“I’m a savage in the kitchen,” declares Helen Mirren unapologetically, a smile flashing across her fine features.
We are discussing the actress’s culinary skills in light of her latest movie role in The Hundred-Foot Journey; she plays the owner of a Michelin-starred French restaurant. Mirren’s imperious Madame Mallory is the crème de la crème in the world of haute cuisine. From her sublime hollandaise sauce to her beef bourguignon, her recipes are renowned.
The same cannot be said for the British Oscar winner herself. She confesses, over tea in LA, that in real life, cooking is not one of her strong points. “I am quite good at making soup when I put my mind to it and I can do chicken. I have an amazing rotisserie oven, but I don’t really cook. I love food programs, though,” she smiles. “I watch them avidly, thinking, ‘Ooh, I could do that. It looks really easy.’” Her favourite TV chefs? “Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, and the goddess, Nigella [Lawson], is fabulous.”
Filmed on location in the picturesque Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val – a village in southern France – Mirren’s mouth-watering new comedy revolves around a culture clash between the perfectionist restaurateur striving for her elusive second Michelin star and an Indian family who moves into the bucolic village and dares to open a rival establishment directly across the road. Madame is far from happy. Aside from lowering the tone of the neighbourhood (tandoori chicken is hardly fine dining, from her perspective), the rival Indian restaurant, Maison Mumbai, soon has the locals pouring in, enticed by the exotic spices and intense flavours. All-out war ensues.
Heartwarming and deliciously directed by Lasse Hallström (Chocolat), The Hundred-Foot Journey was produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, who Mirren describes as “incredibly inspiring. She visited the set for one day, and the French were so excited, they cried, ‘Oprah! Oprah!’ [Mirren switches to a beautifully enunciated French accent]. She’s got this natural warmth about her, which is what makes her Oprah.”
The film is a celebration of food – expect to exit the cinema craving an onion bhaji or a blanquette de veau – but, at heart, it’s a love story. At the outset, there is no love lost between the two rivals, but Madame and ‘Papa’, her new Indian neighbour (Om Puri), gradually warm to each other. Papa’s son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), a gifted and ambitious young chef, falls for the pretty French sous chef at the acclaimed Le Saule Pleureur restaurant, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon).
And everyone has a love affair with gourmet cuisine, particularly Madame Mallory. An exacting boss, in short, she is… well… French, from the sartorial chic of her elegant outfts to the tastefully understated ambience of her restaurant. “She’s very French, in the sense the French have of being proud of being French and believing that everything that is French is great – and the best,” says Mirren, who speaks the language fluently (although the film is in English) and reveals she grew up in England fantasising about being a French actress.
“I loved Jeanne Moreau, Isabelle Huppert. I loved French movies, I still do. When I was very young, 14, I became obsessed with everything French. These French boys would arrive in Southend-on-Sea [a seaside resort town in Essex] for their summer holidays, to learn English, imagining it was sort of Saint-Tropez, and I got myself a French boyfriend. His name was Jean-Louis,” she says, eyes twinkling, “and, yes, I am still in touch with him.”
Unlike her character, who lives and breathes the art of good food, Mirren has simpler tastes. “I am not a foodie; I like peasant food. My husband [American director Taylor Hackford] and I very rarely go to what I think of as a posh restaurant – you know, with tablecloths. I wouldn’t travel to a certain area in France just so I could have foie gras. I like little, funky restaurants. Honestly, I am much more comfortable in those than in smart restaurants.”
Mirren is 69, yet seems much younger, partly due to her striking looks but also because of her attitude. She’s outspoken and exhilarating company. Rather unexpectedly, given her royal roles (she won the Best Actress Oscar in 2007 for The Queen), it’s not uncommon to hear Dame Helen swear, though somehow she manages to sound dignified in the process. For example, she tells me a story about filming Red. “I am looking at Bruce going, ‘Oh f*ck, it’s Bruce Willis! What do I do? What do I say? Where do I put my hands?’ And he just walks up and puts his arms around me, and gives me a big hug. I’m still rather starstruck to have been in a movie with Bruce Willis.”
And this is Mirren’s advice for young women dealing with sexist men: “I’ve always said, if I’d had children and had a girl, the first words I would have taught her would have been ‘F*ck off,’ because we were never brought up to say that to anyone, were we? And it’s quite valuable to have the courage and the confidence to say, ‘No, f*ck off, leave me alone, thank you very much.’”
We are meeting in LA, where the actress lives with Hackford. She is wearing a simple blue-and-white patterned dress – “It’s not a designer; I just bought it in Vermont, actually. I saw it in the shop window.” Her hair is short and blonde; she looks lovely – and very slim.
Does she diet? “Oh god, we are all on permanent diets, aren’t we?” Mirren laughs heartily and rolls her eyes. “I eat everything, but I don’t eat a lot of everything. I exercise, but I don’t do a lot of exercise. I like a glass of wine, but I don’t drink a huge amount of wine.” Any weaknesses? “I just discovered almond butter and I love it. Lethal.”
Mirren’s sex-symbol status was revived in 2008, when she was famously papped looking fabulous in a red bikini while on holiday in Puglia, Italy. When I bring it up, she shrugs it off, insisting, “I was posing for my husband, who was taking a photograph of me, so I was holding my tummy in. It was pure luck it was flattering. I looked at that picture and thought, ‘I wish I looked like that.’ You know, a long lens is always flattering. Because of that shot, I became paparazzi fodder any time I went near a beach. Just a few months after that, there were some much more realistic shots taken of me on a beach in Hawaii, where I was making a film. I don’t look remotely glamorous most of the time and I’m not very stylish.”
