It’s endearing to think that someone like Dame Helen Mirren can still be sufficiently impressed by the offer of a job that she takes it. In terms of The Hundred-Foot Journey – the tale of rivalry between two very different restaurants in a small French town – it was the combination of many things.
“It was a charming story. I loved the fact that it was going to be shot in France. I’ve always secretly wanted to be a French actress,” smiles the 69-year-old star.
“It also gives me an opportunity to pretend to be a French actress as well as a French woman.
“There were many, many elements, not least of which was that I got that classic phone call: ‘It’s Steven Spielberg on the line’.”
Initially she didn’t believe it. After taking the caller to task – ‘Who’s having me on?’ – she recognised the voice and changed tack. “So I did get that phone call and obviously you listen.”
Madame Mallory in The Hundred-Foot Journey is a formidable woman based on another, real-life daunting matriarch. To add drama Mallory is obsessed, isolated and lonely.
Mirren based her on someone she met in a restaurant in a small French town.
“To see my character … is to meet these people and to understand the level of commitment they have to make,” affirms Mirren.
“It’s 24 hours, seven days a week. To be an owner of a restaurant or a small hotel in that way [is] truly a life’s commitment to this kind of work.
“You realise what very forceful people these women are, absolutely.”
Anyone who has witnessed a movie roll into his or her town sees a temporary circus set up shop. It’s a fleeting experience of celebrity, up close and personal.
Sometimes the experience is a positive one, sometimes not.
Given that the characters in the film come up against small-town xenophobia I wondered whether Mirren and co-stars Om Puri, Charlotte Le Bon and Manish Dayal witnessed anything similar.
“Well, first of all they were French,” replies Mirren, emphasising the word. “So you know, the French are very cool.
“They weren’t over excited, they weren’t standoffish. Not ‘anti’ at all. And even knowing the story and that element of xenophobia in small country towns – maybe anywhere in the world – they were absolutely easy with that.”
Being in France with the great Indian star Om Puri gave Mirren an opportunity to immerse herself in very different styles of cuisine.
And as he cooked for the cast and crew she got the benefit of his skills.
“Now I crave Indian food when I’m away. Indian food for me has become British food. It’s become the marker of my home, my country, my culture. I think that’s true of a lot of British people now.”
So can she cook? Mirren smiles again.
“I do an incredible baked beans on toast. Really amazing,” she says with pride.
“Marmite on toast. Marmalade on toast. Cheese on toast. My cheese on toast is excellent. No, I’m not much of a cook.
“I love food. I love to eat. But I’ve never been a great cook.”
• The Hundred-Foot Journey (PG) is on general release in cinemas now.