BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – In Lasse Hallström's latest film, “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren was given the opportunity to play a very forthright, proud restauranteur in the south of France. It's a character that plays well to her strengths and offers a striking foil to Manish Dayal's Indian chef-in-training, Hassan.
Her performance is one that lends presence. Any time Madame Mallory is in a scene, you can feel it. But despite her hardened exterior, there is a softer place of passion deep below the surface, and Mirren's work opposite Dayal and particularly actor Om Puri makes for plenty of interesting sparring as cultures clash and taste buds ignite.
I sat down with Mirren recently to discuss her work in the film, the importance of keeping a light touch on the set and what kind of a backstory she fed into this character. Read through our back and forth below.
“The Hundred-Foot Journey” hits theaters on Aug. 8.
HitFix: So you had never worked with Lasse Hallström before. I don't know why but I was sort of surprised by that.
No. You know, I've never done more than one film with anyone.
Really? Certainly not by choice?
Certainly not by choice. Sometimes you wish you could work with someone more regularly, but it just doesn't work out like that in film. It's not like theater. You don't have that ensemble thing – maybe they do in certain countries – but it's always been my sadness, actually. I would have loved to have found a director with whom I could work more than once.
Did you know Lasse socially at all?
No, never met him. Not at all.
Well how did he strike you?
Wonderful. Just febrile, sensitive, funny – very funny. Probably very Swedish.
Is funny important to you on the set?
Funny's a help. Funny is a great help. I like to laugh on set, I do. I hate it all to be frightfully serious. Obviously when you have very serious roles you have to, “OK, now's the time to hunker down and concentrate.” But it lightens a touch on the set and it's very nice. And it was essential on this movie, because film, as you know, is a very lumbering, top-heavy process: trucks and lights and portaloos – it's a big, heavy, hulking, slow-moving thing, and to keep a sense of lightness and humanity and improvisation, on a movie like this, that was so important. If it got dragged down into sort of a ponderous thing, it would have been terrible. And it takes a masterful director to keep that feeling, that sense, light. It's that nothing ever quite settles. And he was very good at that, Lasse. Sometimes you thought, “What the hell's going on? Do we know what we're doing?” But he did absolutely know what he was doing, and in such a way that there was never a heavy sense of, “We will do this and then we will do that and then we'll do that.” There was always a slight bit of improvisation.
It's a delicate movie in general.
Yes, it's a delicate movie in general. And it's so hard to achieve that effect when you're dealing with much more ponderous things.
Did you read the book before you read the script?
No. I didn't read the book until after it started shooting. And then I thought I could go to it and maybe take a little bit from it here and there. A script and a book – unless it's a great, well-known, classical piece of literature – just, a film and a book are such different creatures. It's better, I think, just to take the script as your literature. That's your literature. That's what you have to get your ideas from, your invention, your inspiration; it has to come from the script. And then go back to the book and feed in little elements. Otherwise you start going, “Oh, well, she doesn't do that in the book.” And I was very happy that I did that because the Madame Mallory in the book is quite different from the Madame Mallory that I play. There are elements that are the same but it's really quite a different character and I think, for better or worse, that's what it is.
She's such a vibrant character in the movie, and obviously it's much more the young man's story than it is hers, but I felt like we didn't learn so much about where she comes from. Did you have anything in your head as far as creating backstory?
A little bit, but I thought there was a backstory there. She had made this restaurant with her husband, her husband died young and she had taken it on, and she had been there ever since. Restauranteurs are – and especially in France, you go to a restaurant, and then you go back 20 years later and it's the same waiter who serves you. There is a consistency in France, which you don't get so much in England or America, where restaurants come and go much more. Restaurants in France stay and people work in them for their whole lives. So that was very much Madame Mallory.
Is it the kind of thing where you had someone in your head to model her after in any way?
No but our costume designer, Pierre-Yves [Gayraud], showed me when I first went to meet with him some material on a French interior designer of the 60s, maybe into the 70s, and I didn't know about this woman. I had never seen pictures of her or anything. And he said, “I was thinking of this for Madame Mallory.” I thought it was brilliant. I couldn't quite clarify in my mind the visual image of this woman and I thought that was so genius and I full-heartedly embraced that.
What did shooting in this sleepy little town in the south of France, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, mean for you as far as portraying this character and how the environment helps to inform who she is?
I don't like to say essential, but incredibly important, because of just the sheer visual beauty of it. It's a very rural area where they do take food and drink very seriously. It is their world. It's a world of fine growing and making wine, so obviously it means a huge amount to be there, as opposed to being in London and going into a studio every day.