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Thu August 7, 2014
Movie Interviews

Helen Mirren: Like Night Follows Day, Roles For Women Will Reflect Real Life

Originally published on Thu August 28, 2014 6:43 pm

When she was in her 20s, Helen Mirren says, she yearned to be a French actress: "They fascinated me more," she tells NPR's Melissa Block.

In her new film, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Mirren gets the next best thing — she plays Madame Mallory, the frosty French owner of an elegant restaurant in a tiny village in the south of France. When an Indian family comes to town and opens their own restaurant 100 feet away, Mallory has nothing but disdain for the family and the food they're cooking.

The turning point in the film is an omelet — an omelet laced with chili powder and lots of cilantro. It tantalizes Mallory's taste buds and convinces her that the young man who has landed across the street from her Michelin-starred restaurant has a true gift for food.

Mirren says this film — about food, tradition and the clash of cultures — takes her back to her youthful dream of being French, never mind what she calls her "slightly dodgy French accent."


Interview Highlights

On the premise of The Hundred-Foot Journey

You have a very well-established, very beautiful restaurant that you've worked for and in for many, many years, and you've been climbing up the culinary ladder, you know, towards hopefully a second Michelin star. And then ... immediately opposite opens up this noisy ... Indian restaurant with such a different attitude to cooking. Equally wonderful, of course — and that's what the film is about, is to learn to appreciate and understand, that although they're so very different in their attitudes to preparing food and presenting food, they have absolutely equal value.

On French exceptionalism

I'm a huge Francophile, but there is ... a feeling that you are really the best in the world at everything. And for a while, I concurred with the French in their opinion of themselves. I did think everything French was the best.

On stepping into the role of Madame Mallory

John Gielgud always said, "It all comes from the spine," and he's absolutely right. Posture is everything. And it's nice to play a role where you have to remember to stand up straight. But in general, posture is just one of the secrets of life and longevity, I think.

On the paucity of roles for older women

I haven't talked a lot about that. ... Journalists have talked a lot about it to me ... and I have always responded for the last 20 years with exactly the same response: "Don't worry about roles in drama. That's not your concern. Worry about roles for women in real life, because as night follows day, roles for women in drama will follow. And when you have a female president of America — which hopefully, maybe you will very soon — when you have female heads of hospitals, of legal firms, of schools, of universities, you will have roles for women in drama."

And that has happened. That's absolutely happened.

On more women in all levels of the film industry

Not just directing. ... It's the camera crew. It's the cinematographers, it's the sound people. ... You're seeing more and more women coming into the industry, which I think is really exciting. ...

When I started in film, for the first 20 years of my experience in film, a set was a very masculine environment, it was very macho, very testosterone-y, very locker roomy, and it was not necessary. But you had to sort of gut it out.

On being a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire

Oh, is that the full title? ... It sounds very military. ... I still can't believe it, honestly. Well, it's been 10 years, I just have never got used to it. And it still seems ... utterly weird to me. I just don't feel like ... dame material. ...

It's a wonderful honor. And I think my great sadness was my parents weren't alive to see it, because they would've been so amazed. They were not monarchists, my parents, at all — they were very fierce Republicans — but I think they would've recognized it, which is what it is. It's an honor from your country.

And as the daughter of an immigrant — my father was not born in Britain, he was born in Russia — so, you know, they would've been so very, very proud, I think, that: "Look, look what we all did together." Because I am who I am because of them. There's absolutely no doubt about that.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The transformation starts with an omelet. An omelet laced with chili powder and lots of cilantro. An omelet that tantalizes the taste buds of a frosty French restaurant owner and finally convinces her that the young Indian immigrant, who's landed across the street from her fancy restaurant has a true gift with food. That omelet is a turning point in the new movie "The Hundred Foot Journey." A movie about food, tradition and the clash of cultures. It stars Helen Mirren as the restaurant owner, Madame Mallory, who rules her Michelin starred kitchen with a firm hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY")

HELEN MIRREN: (As Madame Mallory) Now last night we served this. Miserable, overcooked asparagus. In this restaurant the cuisine is not old tired marriage. It is a passionate affair of the heart.

BLOCK: And Helen Mirren joins me now from New York. Welcome to the program.

MIRREN: Thank you, I'm so excited to be here. I listen to your program all the time. It's a great honor.

BLOCK: Well, we're glad to have you here and as you listen to that seen are you transported back to France in that kitchen?

MIRREN: Yes, I am and I'm transported back to my early dream of wanting to be a French actress. You know, I listened to my slightly dodgy French accent, it's not bad, but it's not absolutely great. But I've so wanted to be a French actress when I was younger.

BLOCK: Why a French actress?

MIRREN: Because when I was in my 20s, I was always more attracted by European filmmaking. I also felt that the way actresses were in Europe was just much more interesting, more layered, more - they just fascinated me more. So, I sort of had this yearning to be a French actress.

BLOCK: To be French - actually to transform yourself somehow.

MIRREN: To be French, Yes. just to be French.

