STORY WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For 21st Century Media
On screen, Helen Mirren is a virtuoso performer capable of bringing to life characters as diverse as queens and assassins, police detectives and gangsters’ wives.
In the kitchen, the actress is not nearly as versatile. In fact, she has one and only specialty: soup.
“I’m not a great cook,” she reports. “But I love cooking programs and watch them religiously and I love the idea of cooking.
“But the actual doing of it, it just seems so … well, first, there’s the shopping and the unpacking of the shopping, which I hate the worst. And then there’s the finding the room in the refrigerator. The cooking bit is nice but you have all the clean-up afterwards. Just for this one thing of going, “Oh that’s good.” Is it worth it?”
If someone else does the shopping, cooking and cleaning up, Mirren is more than happy to indulge.
“Now, that’s nice,” she says with a laugh. “That’s absolutely lovely.”
When it comes to food, Mirren admits a weakness for Tim Tams, a chocolate biscuit manufactured in Australia. She’s also a sucker for really pricey wine.
“I was very lucky when I was quite a young woman in my twenties, I dated a very rich young man … He was a terrific gourmet and he would literally take a plane to France to go to a particular restaurant and have dinner there. This is still out of my comprehension.
“But he took me to dinner once and ordered this bottle of wine and told me he was going to show me what good wine was like. I remember it was a Chateau Margaux and it was something like 1952. I dread to think how much money this bottle of wine cost; I never asked him.
“My God, when I tasted that wine, I had an orgasm… It was incredible.”
Culinary delights have been on Mirren’s mind quite a bit lately thanks to “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” the new film from producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the culture-clash dramedy centers on members of an Indian family (led by Om Puri) who open a restaurant in rural France about 100 feet away from an exclusive, Michelin-starred eatery owned by Mirren.
Hallstrom, whose “Chocolat” is in the foodie hall of fame, has called the film “a melting pot of language, of food and of people.”
Mirren says she was drawn to the movie because, like a good chocolate soufflé, it only seems to be fluff.
“I think it’s great when a movie is a kind of a soufflé,” says the actress who turned 69 on July 26. “Obviously, a souffle mustn’t collapse but also it has to have some sort of substance to it. I think that this film has quite serious themes running through it.”
Those themes, relates the actress, can be boiled down to the importance of adhering to the second commandment of “Love Thy Neighbor.”
“I do think ‘Love thy neighbor’ is one of the hardest of the ten commandments to follow…I have a tattoo which actually represents ‘Love thy neighbor’ which [to me means] that [those who are] totally different from you have equal value to you. It’s very hard for people to grasp that.”
While Mirren spends at least half of her year in Los Angeles with her husband, director Taylor Hackford (“Ray”), she still considers London home. And London, more than any other city, is a melting pot of different cultures.
“I take my hat off to my city of London because the time that I’ve been living there, London has become one of the most diverse cities in the world, especially the neighborhood that I live in, the East side of London
“Us London East Enders are very parochial and very working class and we’ve dealt with these oncoming waves of immigration and it’s great to see that.”
Oddly enough, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is Mirren’s second food movie. “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is a brutal psychological thriller that takes place almost exclusively in a gourmet restaurant.
Making the two movies couldn’t have been more different experiences for Mirren.
“‘The Cook, The Thief,’” was done on a very low budget so we weren’t even allowed to go to the commissary in the studio,” she recalls. “We had to go to this funky place on the side that offered bread and Spam. Then we came back to the set and there were these amazing lobsters and crawfish and oysters, this incredible food which we weren’t allowed to touch. It was cruel and terrible.”
On the set of “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” the cast wasn’t allowed to eat the food either but meals were whipped up exclusively for the actors and filmmakers. “We were living in a beautiful part of France, so we had amazing food all of the time,” relates Mirren.
Some of that amazing food arrived courtesy of Mirren’s co-star Om Puri who prepared banquets for the cast and crew at least once a week.
“He’s a great chef. He’s a natural. He loves to gather people together and prepare food so he would prepare some wonderful Indian food, which is great for an English person because the one thing you miss when you’re abroad is Indian food.”
In the movie, Mirren speaks exclusively in a French accent. In real life, the actress is fluent in French but she quickly discovered that it didn’t help her judge how much to exaggerate her zees and dats.
“The difficult thing is not to sound like Peter Sellers [as Inspector Clouseau in ‘The Pink Panther,’]” says the actress. “That’s the hard thing. If you do a real French accent, you do sound just like Peter Sellers.”
Worries about the accent aside, Mirren took one look at the screenplay for “The Hundred-Foot Journey” and appreciated the silences as much as the chatter.
“I love not having dialogue,” says the actress. “I’m always trying to cut my dialogue. “Do I really need to say this?” It’s nice to have a wonderful speech. In ‘Hitchcock,’ I had a lovely, chunky, beautiful speech and you don’t often have that in film.
“But, in general, film is a visual medium and the less dialogue the better. If you can do it with a look, it’s better.”
In her Oscar-winning performance in “The Queen,” Mirren memorably aced a largely wordless scene in which Elizabeth II comes across a Highland stag in the middle of the woods. “Oh, you beauty,” she says softly.
It was screen acting at its best. “ The funny thing about [acting] is you never quite know if you’re communicating what you want to,” says the actress who’ll next be seen opposite Ryan Reynolds in the World War II drama “Woman In Gold.”
“[Actor/director] Bob Balaban is a good friend of mine and he gave some brilliant film acting advice that I’ve lived with ever since.
“He said, “When you do a shot, you have to imagine you’re an archer letting go of the arrow and you aim it at the target. But once you let the arrow go, you cannot bring it back. It’s gone. It might hit the target and it might not. You don’t know. You just have to let it go.
“Film acting is like that. I’m thinking all this stuff but I don’t know if my face is expressing it or not. You just have to let it go and allow the audience to see something in it.”