The Hundred-Foot Journey: Dame Helen Mirren and cast discuss latest release
The Hundred-Foot Journey is an extremely difficult movie to write about without making food puns. The cinematic feast (see!) stars Dame Helen Mirren as Madame Mallory – a French restaurateur whose gastronomic supremacy of a sleepy French village is challenged by the fluke arrival of an Indian patriarch (played by Om Puri) and his family – his virtuoso cook son Hassan (Manish Dayal) her chief threat.
Thanks to the way director Lasse Hallström puts the food at the fore, this is a film you can virtually taste, so it’s hard to imagine a more fitting venue for this afternoon’s press conference than legendary French cookery school Le Cordon Bleu in Bloomsbury Square. It was here, following a special screening, that The Upcoming caught up with the three leading cast members: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, and Manish Dayal.
Dame Helen, what appealed to you about this project?
DHM: Many things: I thought it was a charming story, and I loved the fact that it was going to be shot in France. I’ve always, secretly, wanted to be a French actress, and the opportunity to pretend to be a French actress, as well as a French woman, was too good to refuse. So there were many, many elements – not least of which was getting that classic phone call of “it’s [producer] Stephen Spielberg on the line”. And whenever an actor is lucky enough to receive that phone call, you never believe it, and you obviously listen.
Om, you’ve worked on hundreds of movies in your career, but this one is a perhaps uniquely international affair with cast and crew from all corners of the globe. Did you have a trick for bonding? How did you gel together so quickly?
OP: I must say it’s something that comes to me naturally. I tried it first in East Is East. You know I had a big family in that film, and I tried an exercise where I said “we will all meet at my place, and we will go shopping – to cook”. So somebody went to buy vegetables, and somebody went to buy fruit, somebody went to buy wine. Everybody went shopping separately and we came together and cooked, and spent the entire day, til 12pm at night when the director of the film landed [in the UK], and arrived to see us all gelling together. Similarly, I did on this film: every Saturday and Sunday, my family would land up in my apartment, and I had to cook for them.
DHM: And he cooked for the rest of us too, he used to bring in all these fabulous little bowls of things he’d prepared the night before for all of us, so Om really was the glue that held us all together. He was the head of our “film family”.
Manish, not many people realise that you’re American. Was it intimidating embarking on this project with the international talent involved? How did you prepare yourself?
MD: It was intimidating, but I got the chance to observe and work with these two hugely prolific and talented actors here. I was overwhelmed in the beginning, before I got to France, but I quickly got to know Helen over a three-hour long dinner we had on the day we got there, and she and I clicked very fast.
DHM: I forced Manish to eat escargot for the first time in his life.
MD: [Laughing] Yes, it was a bizarre experience, but when Helen Mirren forces you to eat something… you don’t say no.
What experience does each of you have as a cook?
OP: I’ve been cooking since I was 14. In school, I was a boy scout, and one of the activities we had was cooking – there used to be competitions. I had a flair for that, which I got from my mother. I enjoy it, it’s relaxing – like doing yoga – for me.
DHM: I do an incredible “baked beans on toast”. Marmite on toast, cheese on toast… no, I’m not much of a cook. I love to eat, but I’ve never been a great cook.
MD: Listening to both of their answers – I’m right in the middle. I can do a little more than beans on toast, but I cannot prepare the things Om can prepare. I would say my omelette is pretty good.
MD: I had read that line so many times, and it was only in production that I realised what it means. In the third act of the film, my character loses himself, and it’s through the power of food to create memory that he finds himself again. I think nothing’s more visceral than that. For me, my Mum’s rice and dhal that she made when I was growing up. I think she put a little bit too much sugar, and a few too few peanuts in, and that flavour is something that makes me think of her.
OP: It’s true, it makes sense – it can make you think of you mother, who’s no longer there.
DHM: For me it’s a certain kind of chocolate. Because of being young just after the Second World War, when we had rationing, I didn’t taste chocolate until I was about five. That first taste of chocolate was an incredible experience. I’m not a “chocoholic” at all, but just occasionally I get that taste that takes me right back, that taste of home. It’s such a strange thing, but when I’m abroad, I crave Indian food. I’ve never been to India, but you don’t seem to get good Indian food in any other country than Britain in my experience.
There’s an undercurrent of xenophobia in the film. In real life, when the circus of the production rolled into the sleepy French town – what was the reaction like.
DHM: Well, first of all they were French. They were very cool. Knowing that story of xenophobia in small country towns, all over the world – there was none of that.
Can you say something about the different styles of acting, how it varies between India and Britain?
DHM: I felt, working with Om – because we have both done a lot of theatre, though we’re from different cultures, I found it symbiotic to work with him. [Director] Lasse encouraged a lot of improvisation, and Om is the most brilliant improviser; a lot of the great lines in the film come from his improvisations.
MD: He’s a poet.
OP: One other thing I would say [about the differences between the audiences] is that, when watching the film in India – there is a scene where Helen is tasting the omelette, and you see her from behind, and her back straightens. That got a big laugh in India.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is released nationwide on 5th September 2014.
Watch the trailer for The Hundred-Foot Journey here: