Mirren s kitchen rules

Six years ago a svelte 60-something Helen Mirren was snapped on holiday wearing a red bikini. She looked in fantastic shape and the photograph became an instant internet sensation.

However, having won an Oscar the previous year for her portrayal of the Queen, not to mention being anointed as Dame Helen a few years before that, it wasn't exactly the sort of publicity she courted.

"I was amazed and alarmed," she recalls with a small shudder, today modelling an elegant white lace long-sleeved Dolce & Gabbana dress and pink flats when we meet in Beverly Hills.

"It's alarming because you become fodder and that's not a very comfortable place to be, quite honestly. And yes, it was lovely and flattering and very complimentary in one way but also not particularly truthful."

With more than 60 films to her name, plus countless stage and TV credits, Mirren, now 69, wasn't born to an era of Instagram, Twitter and overnight notoriety.

"I am not a social media person," she sighs. "There's something about it that I find distasteful. But I see it's a great tool politically and obviously it's a great marketing tool."

Not that you can accuse her of not having a go. Married to director Taylor Hackford for 17 years, the couple lived together for a decade before tying the knot and while Mirren has no children of her own, she figured that Facebook would be a great way of keeping in touch with younger family members.

"I went on Facebook for about 24 hours," she laughs, looking as glamorous and chic as ever, sporting a trendy short white haircut.

"I travel a lot and I wanted to be in touch and obviously it's very much a young person's thing so I thought it would be a great tool to stay in touch but I found very rapidly, literally within 24 hours, that it was just so intrusive and I didn't want strangers wanting to become my friends."

Admittedly, privacy is the key issue here because she's actually genuinely thrilled by other advances in technology: "It's amazing isn't it, technology," she says, picking up my iPhone which I'm using to record our interview.

"It's interesting, in my position, watching the technology change from the little Walkman-type recorders and the paranoia if they were working or not and here we are now. It's amazing.

"It's one of the reasons I would love to live to be 150, simply because the technology, as it changes, is so mesmerising and exciting. Like GPS. Don't you find GPS the most miraculous thing? And I can't get over barcodes, when they swipe something and it knows that it's a can of baked beans. How does it know?"

Baked beans, however, were the last thing on her mind when she relocated to Tarn-et-Garonne in France to play Madame Mallory, the haughty chef proprietress of a Michelin-starred classical French restaurant in The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Based on Richard C. Morais' beloved bestselling novel, produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg and directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the story takes a curry versus coq au vin twist when an Indian family set up their own restaurant across the street, resulting in a culture clash.

Mirren admits she's not much of a cook although she was delighted to finally achieve her dream of being a French actress.

Fluent in French - as a young woman she had a French boyfriend, later living in Paris for six months in her 20s - she finally bought a home in Provence 20 years ago.

"I've always had a British sort of love affair with France and certainly when I was growing up in my teens, the French just seemed to be the coolest, chic-est people on the planet and I desperately wanted to be French. And I got myself a French boyfriend, and that was the closest I could get to it," she laughs. "I was 14, and I still know him, and I forced my very bad schoolgirl French upon him.

"I did try to become a French actress at one point, renting a little garret on the top of a house on the Left Bank and it was very bohemian and it was a six-flight walk-up, and I thought I would literally go to Paris and just sit there until I became a French actress."

"But of course, sometimes life won't let you do what you want to do and I kept being offered work in England, which I had to take to pay for the garret in France.

"So that's what I loved about playing Madame Mallory, that I could pretend I was a French actress for the first time in my life."

Mirren has played just about every imaginable role, including countless Shakespearean stage productions to a CIA assassin in Red, an Israeli Mossad agent in The Debt, a sadistic history teacher in Teaching Mrs Tingle, an editor in State of Play and Alfred Hitchcock's wife in a biopic of the famed director.

Celebrated for her role as TV detective Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, she's the only actress to have portrayed both queens Elizabeth, playing Elizabeth I in 2005 TV series Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II in The Queen, more recently playing Elizabeth II again in The Audience for which she won an Olivier award.

She was born Helen Lydia Mironoff in London. Her father was a Russian immigrant, giving her a unique insight into racial tolerance.

Years ago she had two interlocking Vs tattooed on her left hand, once explaining it away as a youthful impulse, although tattoo artists have long recognised it as a symbol of tolerance.

"My tattoo represents 'love thy neighbour' which is that something can be totally different from you but have equal value to you, and it's very hard for people to grasp that," she explains today.

"Anyone who's different is devalued because they're not like us, so they've got to be less important. I do think 'love thy neighbour' is one of the hardest of the Ten Commandments to follow. This film is a good example because when my character's neighbour plays loud music and cooks curry and she doesn't like the smell of it, it becomes quite hard to love thy neighbour."

The Hundred-Foot Journey resonated with her own experiences, growing up in East London where her dad worked as a cab driver even though he'd been a top-level diplomat while in Russia.

"I think this movie is about learning to embrace and welcome one other and to live with each other because that's what we all have to do. I take my hat off to my city, London, which has become one of the most diverse cities in the world."

The Hundred-Foot Journey opens on Thursday.

The West Australian

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