LOS ANGELES – Helen Mirren lowers her voice to a whisper and her eyes take on a devious twinkle as she makes a confession: When she has a really good time making a movie, as she did on “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” she fears: “Oh my God, is it going to suck?”
Never mind that the 69-year-old Dame of the British Empire who won an Oscar for playing the Queen just said a four-letter word. Mirren also said that when she takes time off work, she worries that she has forgotten how to act altogether.
Of course, her 45-year career says otherwise.
In “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” which opened Friday, Mirren plays Madame Mallory, a prickly and particular restaurateur who takes overcooked asparagus as a personal affront.
Her Michelin-starred restaurant, set in a quaint village that looks like a postcard, is among the most celebrated in France, and Mallory presides unforgivingly over its staff and cuisine.
Her chilly demeanor turns icy when an Indian family opens their own restaurant, the colorful Maison Mumbai, right across the street.
Though Mirren was ready for a break after reprising her royal role on the London stage in Peter Morgan’s “The Audience,” she couldn’t say no to “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” Not only was the leadership top-notch – Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey are producers; Lasse Hallstrom directs – the project allowed Mirren to make good on a lifelong dream.
“I’ve always secretly wanted to be a French actress and never actually managed it,” she said.
Adding to the charmed project was its picturesque setting in the south of France (“You’d think you’re in an ad for France, but it’s all real,” Mirren said) and nightly homemade meals by costar Om Puri, who plays the patriarch of the Indian family.
“It was one of those absolutely blessed experiences,” Mirren said, the kind that make her question a film’s quality. But she quashed that fear quickly: “We had Lasse, and Lasse was our secret weapon.”
The director said Mirren – in character and out – added to the magic on set.
“She’s so smart and skilled,” Hallstrom said. “She knows every aspect of filmmaking.”
Except how to feel comfortable between projects. Time off makes her anxious. She fears breaking her concentration and losing the momentum of the character she’s meant to play.
Mirren said that when she sees movies or theater, she feels “blown away” by other actors’ work and fearful of her own ability to execute.
“And then maybe (I’ve) got a project coming up, and then I get really nervous because I think, ‘I can’t do that,’” the award-winning actress said.
“Then, of course, you start and you realize, ‘Oh yes, I can. This is what I do. This is my job.’ ”