy.
Your character in this film has a moment of redemption that carries through.
When you tackle a role and read the script for the first time, and your character is cold, or icy, or mean, or whatever, is it important for you that they have that moment of redemption? Or was it just a nice touch for this particular film?
MIRREN: I think it depends, really. It depends on the nature of the script, and what the script is saying. If your role, as this awful person, is serving a certain purpose within the script and the story, and you approve of that message, then that’s fine, absolutely. One services the script the best one can. In this case, yes, I really wanted to play Madam Mallory because she’s French, and I’m dying to be a French actress, and I’ve never managed it. It was my pathetic attempt at being a French actress. But if she’d just been a mean French person, I don’t think I would have gone along with it. Also, it’s because I think it’s one dimensional. We’re all a bit paranoid about the French, aren’t we? I know a lot of Americans are, and they feel so intimidated about the French. I do feel that too, although I speak good French, so it’s easier for me. But the French can be very, very intimidating. And so, this sort of cliché of the cold, judgmental, nasty, uptight French person, I wouldn’t be happy with just portraying that at all. I’ve lived and worked in Paris, and I’ve met with such kindness in Paris, from people that I didn’t know. The Parisians seem on the surface to be so, as I said, cold and judgmental, and sort of superior. But actually, they’re incredibly kindhearted, and generous. I learned that living in Paris.
MIRREN: It’s always a combination of so many different things. The primary thing is the director. But a very important element is, is it different enough from anything else I’ve ever done, or what I’ve last done. Where is it going to be shot, because sometimes you do something just because you want to go to the place that it’s going to be shot, because that sounds like fun. Then, it’s your co-stars, obviously, and of course, the role. But there are so many different things, and at different times, different things kick in. If I’ve just done a big movie like Red 2, then I crave to do a small, low budget film.
And not carrying a gun.
MIRREN: (Laughs) Not carrying a gun. But you know, just a different type of film. So I’m always pinging from what I’ve just done to, okay, now I want to do something quite different, if I can find it, and if something comes along that is small and interesting. And then, it’s a couple of those, and “Okay, Red 3.” (Laughs)
What’s the root of the fascination with wanting to be a French actress?
MIRREN: I think that was to do with growing up in England in the early 60s, mid-60s, when everything French seemed to be so chic and so fabulous, and everything English was so dull. I never really got into the Swinging 60s of England. The French always seemed to be so chic. The food was better, the clothes were better, the makeup was better, the hair was better. Everything was better in France. And they were suntanned, when we were always white and crinkly. My husband says I’ve got an inferiority complex as far as the French are concerned. I think he’s right, to a certain extent. He’s absolutely right. The whole world has evened out somewhat. But even so, there’s still a level of pure chicness in France that you just don’t see anywhere else.
Are you using the word ‘chic’ specifically because they invented the language of class?
MIRREN: Yes. In the food, and in the art, and in their attitude of being French.
Coming of age in the 60s, with the French New Wave and all of that, I’m very curious if there’s a movie that still resonates with you, that you can watch again and again from that period? Or is there a French movie in general that you just are in love with?
MIRREN: Yes, of course. Absolutely. I love French film. Well, actually, L’Atalante, and also the Jean Vigo films, and the Jean Renoir films are the ones that I love the most. L’Atalante, I think is Vigo, isn’t it?
I think so.
MIRREN: Yes, I think that’s Vigo. But those are the ones that just make my heart swell in some peculiar way, and I think those are all tied up with what Woody Allen targeted in his film (Midnight in Paris). It’s the Belle Époque. That’s that whole fantasy dream of the Belle Époque in France, Toulouse Lautrec, and Renoir, and that whole world I somehow find very romantic and very moving to me.
Can you actually cook? Or are you just a tremendously engaging fake in this?
MIRREN: I’m an engaging fake. Luckily, in the movie, I don’t cook. I run the restaurant. She knows food, and understands food, and employs very, very good chefs. She doesn’t actually cook herself. She tastes and judges. But luckily, she doesn’t cook, because I would reveal myself very rapidly to be somewhat inept. The only thing I have to do is to break eggs.
MIRREN: One-handed. I do it one-handed, because I thought that looked cool.
