What sort of dish would Helen Mirren be? Rich and creamy? A delicacy which doesn’t always require dressing?
A little fruity? Something poached from England?
“I do like a fried egg on toast,” she exclaims. “I’m not a foodie, or a gourmet but I do like peasant food or street food. I was just in Vienna, and it has the best sausages. One seller was just outside my, rather posh, hotel so I would buy some, smuggle them up into the hotel, order a salad on room service and then my sister and I would have sausage feasts.”
This is classic Mirren; friendly, informal, and quick to dismantle any notions of “Dame Helen” poshness; last time we met she was in summery mode, wearing a perky, well-cut, Fifties-style dress. “Oh thank you,” she said when complimented. “I do love a good 30 per cent-off rail”. Now in light of her latest movie role in The Hundred-Foot Journey, in which she plays the owner of a Michelin-starred French restaurant, we are talking about favourite meals, and instead of boeuf bourguignon and foie gras, she hymns the pleasure of soups and chips. If anything, her director, the Swedish film-maker Lasse Hallström, is even more of a disappointment to gourmands.
“I have been a vegan for three years,” he says. “I recommend it.”
Surely one of the perks of being a famous actress, an Oscar winner and a Dame, is that you can phone up the best restaurants and lasso their best tables? “Oh, I hate to pay huge amounts of money for dinner,” she cries. “Every so often it’s OK, but my husband, Taylor, and I very rarely go to what I think of as a posh restaurant, the kind with tablecloths, and I certainly wouldn’t travel halfway across France to try the foie gras in a particular restaurant.”
Eventually she admits that she did used to hanker for a meal at elBulli, the beachside Spanish restaurant repeatedly crowned the world’s best until its closure, with an equally famous long waiting list for its fanciful dinners of 30-50 small dishes such as pistachio ravioli, or clam meringue, on a prix fixe of £250 per person, not counting drinks, tips or tax.
“One summer we drove past it every day,” she recalls. “And every day my husband would say, ‘Go in and ask if they’ve had any cancellations’. So I would obediently run in and say, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got any cancellations’. And they’d laugh in my face, so we never got to eat in elBulli. And it was supposed to be really incredible, and when I travel I love to try the food of the country. And I’ve just discovered almond butter, which unfortunately I love.”
Does she diet? “All actors are on a permanent diet, you have to be. Sometimes I think it’s worse for men because they have to spend hours at a gym as well, pumping iron and beefing up. That’s the self-disciplined side of film actors, although that is kind of hidden. I’m not one of them, unfortunately. I eat everything, but I don’t eat a lot of everything. I exercise, but I like a glass of wine.”
Mirren’s own cooking specialities are soup and chicken, and her cheffy influences are Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. It turns out that she doesn’t much like food prep – more precisely, she hates the faff of shopping and the clearing up – but is an avid consumer of recipe books.
“When I first came to Los Angeles, I wasn’t much of a cook so I bought something called California Cooking for Taylor and his two sons. I would get the ingredients, spend ages in the kitchen, and then Taylor was always an hour late home, and his younger son Alex, who would eat nothing but Honey Nut Cheerios, would go ‘I don’t like that’. Then Taylor would say ‘You eat that; she’s been cooking all day’. It was all very traumatic,” she says cheerfully.
Luckily, in the film Mirren isn’t required to do any cooking, since she runs a restaurant where it’s the worker bee chefs who toil over truffle-stuffed meats and béchamel sauces. She does crack some eggs though, as Hallström points out.
“And I do it one-handed,” she says, rather pleased. “Because I thought that looked cool.”
Though Mirren was ready for a break after reprising her royal role on the London stage in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, she couldn’t say no to The Hundred-Foot Journey.
As directed by Hallström, who had audiences going gooey in 2000 over Chocolat, the picture joins Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Tampopo and Big Night as a film not to see on an empty stomach. This one is rife with close-ups of roast duck, tandoori goat and fluffy, crackly freshly baked baguettes. Mirren is a formal French restaurateur steeped in the traditions of fine wine and polished cutlery who is appalled when Om Puri moves from Mumbai to a shop across the road from her establishment, adds a faux Taj Mahal facade, and starts hawking murgh masala, served on plastic place mats, soundtracked by a blaring ghettoblaster.
The outcome is as predetermined as a pre-theatre dinner menu, and runs along the lines of learning to appreciate and understand that while there may be cultural differences, everyone shares the same feeling about the value of food. Fans of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel will probably enjoy what Mirren calls a soufflé of a film. It goes down easily and avoids some of the more familiar food flourishes.
“We made a rule that we would not show people enjoying the food and going, mmmm,” says Hallström. “And nothing we’ve seen in TV commercials, in slow motion.”
When he joined the production, Mirren was already on board to play the French restaurateur, a piece of casting that took him aback. “Why not a French actress? But then I learnt she speaks French fluently, and was so enamoured by French culture that she wanted to move to Paris and become a French actress.”
“I had a dream of being a sort of French actress,” Mirren admits. “You know, Jeanne Moreau, or Simone Signoret. I felt that I fitted better in with that type of actress, than I did at that time in the Western, American, British sort of idea of the world.”
Mirren herself is a mix of the practically British and the exotically Soviet. Born just after the Second World War, she was the middle child of Vasily and Kathleen Mironoff. Vasily was from a long line of Russian aristocrats, forced to flee to Britain by the Russian revolution. Kathleen was from a family of London butchers.
Her father eked out a living in England as a musician and “a very overeducated London cab driver” and money was often tight. “It was a hand-to-mouth existence, where you lived on what you earned that week.”
Mirren didn’t much enjoy school, where she was subject to “bullying, betraying, teasing, fighting and general loneliness”. She was the Virgin Mary in a Nativity play and encouraged by her music teacher, applied to the National Youth Theatre.
She worked in theatre throughout her twenties, cementing her stage career at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she made her mark in the 1970s and 1980s with a wide range of classical roles from Ophelia to Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra.
Her early experiences of film were trickier. “For the first 20 years of my experience in film, a set was a very masculine environment. Very macho, very locker roomy, and it was not necessary. You had to gut it out.” Mirren managed to forge an approach there that has stood her in good stead on sets, and interviews. At 69, she seems much younger, partly because of her looks, but also because she’s approachable, democratic, sexy and playful.
She credits her husband, director Taylor Hackford, with giving her security in an industry filled with anxieties. Fed up with Britain under Thatcher, Mirren didn’t get political, she got mobile and decided to try her luck in Hollywood. On the set of the movie White Nights she was directed by Hackford, a film-maker of big budget features such as An Officer And A Gentleman and The Devil’s Advocate, and they fell in love. “Our relationship started over food, and quite a bit of vodka!” she says. They were married on New Year’s Eve in 1997 in Scotland. It was her first marriage, and his third, though Mirren has kept her own homes, including “a funky old farmhouse in the south of France”, so independence of a kind has been preserved.
She has a step-grandson and step-nephews so their Los Angeles base is often busy. Her sister lives in Mirren’s French retreat most of the time, and there are get-togethers and regular trips to London and Puglia, where the Hackfords go for holidays.
It all sounds rather like a feel-good movie, so Mirren is keen to point out that marriage involves work to keep it going. “It’s hard to live with someone else, who isn’t you. They have annoying habits and so do you. A lot of people get married when they haven’t really thought it through. But I also believe that sometimes people give up on marriage too quickly. It’s not a state of bliss and there was a time when I never wanted to be married. Now I love it. I like being part of a team and a partnership.”
On stage and screen she has led many lives. Along with the other dame, Judi Dench, Mirren has consistently selected interesting roles. She says she still thoroughly enjoys acting – her next film is Woman In Gold with Ryan Reynolds – but is no longer driven.
Hallström thinks she would make a good director; “She knows every aspect of film-making. She sticks to acting for a good reason, I think, but she knows all parts of film-making, and she’s very creative and inventive and offers ten valid options of each moment.”
Mirren’s second blossoming, as a film star, has been so successful that I wonder whether people tend to forget Prime Suspect now. I have a particular affection for her vanity-free portrait of tough, tired Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison, who once barked at a sergeant, “Don’t call me ma’am. I’m not the bloody queen”. In her career she has played Cleopatra, Queen Charlotte, Queen Elizabeth I and II, outgrowing her original Stratford hippie image which once caused British director Lindsay Anderson to chide, “You must behave more like a star, Helen, for God’s sake!”
While pomp and imperiousness would never be her style, as Mirren says, it’s always good to be a queen. “You get the nice clothes when you’re the queen, and somehow the queen thing rubs off and you get treated very nicely.”
In one year she played two Elizabeths, topped off with her Oscar win. “It was lovely to play women who have such similarities – and yet are so diametrically opposed,” Mirren says. “Both of them are completely committed to their duty as a monarch, but Elizabeth II is always trying to be a good girl. Elizabeth I didn’t care about being a good girl. She cared about being a great monarch.”
Do royal roles somehow strike a chord with her, connecting her to Vasily and his aristocratic Russian roots?
“I certainly think my grandfather would have been very proud of me being the Queen. He would have said something like, ‘It had to come out in the end’.
“But I also come from a line of real old London working-class people, though my mother could be unbelievably queenly, swanning around like she was the Queen of Sheba. So maybe it comes from just a desire to be like that.”
• The Hundred-Foot Journey (PG) is out on 5 September