BLOCK: Well, now you have maybe the next best thing, which is to portray a Frenchwoman in this movie, "The Hundred Foot Journey." Let's set up this story here. OK, so your character is running this beautifully elegant French restaurant in a tiny village in the south of France. And then a loud family of Indian immigrants comes to town, starts its own restaurant 100-feet-away, hence the title of the film, right across the street. And that's where the clash begins.

MIRREN: Yes, indeed. And you can imagine in a small town, you know, that would be rather alarming. You have a very well established, very beautiful restaurant that you've worked for and in for many, many years and you've been climbing up the culinary ladder, you know, towards hopefully a second Michelin star. And then, as you say, immediately opposite, opens up this noise, colorful lights, you know, Indian restaurant with such a different attitude to cooking. Equally wonderful of course and that's what the film is about, it's to learn to appreciate and understand that although they're so very different in their attitudes to preparing food and presenting food, they have absolutely equal value.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY")

MIRREN: (As Madame Mallory) This is flavor that is fighting against the chicken.

MANISH DAYAL: (As Hassan Haji) I did some spices for flavor. (Unintelligible) Coriander, garnish and (Unintelligible).

MIRREN: (As Madame Mallory)But why change a recipe that is 200-years-old?

DAYAL: (As Hassan Haji) 'Cause Madam maybe 200 years is long enough.

BLOCK: Your character, Madame Mallory, has huge disdain for this family when they move in and the food that they're cooking she says is..

MIRREN: Oh, no. absolutely.

BLOCK: ...cannot be called a restaurant.

MIRREN: No, it cannot be called - fast food, ethnic, (French spoken) is not really a restaurant. There is an element in the French that is like that, you know, and I'm a huge Francophile. But there is an element of this immense - well you know, chauvinist is a French word, chauvinist is a feeling that you are really the best in the world at everything. And for a while I concurred with the French in their opinion of themselves. I did think everything French was the best.

BLOCK: How did you slip into this character of Madame Malory and play a Frenchwoman? Did you find yourself standing differently, moving differently?

MIRREN: Well, you know Sir John Gielgud always said it all comes from the spine, and he's absolutely right. Posture is everything and it's nice to play a role where you have to remember to stand up straight. But in general posture is one of the secrets of life and longevity I think probably.

BLOCK: And I love that, it all comes from the spine.

MIRREN: It all comes from the spine. It's a very, very - he was very absolutely right.

BLOCK: I'm talking with Helen Mirren, her new movie is "The Hundred Foot Journey." You have talked a lot over the years about roles for women, the possibility of good roles for women and especially women who are older - at a different stage in their career.

MIRREN: You know, I have to say I haven't talked a lot about that. Journalists have talked a lot about it to me. But I have not talked a lot about it. And I have always responded for the last 20 years with exactly the same response, don't worry about roles in drama. That's not your concern. Worry about roles for women in real life because as night follows day, roles for women in drama will follow. And when you have a female president of America, which hopefully maybe you will very soon. When you have female heads of hospitals, of legal firms, of schools, of universities you will have roles for women in drama. And that has happened. That' absolutely happened.

BLOCK: So, you are seeing a transformation.

MIRREN: Of yes but also behind the camera, which in a way is a more important transformation.

BLOCK: In terms of who's directing?

MIRREN: Not just directing, it's not directing for me. It's the camera crew, it's the cinematographers, it's the sound people. There you're seeing more and more women coming into the industry, which I think is really exciting.

BLOCK: So just their presence as women on the set makes a difference.

MIRREN: Yes, hugely. I mean when - where I started in film for the first 20 years of my experience in film, the set was a very masculine environment. It was very macho, very testosterone-y, you know very locker roomy. And it was not necessary, but you know, you have to sort of gut it out.

BLOCK: You - you have been appointed for more than a decade now, you have been a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

MIRREN: Is that the full title? I didn't know that.

BLOCK: I think it is. I had to look it up.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: But you are a Dame.

MIRREN: Dame Commander. It sounds very military.

BLOCK: Well, you know, from this perspective I think titles may seem silly, titles like that. And I wonder for you is it a meaningful thing, was it - did it feel like a honor? Did it - did it bring something to your life that you were happy to have?

MIRREN: I still can't believe it, honestly. It's been 10 years, I just have never got used to it. And it still seems utterly weird to me, I just don't feel like Dame material.

BLOCK: Yeah. What does it imply do you think?

MIRREN: It's a wonderful honor. And I think my great sadness was that my parents weren't alive to see it because they would have been so amazed and they were not monarchists, my parents, at all, very fierce Republicans. But I think they would have recognized it, which is what it is, it's an honor from your country. An as the daughter of an immigrant, my father was not born in Britain, he was born in Russia. So, you know, they would have been so very, very proud I think. That look, look what we all did together because I am who I am because of them. There's absolutely no doubt about that.

BLOCK: Well, Helen Mirren it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank so very much.

MIRREN: Thank you. That was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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