Dame Helen feasts upon 'blessed' role

By Sandy Cohen

Any doubts Oscar-winner had about film quickly dismissed by classy cast and crew.

Helen Mirren, left and above, says she felt in safe hands with The Hundred-Foot Journey director, Lasse Hallstrom, above, in charge. Photo / AP
Helen Mirren, left and above, says she felt in safe hands with The Hundred-Foot Journey director, Lasse Hallstrom, above, in charge. Photo / AP

Helen Mirren lowers her voice to a whisper and her eyes take on a devious twinkle as she makes a confession. When she has a really good time making a movie, as she did on The Hundred-Foot Journey, she fears: "Oh my God, is it going to suck?"

Never mind that the 69-year-old Dame of the British Empire, who won an Oscar for playing the Queen, just said a four-letter word. Mirren also said that when she takes time off work, she worries that she has forgotten how to act altogether. Of course, her 45-year career says otherwise.

In The Hundred-Foot Journey, Mirren plays Madame Mallory, a prickly and particular restaurateur who takes overcooked asparagus as a personal affront. Her Michelin-starred restaurant, set in a quaint village that looks like a postcard, is among the most celebrated in France, and Mallory presides unforgivingly over its staff and cuisine. Her chilly demeanour turns icy when an Indian family open their own restaurant, the colourful Maison Mumbai, right across the street.

Though Mirren was ready for a break after reprising her royal role on the London stage in Peter Morgan's The Audience - which she is repeating on Broadway early next year - she couldn't say no to The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Not only was the leadership top-notch - Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey are producers and Lasse Hallstrom directs - the project allowed Mirren to make good on a lifelong dream.

"I've always secretly wanted to be a French actress and never actually managed it," she said.

Adding to the charmed project was its picturesque setting in the south of France ("You'd think you're in an ad for France, but it's all real," Mirren said) and nightly home-made meals by co-star Om Puri, who plays the patriarch of the Indian family.

"It was one of those absolutely blessed experiences," Mirren said - the kind that makes her question a film's quality. But she quashed that fear: "We had Lasse, and Lasse was our secret weapon."

The director said Mirren - in character and out - added to the magic on set. "She's so smart and skilled," Hallstrom said. "She knows every aspect of film-making."

Except how to feel comfortable between projects. Time off makes her anxious. She fears breaking her concentration and losing the momentum of the character she's meant to play.

Mirren said that when she sees movies or theatre, she feels "blown away" by other actors' work and fearful of her own ability to execute.

"And then maybe [I've] got a project coming up, and then I get really nervous because I think, 'I can't do that'," she said. "Then, of course, you start and you realise, 'Oh yes, I can. This is what I do. This is my job.'"

Who: Helen Mirren
What: The Hundred-Foot Journey, directed by Lasse Hallstrom
When: Opens at cinemas on Thursday

- AP

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