“I’m not a foodie,” confesses Fionulla Flanagan, an admission that may have meant that the margaritas served in aloe vera leaves and the elegantly arranged crudités being passed around the set of her latest film “Tasting Menu” held less interest for her than for the film’s target audience.
Yet that hasn’t stopped the regal Irish actress from calling her time spent off the coast of Barcelona “delicious,” once again finding her own way to cook in the comedy from Spanish director Roger Gual. Set during the closing dinner service of a famed gastonomical palace called Chakula (not unlike the real and now retired El Bulli on the Catalonian coast), “Tasting Menu” doesn’t just serve up a prix fixe of fancy dishes, but dishy characters amongst the 30 people lucky enough to be seated for the final meal. This includes a couple whose reservation to the restaurant outlasted their marriage (Jan Cornet and Claudia Bassols), a pair of Japanese businessmen interested in buying the place (Togo Igawa and Akihiko Serikawa), an enigmatic patron who may or may not be a food critic (Stephen Rea), and a widow (Flanagan) who sits across from her husband’s ashes at supper, hoping her sorrows will be carried away with the plates.
Just like the disparate ingredients the restaurant’s head chef Mar (Vicenta N’Dongo) brings together, the storylines comingle in pleasing ways, with Flanagan in particular adding a bit of spice to the mix as a woman may have trouble getting out of bed at the start of the film but finds herself creeping into the affairs of the divorcing couple at the next table. Shortly before the film’s release, she spoke of how she found her way into Gual’s ensemble for “Tasting Menu,” the one food find she brought back home and why her favorite recipe remains good writing.
What attracted you to this film?
Two things: Roger Gual who wrote and directed it also wrote and directed “Smoking Room,” which won him a Goya. That was his first film, and that was so brilliantly executed that I thought, “I’d like to work with this man.” The second thing was they’re going to shoot it in Costa Brava, and it’s a beautiful place, so what’s wrong with that?
It’s not really remarked upon, but your character starts the film bedridden and gradually finds her legs. Was physicality something that helped you get into the role?
I think her main disability is loneliness – she’s been horrendously lonely. She’s one of these people who has been told she’s ill by her doctor, so she tries to live up to that. Once she steps out into the world and finally agrees to go to this dinner that she wants to go to — that involves her in the lives of other people — that’s what breaks the loneliness cycle and she’s able to be freed from the past. It doesn’t mean that she hadn’t loved [her husband], but she’s under no illusions and through her journey, she’s able to help someone else, a younger woman. She’s freed up from her own burdens and her own resentments and being frozen in place, as it were, with this urn. I mean, who wants to live with ashes all their lives?
It appears as if the main dinner sequence, which makes up the bulk of the film, was shot with the camera roving from table to table, meaning you had to be in character even if the focus wasn’t on you. Did you have to be present at all times during those scenes?
We all had to be present for a lot of them because you never knew who was going to be seen in the background. Although Roger was very generous and shifted us around so we didn’t have to sit there all day, we did have to be there, be seen, in case the camera caught us in the room. My table was pretty close to the table of the young lovers, so I was present in the dining room for those scenes when he was focusing on them, listening to everything and plotting how I was going to interfere in their lives.
What’s it like to have food as such a prominent co-star, and such unusual food like cacti cocktails at that?
They were only tiny little portions because after all, it is a tasting menu, it’s not a full dinner, but yes, we ate big leaves, and that’s always interesting, trying to look graceful while you’re pouring something off a leaf into your mouth. It doesn’t always work, but I think it serves the piece well. He had some very imaginative things in glasses and on little sticks and on leaves. He’s actually a wonderful chef, and he gave me a box of roasted sea salt, which I so liked when he used it on the dishes and I said, “what on Earth is that, it tastes delicious?” I’m down to the very end of it, so I’ll just have to go back and visit his restaurant all over again.
You’ve said this was the happiest shoot you’ve been on. Was there a particularly great day on set?
It was all-around happy. I loved the whole Catalan crew, I loved Roger, and the hotel we were using for the shoot was right on the beach. I was swimming every day. It was a beautiful, beautiful place. And I made lots of friends in the cast. Normally, you finish a picture and you all hug and you say you’ll be friends forever, but it doesn’t work that way. On this particular picture, there were several people that I really stayed friends with. That was terrific for me.
You also said when asked if there was an actor you’d most want to work with, Stephen Rea, who is in this film, but you didn’t really get a scene with him. Was it a slight disappointment?
I was delighted to spend time with him. We’ve known each other for years and we meet occasionally at various galas in Ireland. We have many friends in common, but we’ve never actually worked together, so I was delighted when I saw he was going to be in this. All we had in this was a glance, but you know a glance can tell you an awful lot.
Having done so many incredible things throughout your career, is there anything that gets you particularly excited these days about the work that you do?
What gets me excited is good writing. Good writing will carry it all the time for me. That’s why I think shows like “Brotherhood,” which I was fortunate to do for three seasons — Blake Masters and Henry Bromell were brilliant writers and what saved the show was high quality. We all, as actors, had something really great, meat-and-potatoes, to work with every day. And it was about something. It’s about what’s happening to industrialization and towns like Providence in America where all the jobs have been shipped overseas and people are out of work and [how it leads to] corruption in the legislature, corruption within the police force, corruption just on the street. It was very telling, and it was all how a tribe will stick together, so I thought it was an important piece to do and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Then [in films] like “TransAmerica,” which I did for Duncan Tucker, who was a first-time director, and “Some Mother’s Son, which was Terry George’s first film out of the box as a director were about something that mattered. [“Some Mother’s Son”] was a watershed in Irish history, the hunger strikes and the Maze Prison in the north of Ireland in the 80s, when ten men died one by one and Margaret Thatcher let them die – it was about something in our history. So there have been certain pieces of work that mean something and I’ve been fortunate to get to do some of those. But it always starts with the writing. If it ain’t on the page, it’s never going to be on the screen.
“Tasting Menu” opens on April 18th in Los Angeles at the Music Hall, the Encino Town Center and the Monica 4-Plex and in New York at the Quad Cinema. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.