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A Minute With: Helen Mirren on allure of playing a Frenchwoman

By Eric Kelsey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Helen Mirren, the Oscar-winning British actress who has played queens, aristocrats and a middle-aged calendar girl, finally got to portray what her heart long desired: a Frenchwoman.

In Walt Disney Co's food romance "The Hundred-Foot Journey," which opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, Mirren dons the steely countenance of Madame Mallory, a proprietor of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Southern France who feuds with the Indian family that takes over the defunct restaurant across the street.

The feel-good tale of cultural and culinary fusion also stars actors Om Puri and Indian-American Manish Dayal, and was made with the backing of Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey as producers.

The 69-year-old Mirren spoke to Reuters about playing a Frenchwoman, how she chooses her roles and why a poorly reviewed film is easier to endure for an actor than a panned play.

Q: What drew you to the film?

A: There were a lot of attractions. The first phone call that came was from Steven Spielberg. It's like that classic moment, (whispers) "Steven Spielberg! Oh, yes!"

And then very rapidly after that came all kinds of goodies: It was being shot in France; I got to play a Frenchwoman - I've always wanted to play a Frenchwoman. It was a wonderful, light, comedic but serious story.

Q: What's so intriguing about playing a Frenchwoman?

A: I speak French very well. I love France. I'm a Francophile. I have worked in France in the theater, and I've always wanted to be a French actress. Not a British or an American actress, I wanted to be French or an Italian actress. I couldn't, so this is the closest I could get.

I like the way the French think of women, and I like the way women are approached in French movies. There seems to be a sophistication, an elegance and a reality and a complexity about female characters in French movies that you don't often find in English-speaking film.

Q: What complexity did you find in your character?

A: Just the fact that she runs a restaurant, she's a woman of substance, she's a very opinionated woman, but she's fundamentally decent but with her very French idea of the correct way to do things. The French can be very strict about what it means to be French. But when in the film that is translated into nationalism or racism, she understands the fault in that.

Q: How do you go about choosing your roles?

A: It depends what I had just done, and usually what I choose to do next is a reaction against what I had just done to try and find something a bit different. Where it is and how good a role it is and who it's with.

Q: Do you have a preference for stage or film work?

A: I prefer film nowadays, just because theater is so bloody exhausting and all-consuming and you can't go anywhere or do anything and it seems endless ... Every two or three years I've made sure I do theater again because it's too scary if you leave it for too long, you just lose your nerve.

Q: Why is theater so unnerving?

A: The good thing is that if a film gets terrible reviews, you say, 'Well, it's not my fault.' In theater, you have to step up and go out there and do it, good reviews or bad reviews. That's psychologically tough. I love film. I love the fact that you really have no idea whether it's working or not.

Q: Are there differences working on U.S. and British films?

A: Not really. The costume person is the same in France, Italy, Germany, Australia. The grip is the same guy. The cinematographer always wears a leather jacket, male or female, always. They're the same characters. It's funny. And the journalists always look like you.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Ken Wills)

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