Helen Mirren has been famous for 40 years now. In the compressed timeline of modern celebrity, that feels like an eternity: it's one thing to achieve fame, but quite another to hold on to it, especially while keeping it manageable and at arm's length from a civilised private life. Yet Mirren does all of that, if not effortlessly, then with understated grace, and without apparent calculation. Unquestionably she is still at the top of her game; at 69, she is a bigger name now than she has ever been.
In her time she has won an Oscar, four Baftas, four Emmys and an Olivier, not to mention 17 further nominations from those award bodies. This year's televised presentation of a Bafta Fellowship to her (by Prince William) also confirmed her as an industry ambassador with heft and influence.
Nor does her career offer the cosy shorthand recognition of typecasting. True, she has played real queens in her time (including Elizabeths I and II), classical stage roles (Phaedra, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth), and she has repeatedly returned to play Jane Tennison in the television series Prime Suspect over a 15-year period. Yet there is no common ground between those roles and, say, Victoria, the hardened former black-ops sniper in the two RED films, or Rachel Singer, the Mossad agent and Nazi-hunter in The Debt. Or indeed with Maggie, the Janis Joplin-like singer of a faltering rock band in David Hare's landmark 1970s play Teeth 'n' Smiles.
As Mirren tells it, the varied nature of these characters is not some deliberate ploy on her part. She offers a meandering explanation: she is always prepared to consider roles (even unlikely ones) that look like fun, or a challenge, or something she has never done before.
"That's how it has always been in my career," she says. "Nothing's changed much, really. The reasons you do things in my profession are usually confused and not very clear."
Her latest film is a case in point. The Hundred-Foot Journey is a culture-clash comedy-drama about a displaced Indian family who settle in a small French town and open a gaudy curry house opposite a refined Michelin-starred French restaurant, presided over by the stern Madame Mallory (Mirren). The word "froideur" might have been invented for Madame; she is not amused by these rackety interlopers. There is a lot of first-class food on screen, and audiences may understandably salivate during the film.
Mirren's pre-eminence gives her top billing, but hers is only the third-biggest role in the film; the great veteran Indian actor Om Puri plays the patriarch who owns "Maison Mumbai", while Manish Dayal, a young American-born actor, is cast as his son, Hassan, a sublimely talented chef. "Yes, but I really liked the idea of it," Mirren says dreamily. "I like food movies in general, and I love Indian food, and French food. I loved where it was going to be shot - north of Toulouse, in the Tarn-et-Garonne area. I'd never visited that part before, and it's unbelievably beautiful."
Read more: Movie review: The Hundred-Foot Journey
More pragmatically, it didn't hurt that The Hundred-Foot Journey boasted two heavyweight executive producers, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. Spielberg was originally going to direct the film (which is based on the bestselling novel by Richard C Morais), but decided against it, instead hiring Lasse Hallstrom, whose experience at the helm of cosy, polished films such as Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, with their strong appeal to older audiences, made him a safe choice.
"So it became a 'yes' project," Mirren says with a shrug, then adds ingenuously, "Also, I was hoping I was going to be able to do my part in French. I've always had a secret desire to be a French actress."
"Yes. I did try to, for a short period in the late 1970s. I'd spent a year working with [the theatre director] Peter Brook in Paris, so my French was pretty good. I rented a little garret in the city, got myself a French agent and thought, I'm going to do the full ... "
Kristin Scott Thomas?
"Ye-es. But I didn't have the advantage of marrying a Frenchman. I should have done that. That would have kept me there. Anyway, I thought I'd like to play Mme Mallory in French."
One wonders what she can have been thinking. This was a Hollywood film, after all. "I know," she says. "When it came to it, they said, "Oh no, that won't do. You can't play it in French. The Americans won't understand it. And they don't like subtitles.' Which was sad for me." She smiles a little wryly at all this, amused by her own perversity.