Something I absolutely cannot stand in movies is when people eat out loud.
MIRREN: Oh, gosh, I couldn’t agree more.
And all of you did it so well. Could you please teach your colleagues how to eat on film without being disgusting?
MIRREN: How to eat on film. Yes, you’re quite right. I couldn’t agree more. I hate people eating on film. I hate it even worse on the radio, when people eat on the radio. I just can’t stand it. In England, we’re mad enough to do cookery programs on the radio, which is ridiculous when you think about it. “Oh, how are you breaking the eggs?” But yes, I do agree that some things are disgusting. I feel a bit like kissing on film is probably a bit disgusting. I feel as if I’ve suddenly become a 13 year old teenage boy. But yes, you have to do it very silently, I guess.
What should viewers take away as the message of this film, in your opinion?
MIRREN: Well, love thy neighbor. And that’s the hardest. It’s much more difficult than do not covet thy neighbor’s wife. (Laughs) That’s easy. Love thy neighbor is difficult. That’s why everybody – wars, you know. It’s the hardest. And it’s the most important. And respect thy neighbor. Love and respect. It means respect, really. Respect thy neighbor. Respect the other, the different.
I heard that you might be working with Bryan Cranston on Trumbo?
MIRREN: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Is that coming up for you later this year?
MIRREN: Of course, I’ve seen Breaking Bad. Of course I have, absolutely. But I was a fan, I have to say, before Breaking Bad, and what an amazing story that is. I just saw Bryan recently in LBJ on Broadway. He was incredible. He’s one of the great American actors. For so many years, he was just brilliant, always brilliant, in any role he played. He was absolutely brilliant. But people just didn’t understand, for so many years, the level of his brilliance, I guess. Thank God Breaking Bad came along and revealed to the world, and now we have this treasure. It’s very exciting.
You mentioned how you always want to do something different. What is it about the project that excites you? Was it Bryan?
MIRREN: It’s Bryan. Oh, no, absolutely, it’s Bryan. Not that I particularly act with him in this movie. I do play a horrible person, unremittingly horrible, basically. But yes, it was Bryan.
You’ve worked with some of the great directors of all time. What is it that you’re looking for from a director when you’re acting on set, and what was it that Mr. Lasse Hallström was able to bring to this project?
MIRREN: What you want is a comfortable environment that you feel you can invent in. Again, as I said, because film is such a lumbering, technical, huge, great Neanderthal thing, it’s hard to create that little space of peace, and calm, and creativity, and ease. That’s what you want the director to create for you, so that when you walk on the set, you forget all of that, and the fact that it’s costing gazillions of dollars a second. But here you are now. You’re in your little playground, and you can invent and be free. And it’s encouragement, really. It’s as simple as that. I know it’s pathetic that we need to be encouraged, but we do. I was just working. In fact, I’m still in the middle of working on a film called Woman in Gold, directed by Simon Curtis, who worked as my assistant many, many years ago. He started doing my fan mail, and now he’s my director. (Laughs) You do have to be very nice to people on the way up, because you never know.
What’s that dynamic like, working with him now?
MIRREN: You know, Taylor asked me that. I said, “He’s not my assistant. He’s my director.” I said to Taylor, “You know, it’s interesting, now since being married to you for so many years, if my director is a 16-year-old girl, or boy, or whatever, my director is my director, and I give them all the respect and the attention that [they deserve]. It doesn’t matter what age they are or anything.” If you sign up, then you sign up to this director. My feeling is that you should just say, “Okay, you know, this is your project. How can I serve your project?” because that’s what the relationship is, it seems to me. Of course, within that, you contribute hugely, and you bring your ideas, and your invention, and all the rest of it, and that’s your job. But I think film is a director’s medium, surely. Anyway, so no, he’s my director.
What would your hypothetical last meal be – but since that implies you did something worthy of execution, let’s just ask – what would your perfect meal be?
MIRREN: No, I’m going to tell you what my last meal would be. My last meal would be a dish that you get in Madrid, called huevos estrellados. Are any of you Spanish, or live in Madrid? It’s basically chips, fried potatoes, with egg. It’s like fried egg and chips, basically, but it’s done in a particular way that is so delicious, so fantastic. I would have huevos estrellados.