Helen Mirren: “I’ve been on a diet my whole life”

"I do 12 minutes of exercise a day, it's called the Royal Canadian Air Force Workout. I'm going to bring it back into fashion!" says The Hundred-Foot Journey actress

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I love food, I love to eat, and above all I love to eat with people. It’s about bonding — and nowhere is that more noticeable than with the connection between food and romance. How many relationships were made over food? 

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What’s the first thing you do on a date? You go out to dinner and then you watch like a hawk what and how the other person is eating. And if your date leans over and says, “Can I try that?” and without waiting for a yes or no makes a grab for your plate, then you know this guy’s not The One. You get fat in the first few months of a relation- ship because you’re so happy and you’re eating together a lot – and when it ends you go on the heartbreak diet, when you lose two stone in a week.

There is one scene in my new film, The Hundred-Foot Journey, in which my character, Madame Mallory, holds a wilted asparagus and says, “This food is not a tired marriage, it’s a passionate affair”, which is a great line. I don’t think you can make a literal connection with sex but certainly food is incredibly important to human relationships and mutual enjoyments.

My parents went to Bertorelli’s in Charlotte Street when they first met, which, pre-war, was one of the few Italian restaurants in London. In England then, food was meat and two veg, so Italian was exotic. While many might have thought: “Spaghetti? How can you eat that foreign muck?” But my parents were experimental about their food. 

My father was Russian. He came to Britain when he was two years old, but there was always a bit of a Russian influence in his food. My mum would make Russian dishes when I was a child. She made great Borscht – beetroot soup – and a kind of cabbage pie. It sounds horrible but it was delicious! My mum made them beautifully.

They fell in love at Bertorelli’s. If it wasn’t for Bertorelli’s spaghetti, I doubt whether I would exist. My husband [American film director Taylor Hackford] and I love funky local restaurants. We do go for very beautiful grand dinners and we love them, but it’s not something that I would want to do more than once or twice a year. I want it to be a special treat, memorable. Usually, I just love the wonderful hole-in-the- wall restaurants. Wherever we are in the world, they are the types of places we seek out. We just drove across the south of the United States, from New Orleans to Charleston. We would stop in these towns and we would eat at the all-you- can-eat buffet restaurants.

There’s always one, called Momma Dot’s or Sugar’s or Mandy’s, and it’s almost always run by an incredible black lady, who cooks incredible food! Gravy, macaroni cheese, black-eyed peas – and always fried chicken. That was all we ate. 

We’re the same at home. We eat locally (home is in Wapping, east London). I wouldn’t go into town specifically for dinner. The Ivy of somewhere like that is great for after work or after a show – that’s important for actors, because you can’t eat before and do a show on a full stomach. But after a show you’re like: “God, let’s have a drink and talk about how terrible the audience were!” or, “Let’s talk about how wonderful the audience were!”

When I’m away filming, I always take tea- bags and Marmite. That’s all I need, although I’ll occasionally take some porridge oats. The curious thing is that when I’m away from England, the cuisine I crave is Indian food. My husband and I, when we come back from filming abroad or from holiday, our first port of call is the Lahore restaurant just off the Commercial Road. In a weird way, Indian food has become British food, my home food. 

The Hundred-Foot Journey (in cinemas nationwide from Friday 5 September) is about a French chef competing with an Indian chef who moves into the restaurant opposite in a French village. They argue about which is best: passionate, fiery Indian food or refined, elegant French food. If I was going out for a big birthday dinner, I would choose a French restaurant. But on a Wednesday night, “Let’s go to the Lahore.” Each is an incredibly different but wonderful part of our lives and culture. Vive la difference! 

The catering on set was great. It generally is in France, they take lunch very seriously. In America, the catering is all about the snacks. You have to be careful, otherwise you get fat, and by the end of shooting the movie they have to keep letting out your costumes, which is really embarrassing. In France, there are no snacks but you sit down to a fabulous lunch. It’s the wine you have to watch out for there. We had to be very careful before our afternoon scenes – no second glass!

I certainly can’t eat what I like. I’ve been on a diet my whole life! Do I have body hang-ups? Of course I do. We all do. We’re all in a constant state of struggle. I do 12 minutes of exercise a day, it’s called the Royal Canadian Air Force Workout and it’s really good. I’m going to bring it back into fashion! It really works… if you stick to it. But I do it for three days and then I don’t do it.

I’m a useless cook. Seriously. For me, it’s always accidental. Occasionally, I will cook something fabulous, and then I can never remember how the hell I made it. Usually I say, “Maybe I’ll put a little mustard in here” or, “I’ve got some coriander seeds, I’ll chuck those in” without thinking. And then it’s fantastic and I can never remember why. Movies are the same. You can put all kinds of wonderful ingredients into it, but you never really know if the thing is going to come together. The proof is in the watching. 

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The Hundred-Foot Journey is out in UK cinemas today