By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—In “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” Dame Helen Mirren plays the snooty proprietress of a Michelin-starred restaurant in a quaint French village.
The imperious widow’s calculable world is turned upside when an Indian family moves in across the street and opens a pungent and boisterous restaurant. Outraged, she tries to get them shut down for creating too much noise, without success. Gradually, though, Madame Mallory softens when she discovers that the son (Manish Dayal) is a very talented aspiring chef, and she agrees to train him in her kitchen for several months. Slowly but surely, she makes friends with the widower patriarch (Om Puri), who also holds his own parochial views, and the two discover they have more in common with than they imagined.
The lighthearted comedy is directed by Lasse Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules,” “Dear John”) and is based on the bestselling novel by Richard C. Morais.
The Oscar-winning British actress (“The Queen”), who is married to American director Taylor Hackford, recently spoke about playing a restaurateur, her own cooking limitations and how a good wine can remain with you forever.
Q: What’s your view of the balance of food, culture and race in the film?
Mirren: I think it’s great. A soufflé. And the movie is a kind of soufflé. Obviously, it mustn’t collapse but also it has to have some sort of substance to it, doesn’t it? I think this film actually has quite serious themes running through it: Love thy neighbor. And I think that is one of the hardest of the Ten Commandments to follow. My tattoo (on my hand) kind of represents that sentiment, which is that something can be totally different from you but have equal value to you. It’s very hard for people to grasp that. Anyone that’s different is kind of devalued because they’re not like us so they’ve got to be less than us or less important. That also goes into “love thy neighbor,” which sounds easy, but when thy neighbor plays loud music and cooks curry and you don’t like the smell of it, it becomes quite hard.
Q: And vice versa?
Mirren: Yes, of course. Absolutely. I’m not talking about the context of the film. I’m just saying us all, in life. This movie is about learning to embrace other cultures and live with and learn from others. That’s what we have to do. I take my hat off to my city, London, because in the time that I’ve been living there, it’s become one of the most diverse cities in the world. The area that I live in which is the east side of London has always taken the brunt of immigration. It started in the beginning of the 19th century. It’s a working class community. Each wave of immigration, from the Jewish wave of immigration, the Irish wave, the Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and now it’s the African wave of immigration, has always started in the East End. And those old London East Enders who are very parochial, very working class, have lived with and lived alongside and dealt with these oncoming waves of immigration. It’s great to see that. Of course, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing and one did have the Oswald Mosley marches, the anti-Jewish marches, in the East End before World War II. I’m not saying it’s been all a bed of roses, far from it. But it’s still going on.
Q: How well do you think we’re dealing with immigration in America?
Mirren: America is such a vast nation. You go to a small town in Ohio and you probably wouldn’t see anyone of any ethnicity whatsoever except maybe Native American Indian. But, the big cities of America, obviously, they are dealing with immigration mostly from Central and South America. Also, America is a different place because it was built on immigration. We all are immigrants in this amazing country. It’s got very different tensions and philosophies.
Q: How are your own skills in the kitchen?
Mirren: I’m not a great cook. I love cookery books. I love cookery programs and I watch them religiously. I love the idea of cooking. (She laughs.) But the actual doing of it, it just seems so tedious. The shopping, and then the unpacking of the shopping I hate the most. Finding room in the refrigerator for all this stuff, and then all the chopping. The cooking bit is nice, but then you got all the clean up afterwards. And just for this one acknowledgement, “Mmm, that’s good.” Was it worth it?
Q: How about the enjoyment when someone else does all the work?
Mirren: That’s nice. I like that. That’s absolutely lovely.
Q: What kind of eating took place during this film?
Mirren: We had a chef, obviously, with us all the time. He was preparing and cooking the food, which, of course, was wonderful. You couldn’t eat it, unfortunately. It was like when I did a film called “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover,” and we had the sous chef at (London’s) Dorchester Hotel—a very high level chef—cooking all the food, but we absolutely couldn’t touch it because it was for the film. It was sprayed, so we couldn’t touch it. That film, though, was being done on a very low budget so we weren’t even allowed to go to the commissary in the studio. We had to go to this sort of funky place on the outside that had bread and Spam. It was cruel. It was terrible. Then we’d come back and there were amazing lobsters, crawfish, oysters and all this incredible food that we just weren’t allowed to touch. On this film, at least, we were living in a beautiful part of France, the Tarn-et-Garonne area, which is spectacularly beautiful, with incredible food. There were amazing markets, so we had amazing access to great food.
Q: Rumor has it that your co-star Om Puri cooked for everybody once a week. Is that true?
Mirren: Yes. He’s a great chef. He’s great, a natural. He loved to gather people together and prepare food. He would prepare wonderful Indian food. For an English person, the one thing you miss when you’re outside of England, is Indian food. So that was great to have.
Q: Was Om’s line, “she thinks she’s the queen,” originally in the script or was that added?
Mirren: I think that was a made-up line. We did quite a lot of improvising on the movie. It was fun.
Q: Did it take a long time to perfect the French accent?
Mirren: Well, I do speak quite good French. I realized, though, in speaking my quite good French actually how bad my French was, because although it kind of sounds good, it’s grammatically awful. It was a good lesson for me. The difficult thing is not to sound like Peter Sellers. That’s the hard thing, because if you do a real French accent, you do tend to sound a bit like Peter Sellers.
Q: Have you ever tasted a food that was so delicious you never forgot it?
Mirren: Have I ever had that moment? Yes, I have. I was very lucky when I was in my 20s. I dated a very rich young man. He was an Oxford professor so he was incredibly smart as well. As a student, I had gone to parties and had that awful wine, and I kind of thought that was what wine was. I had never, ever in my life tasted a good wine. Sp this guy I was dating was a terrific gourmand, and he would literally take a plane to France to go to a particular restaurant just to have dinner there. This was —and still is—out of my comprehension. So he took me out to dinner and he ordered this bottle of wine and he said to me, “I’m going to show you what good wine is like.” It was a Château Margaux, and it was one of the famous Margaux, from 1952 or something. I dread to think how much money this bottle of wine cost; I never asked him. But my God, when I tasted that wine, I had an orgasm. (She chuckles.) It was my first taste of an amazing wine, and I was so lucky that it was that good as well. I was like, “That was incredible! And, you know, it’s never the same again.
Q: What are your plans for your birthday (which was on July 26)?
Mirren: I don’t know. I don’t really do things for birthdays very much, quite honestly. I’ll be in Italy. I’ll probably have dinner with my husband. Having good wine. (She smiles.)