The comment is typical Helen Mirren: modest and self-effacing. “I am not gorgeous and I never was,” she continues. “I was always OK-looking but I was never beautiful, so there was never any pressure; in a way it was a liberation because I could sort of be who I was. That isn’t to say that, like all women, I didn’t grow up with insecurities – wishing my legs were longer and my bust wasn’t so big, and all of that sort of thing. But I’ve always loved dressing up; it’s one of the reasons I’m an actress. I love clothes and costumes, and the red carpet is kind of costume. You’re putting on a character; it’s certainly not you. But I love the artisan nature of clothes, the craftsmanship. I love fabrics and design. I’m quite a visual person.”
Mirren goes on to reveal she makes many of her own clothes: “I still have my mother’s old Singer sewing machine, with a treadle, which I love,” she smiles. “I make horrible things that are awful… although I did make my sister a good skirt, and I made myself a nice dressing gown for the theatre. I did want to make a dress for the red carpet, but my husband stopped me. He said, ‘I am saving you from yourself.’ But I’m still going to do it one of these days. I’m going to make a red-carpet dress out of bin bags. It will be beautiful.”
If anyone could pull it off, it would be Dame Helen; she exudes dignified cool. In the hotel where our interview is taking place, the actress is treated with respect bordering on reverence, understandably – given the title and the royal roles. “Americans are very flattering, aren’t they?” she says. “It’s lovely, but I always take it with a pinch of salt, because I think they just want you to feel good; they don’t want to hurt your feelings.”
Are people intimidated by her? “Sometimes people say that, and I find it hard to deal with because I don’t want them to feel like that. So I always try to make an effort to greet people and be relaxed with them.”
Mirren was born two months after the end of World War II in Europe, descended from a family of butchers on her London mother, Kathleen’s side. Her paternal grandfather was a Russian diplomat. “My ethnicity was a sort of a secret for quite a long time in my family. My father [Vasiliy] changed our name [from Mironoff ]. He didn’t want to be a foreigner. He believed in assimilation.”
She acted in school plays, worked in theatre during her twenties and cemented her stage career at the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I fell in love with Shakespeare, and the whole idea of drama was a wonderful thing to me, so I did catch the bug, as they say, quite early on.”
Her breakthrough film role was John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980). Her credits over the past 30 years range across the spectrum from Peter Greenaway’s 1989 drama The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover to The Madness of King George (1994), which led to her frst Oscar nomination. She also received nods for Gosford Park (2001) and The Last Station (2009).
In 2012, Mirren gave an inspired performance in Hitchcock as the director’s wife, Alma Reville, and has astutely avoided typecasting. She starred in the 2011 remake of Arthur with Russell Brand, but her role as the retired gun-toting MI6 agent, Victoria, in the 2010 action comedy Red and last year’s sequel, Red 2, was perhaps her most surprising. “I love being a bad-ass, it’s just the best,” she smiles. “I’m very careful to try to do lots of different kinds of movies, and I go back to the theatre every so often.” She portrayed Her Majesty again last year in the West End production of The Audience, which led to a prestigious Olivier Award.
Is it easier for young actresses now than when she started out in the 1960s? “I’m not too sure we’re there yet. It’s not an easy profession; it’s hard for men, too. It’s obviously massively competitive. I’ve seen some great actresses’ careers slow right down and sometimes they disappear as they reach their zenith of ability. There’s suddenly nowhere for them to go, whereas comparatively mediocre male actors can go on working. It’s tough, you’re constantly facing unemployment. I think if you manage to hold on and you’re still standing at the end of it, that’s great. But fewer and fewer of us are left standing.”
Along with Meryl Streep, Mirren is one of the few women who has consistently landed interesting roles. She says she still thoroughly enjoys acting – her next film is Woman In Gold with Ryan Reynolds – but is no longer driven, which means more time focusing on family life. “When I was a young actress, I was very obsessed, very idealistic. But you grow out of that a little bit, thank god. It just becomes exhausting and you decide to give yourself a break.”
She’s been married to Hackford for 17 years. They met on the set of the 1985 film White Nights, which he directed. It’s her first marriage, his third. Was it luck that the relationship worked out so well? “No,” she says emphatically. “Marriage is always work. You know, it’s hard to live with someone who isn’t you, with all their foibles and their annoying habits and vice versa. When you’re bad-tempered, or you’re tired and the cogs aren’t turning, it’s work – but it’s work that’s worth doing. I think a lot of people get married when they probably shouldn’t have done and they haven’t really thought it through. But then, I think a lot of other people maybe give up too soon. Marriage is a lesson of self-discovery, isn’t it? It’s not airy-fairy blissful, not at all. I never wanted to be married, but now I love being married. I like the understanding that you are part of a partnership; it’s a team.”
The couple don’t have children of their own, but Mirren is close to Hackford’s sons. “I have a step-grandson and step-nephews; we’re quite a big, extended family and everybody lives in Los Angeles, except for my sister. And my other nephew lives on the East Coast now. It’s fantastic getting them all together. It’s brilliant because they’re all boys.”
Mirren and Hackford spend increasing amounts of time at their holiday home in Puglia. “My husband and I have been building this house there that’s sort of our retirement dream.”
Are there plans to stop working? “No, I could never retire; there might always be a fun job around the corner or just something I feel like doing. I’m never ever going to retire officially. Even if I did,” she says with a twinkle in the eye, “I would never declare it. I might just quietly disappear.”