We are talking in a suite, in an upscale hotel near Whitehall. She looks relaxed, healthy and lightly tanned, in a mid-blue dress, accessorised with a wide vermillion belt; she carries it off with style.
The Hundred-Foot Journey will do nothing to dent her reputation; at this point, one wonders what possibly could. Predictably her co-workers praise her to the skies. "She knows every aspect of film-making," Hallstrom tells me, "and she's a well of ideas of how to tell the story. She offers valid options for every set-up and scene."
He recalls that on one shooting day in France, when unexpected rain halted production, Mirren alerted him to an unshot scene, rather sombre in tone. In the story, small-town French racists daub hate slogans on the walls of the curry house; in a move that signals a gradual thawing of relations, Mme Mallory and a couple of co-workers walk the 30m across the road to scrub the walls clean. "Helen said to me, 'Let's bring that scene forward and shoot it today, in the rain,'" Hallstrom says. "She saw it would fit the mood. She was right. She's a filmmaker as well as an actress."
Helen Mirren in The Hundred Foot Journey.
His comment rang a distant bell. In 2001 I visited the set of Gosford Park, a period country-house murder mystery for which the great American director, the late Robert Altman, had assembled many of Britain's best actors for his huge cast. Mirren, who played the enigmatic housekeeper Mrs Wilson, hugely impressed him. "She told me I should simply cut one of the scenes she was in, because it didn't add anything dramatically," Altman said, shaking his head. He grinned slyly. "Now can you imagine an American actor telling me that? To cut their precious scene?" (Mirren, it should be noted, was nominated for both an Oscar and a Bafta for her role.)
David Parfitt, a former chairman of Bafta, was a producer on The Madness of King George (1994), in which Mirren played another queen, Charlotte (known as "Mrs King"). "Basically it was the same cast that had already done the run of the play at the National Theatre," Parfitt says. "Helen came in as our bit of 'star casting'. Everyone else knew each other. But she was brilliant. Such a character, she really fitted right in. Nothing starry about her."
Still, Mirren can be spiky when outside distractions affect her work, and one day at Shepperton Studios, Parfitt was summoned to the set where she and Nigel Hawthorne (playing King George) were lying in bed, on a break between scenes. "We were using two sound stages that had no soundproofing," Parfitt says now. "So we had to stop shooting for planes overhead, cars outside, even people talking. Helen chewed me out, really. She said this was 'not conducive to a good performance'. And I had to stand there taking it, at the foot of this double bed in front of them both." One imagines Mirren must also have seen the humour in that situation.
Even now she does not shirk confrontation. Last year, when she was playing the Queen in Peter Morgan's play The Audience in the West End, the performance was interrupted by the noise from a group of drummers outside, part of a gay parade. Mirren, still in her stage costume (including pearls and tiara), strode out to berate them. Dryly, she admitted having used "some thespian words" to the drummers' conductor. But it worked.
In contrast she can be extraordinarily gracious when the occasion demands. On receiving the Bafta Fellowship earlier this year, she gave a memorable speech in praise of teachers.
She singled out Alice Welding, at St Bernard Convent Grammar School in Southend, near her home in Leigh-on-Sea; she had taught Mirren about literature and urged her to try acting. (Welding had died two weeks earlier, aged 102.) Mirren called for a show of hands from anyone in the starry audience who had been inspired by a great teacher, and hands shot up everywhere. "That's a lot of teachers," she said, insisting on a round of applause for them before delivering Prospero's speech from The Tempest ("our revels now are ended"). In the front row Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio marvelled, eyes wide, mouths agape.
Few actors can provoke such a reaction in such a stellar crowd, but Parfitt argues that Mirren is one of a very small, exclusive class. "She has a wonderfully credible career. The reason she's a big Hollywood name as well as a British star is that not many women of a certain age survive this long in the film industry. And the great thing about Helen is, she works across all genres."
