LOS ANGELES -- Dame Helen Mirren begins with a food metaphor when talking about her latest film, "The Hundred-Foot Journey."
"A film is like a souffle," Mirren says. "Obviously, it mustn't collapse. But, it also has to have some substance to it. I think that this film does have quite serious themes running through. One of those themes is ‘love thy neighbor' and I think that is one of the hardest things to do.
"It sounds easy but when your neighbor plays loud music and cooks with curry and you don't like the smell of it, then it becomes hard to love thy neighbor."
She plays Madame Mallory, the owner of a much-touted restaurant in a small town in the south of France that faces competition from an Indian restaurant that opens across the road. Director Lasse Hallstrom, through food, looks at love, life, family, racism and even a little politics.
Comparing cooking and acting makes sense to Mirren. Both start with basic ingredients that must be blended together properly. A chef and actor add their own spice and in the end offer up a presentation they hope will be loved.
"I came to realize while making this film that a chef, like a great writer or a great painter or a great musician, is a great artist. They also share the same kind of obsessions, the same kind of single-mindedness about what they are doing," Mirren says. "I would say if there is a difference, a chef is more obsessed." She pauses, smiles and then adds, "And they both live and die by the critics and word of mouth.
Mirren's faced years of reviews since beginning her acting career with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late ‘60s. She's generally considered to be one of the best actors working today, but when she receives a negative review it's like a "dagger to the heart."
Mirren is not a great cook herself, but she does love reading cookbooks and watching cooking TV shows. She loves the idea of cooking, but she says it seems so time consuming -- planning, shopping, unloading the shopping, preparing the meal and cleaning up.
"All of that work to go (pretending to take a bite of food) ‘Um, that's good.' It's really lovely when someone else does the cooking," Mirren says.
Landing the role of the French restaurant owner brought Mirren a little closer to a lifelong dream.
"I'm dying to be a French actress, and I've never managed it. It was my pathetic attempt at being a French actress that I've lived and worked in Paris." Mirren says.
"I've met with such kindness in Paris. Parisians seem on the surface to be so cold and judgmental, and sort of superior. But actually, they're incredibly kindhearted, and generous."
Mirren already spoke French before filming started, but she soon realized her accent wasn't great. She worked on it because the last thing she wanted was to "sound like was Peter Sellers" doing his Inspector Clouseau French accent.
Hallstrom describes Mirren as being perfectly French, despite being half Russian and half English.