'My cheese on toast is excellent'

Dame Helen Mirren talks food and filming ahead of her new movie release The Hundred-Foot Journey

Posted: 05.09.14

What in particular appealed to you about being part of The Hundred-Foot Journey?
Oh! Well you know, I thought it was a charming story. I loved the fact that it was going to be shot in France; I’ve always sort of secretly wanted to be a French actress, so it gave me the opportunity to pretend to be a French woman. There were many, many elements but not in the least of which is I got that classic phone call, ‘its Steven Spielberg on the line for you,’ and whenever an actor is lucky enough to receive that phone call, you never believe it. You think ‘don’t be silly, who’s having me on?’

Did you get on well with the other members of the cast?
Yes, they were all lovely. I got to know Manish over a three hour-long dinner, and forced him to eat escargot for the first time, which are snail!

Your character Madame Mallory is a stern woman, have you ever met anyone like her?
Absolutely! A very formidable madam ran the hotel in which we stayed in during filming. I also met another woman who was English interestingly enough; she ran a small but wonderful restaurant. And to meet these people, just to understand the level of commitment they have to make was really wonderful. It’s 24 hour, seven days a week kind of work and you do realise how strong people these woman are.

How fond are you of cooking and how much time do you spend in the kitchen?
I do an incredible baked beans on toast, really amazing! Marmite on toast, marmalade on toast, cheese on toast…my cheese on toast is excellent! But no, I’m not much of a cook, I love food, I love to eat but I’ve never been a great cook.

One of the lines in the film is ‘food is memories’ so with that in mind do you have any particular foods that spark a memory?
Yes it is extraordinary, they do say a sense of smell and taste are by far the strongest markers of memory, much more powerful than anything else. For me it’s the smell of chocolate because I was a post-second world war child, and it was all about rationing so there was no sugar. I didn’t taste chocolate till I was about four or five so the first time I tasted it, it was an incredible experience. I’m not a chocoholic at all, but just occasionally the smell of chocolate takes me right back to being four years old.

Are you a fan of Indian cuisine?
A really interesting thing is now when I go abroad, I crave Indian food. I’ve never been to India so I’ve never had Indian food there. I find that it is very difficult to find good Indian food in any other country in my experience, except for Britain. So for me, Indian food has become British food. It has become the marker of my home, my country, my culture, which in interesting; I find that that’s true for a lot of British people now.

What was the reaction from the public to the film crew being in France?
Well first of all, they were French. So you know, the French are very cool about everything. They seemed to be very hospitable. They were very easy about the whole thing; they weren’t over excited or stand-offish. They were just very cool about it all, they welcomed us.

Every actor in the film has their own style, how did you find adjusting to this?
It’s very interesting actually, I felt that working with Om, we both come from very different cultures but we do have theatre in common; I found it surprisingly symbiotic to work with him. It was in that overlapping area that we found a great way to work together and also on the set the director encouraged a lot of improvisation. Om is the most brilliant improviser and a lot of the great lines in the film actually come from Om’s personal improvisation. He’s a poet. So we were all inspired by him. I think once you’re in the improvisational world that breaks barriers down.

How did you feel about the improvising?
The director would change ideas suddenly, so you didn’t feel like you were in a prepared kind of rut that you had to sort of follow, it was very loose. Sometimes, it was frightening, you felt wrong-footed by it but it was always exciting. It was great.

You say you’ve never been to India, why is this?
I’ve always wanted to go ever since I was sixteen; it’s just been a long time coming. My husband and I both really want to go and I don’t know why I’ve never gone, I’ve never managed to. However, Om and Manish will be going in December to attend a literary festival in Bombay for the Times of India newspaper. They’ve invited me along and I’m very keen to go, it will be lovely.

The Hundred-Foot Journey starring Helen Mirren is in cinemas nationwide from 5th September 2014

Zahra Suleman 

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