Mirren has been married to the American film producer-director Taylor Hackford since 1997 (they tied the knot at a castle in the Scottish Highlands on Hogmanay). In any given year, depending on work commitments, they commute between their three homes - in east London, Los Angeles and Salento, at the southern tip of Italy's Puglia region ("It's funky and fabulous," she says), where they have renovated a house over seven years. In all these places, Mirren's idea of a peaceable retreat from the world's noise is gardening.
"I do it, but not terribly well," she confesses. "In London we have a communal garden which we [neighbours] all share. It's perfect, because you have other people to talk to, and you don't take the successes and failures quite so seriously.
"I have a real rockery and I love it. It's really fun, and definitely therapeutic because you can't think of yourself with immediate problems going on. Like the thrips." The thrips?
"Just write it down," she says, not unkindly. "People who garden will know what that means. Battling the thrips they will totally understand." She finally relents. "Have you heard of greenfly? Thrips are more pernicious.
"In Los Angeles we have a very good yard, as they call it," she continues, "and I've carved out a little corner that's my responsibility. It had a brief period of being absolutely wonderful, but then it all fell apart. I stupidly was trying to do an English garden in Los Angeles, but you can't - the climate doesn't allow for it."
Does she like shuttling between homes all the time? "Well, yes, you experience different climates and cultures. But then sometimes I just want to stay put. Doing The Audience in London was wonderful because I couldn't be anywhere else. I had to be in that theatre every night. And that was really nice. I could finally unpack. Generally, I find the place I am is where I am and I forget the other places very quickly. I'm back in Los Angeles and I think, 'This is great.' But then I love a dull day in London. In LA, when it's 89 degrees on Christmas Day, it's alarming. It makes you appreciate the rain."
You would not call Mirren capricious, exactly, but she is clearly a creature of contradictory impulses. Maybe her mixed heritage plays its part: her grandfather was a Russian arms dealer, exiled in England by the 1917 revolution. Helen's name at birth was Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironoff. She grew up near Southend with her father, a driving test examiner, her Cockney mother Kitty and two siblings. The family was faintly exotic; her parents were strident atheists who disapproved of the monarchy. Dinner-table conversations tended to revolve around major world issues.
Encouraged by her teacher Welding, Mirren began acting in school productions. She was accepted by the National Youth Theatre when she was 18 and went on to the New College of Speech and Drama in north London. Aged 20 she was playing Cleopatra on the stage of the Old Vic, and before her 22nd birthday she was invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Nothing seemed to daunt her or halt the progress of a career that has been marked by outspoken single-mindedness. Her throwaway reference to working with Peter Brook was in truth a major sidestep; in 1972 she joined his Paris-based group, the International Centre for Theatre Research, and toured north Africa and America with them, performing The Conference of the Birds, adapted from an epic 12th-century Persian poem.
Hardly a crowd-pleaser. Tellingly, when the documentary-maker John Goldschmidt made his 1970 television film profile of Mirren in her early RSC days, he titled it Doing Her Own Thing.
Hallstrom observed this while directing her in The Hundred-Foot Journey. "I didn't think of her as a Dame," he recalls, laughing, "but as a very smart, insightful actress. She's a Russian volcano, tempered with Britishness."
Mirren is also terrific company; her formidable sense of her own worth is neatly undercut by her sense of humour. She clearly takes her work seriously, but herself - and her place in the industries she serves - rather less so. Mirren inadvertently illustrates the point while telling me about Woman In Gold, the film she is currently making. She took the lead role "because it's mostly being shot in London, so I can stay in my house - and because of the story". She plays Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish widow who battles the Austrian government to regain ownership of paintings by Gustav Klimt that had belonged to her family but were looted by the Nazis. It is being directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn), and it turns out he and Mirren go back a long way.
"When I was doing Teeth 'n' Smiles, he was an assistant director at the Royal Court. And for a brief period of time he handled my fan mail for me." She slaps her thigh and laughs. "It's a classic example of how you should treat people well. Because 20 years later, you never know."
The Hundred-Foot Journey is at cinemas now.