Though her origins hail from a traditional Shakespeare background and she’s portrayed umpteen royal British monarchs, most famously Queen Elizabeth I and II (and will soon reprise Her Majesty again in The Audience on Broadway) as well as Queen Charlotte, in spite of all these women-in-corset performances, Dame Helen Mirren, 69, is a thoroughly modern woman.
She peruses the iPhone resting on the desk in front of her, the gadget which will record our conversation, and offers, unprovoked, “I love technology. I’m fascinated by it. It’s one of the reasons I would love to live to be 150-years old because as technology changes it’s mesmerising and exciting to me,” she explains. “Like GPS. Don’t you find that it’s the most miraculous thing? And barcodes, I can’t get over barcodes,” she enthuses. “When they swipe something and it knows that it’s a can of baked beans. How does it know? It’s incredible.”
Though not all aspects of modernity are created equally, she adds, “I’m not a social media person, that’s one element I really don’t like. It’s not that it upsets me but I just find it distasteful.” She leans forward. “You know, I went on Facebook for a day,” she recalls, laughing. “I have young members in my family and I travel a lot so I thought it would be a good tool to stay in touch. Obviously it’s very much a young person’s thing, or it was anyway.” Her eyebrows raise. “But I found very rapidly, literally, within 24 hours that it was too intrusive for me. I don’t want strangers wanting to become my friend, and people who were attached to my family were friending me. It reminded me of that wonderful scene in Fantasia with Mickey Mouse and the magicians,” she says. “But there was something really scary about it.” She shakes her head. “I didn’t like it at all.”
But she’s not here in Los Angeles to wax lyrical on the pros and cons of technological advancement. Mirren is starring in The Hundred-Foot Journey, (based on the best-selling novel by first-time author, Richard C. Morais). Playing the tightly-wound Madame Mallory who runs a traditional Michelin-starred restaurant in an idyllic French town, naturally, she was required to adopt a French accent, and hers is nothing short of fabulous.
Genuinely delighted at my observation, she smiles. “It’s the result of my British love affair with France and everything French. I studied it in high school and certainly when I was growing up in my teens, the French just seemed to be the coolest, chicest people on the planet. I desperately wanted to be French. So I got myself a French boyfriend and that was the closest I could get to it.” She laughs. “I was fourteen, and I still remember him, Jean-Louis, and I forced my very bad schoolgirl French upon him.
“And then when I was a little older I worked in Paris for a year, more or less. I had a little garret on the left bank, very bohemian. I thought I would literally become a French actress if I just stayed there long enough but of course, sometimes life won’t let you do want you want to do.” She sighs. “I kept being offered work in England which I had to take because I had to pay for the garret in France. So, it just never worked out. I think that’s what I loved about this movie. I could finally pretend I was a French actress for the first time in my life.”
The movie is about a culture clash between a displaced Indian family who move to a village in the south of France, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. They open a restaurant, Maison Mumbai, one hundred feet away from Mallory’s stuffy establishment, Le Saule Pleureur. And a delightful gastronomical war ensues.
Mirren says of her own culinary predilections, “I’m not like Madame Mallory at all. I mean, seriously, not at all. I like peasant food and I don’t cook,” she declares, almost triumphantly. “And I’ll tell you why. I don’t like to shop, and to cook you have to shop, and then you have to bring it home and unpack it. I really hate that. So I can’t be bothered to cook. It’s ridiculous really because I love cook books. I buy them and I look at the recipes, and think, ‘Oh, I would love to make that.’ And I watch cookery programs and I find them fascinating, but I don’t really cook, no.”
So what does the great dame do for a meal?
“Well, I do a lot of takeout, and in England it’s great because Marks & Spencer’s do these incredible meals already cooked. My one cooking thing is a rotisserie grill called The Showtime Grill that I bought here in America, and that’s fantastic. I do that but that’s sort of about the level of my cooking, is putting a chicken in the grill and it comes out perfectly every time. It’s great.”
All this talk of food leads to the obvious – how on earth does she maintain such a trim figure? In 2008, you may remember a certain photo surfaced of Mirren in southern Italy donning a red bikini. “Well, I was amazed at the stir that photo caused. Amazed and alarmed. It was lovely and very complimentary and flattering, though not very truthful,” she says, modestly.
But nevertheless, sitting here in a white lace Dolce and Gabbana dress which reveals a tiny waist and toned limbs, what does Mirren do on a daily basis to keep such an enviable physique?
“Well, I am the classic yo-yo dieter,” she says, candidly. “I go up and down the same ten pounds that I have been doing my whole life. Now I am at the top end of those ten pounds and I have got to get back to the bottom end of those ten pounds,” she shrugs. “I haven’t made a hugely conscious effort to stay particularly fit and I am not very fit at all, actually. Just this morning I started my exercises which I hadn’t been doing for months, maybe years.
“I do a very, very, very old fashioned thing called The (Royal) Canadian Women’s Airforce exercises. It’s brilliant, really; really good. It’s twelve minutes and I’ve done it off and on my whole life. The great thing about it is that it gets you fit enough to be able to contemplate going to the gym,” she laughs.’ Seriously,” she implores. “Look it up.”
Until very recently she and her husband of 17 years, director Taylor Hackford, (Parker) had a house in the south of France. “We had it for more than 20 years, though sadly, it’s up for sale,” she laments. Perhaps it’s her joy of discovering new challenges that keeps her perennially young. She smiles. “Well, I don’t know about that but now we’re moving to Italy and I’m learning Italian. I’m excited about that.”