tasting-menu-posterI had the sublime treat yesterday of sitting down for a leisurely lunch with Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan to discuss her new film, Tasting Menu. In Roger Gual’s delightful ensemble comedy, Flanagan plays a countess who has her heart set on attending the closing night of one of the world’s greatest restaurants. She had planned to go back to this restaurant in Catalonia with her husband, but he had died unexpectedly. She feels she owes him this last meal so she grabs his urn and heads to Spain along with an eclectic mix of international patrons. As the talented staff prepares and serves a mind-blowing meal, we learn a lot about the gathered patrons. Among the guests are two Japanese businessman competing to bring the restaurant’s celebrated chef (Vicenta D’Dongo) to Tokyo, a mysterious man dining alone (Stephen Rea) who seems up to no good, and a young couple in the midst of a divorce who made their impossible-to-get reservation before they separated so they decide to meet one last time. Will the countess succeed in helping the couple rekindle their romance? Will the chef of this mouth-watering establishment create the perfect finale to her career? Get ready to drool while you watch this film — I wanted to eat that food more than anything in the world.

My Los Angeles lunch with Fionnula did not offer such exotic fare but we did enjoy our delicious Moroccan lamb burgers with lemon cucumber yogurt, picked red onion and wild arugula. I’ve admired the actress’s work since I first saw her perform James Joyce’s Women. Considered one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Joyce, Flanagan has also starred in movies such as Transamerica, The Others, Some Mother’s Son, Waking Ned Devine and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. She has appeared in TV series including Rich Man, Poor Man; Murder, She Wrote; How the West Was Won; three of the Star Trek spin-offs (Deep Six Nine, The Next Generation and Enterprise) as well as playing a recurring character on Lost.

Danny Miller: I have to say that I love hearing your beautiful accent. I’m feeling very Irish lately because I got to see the wonderful Maureen O’Hara in person last weekend at the TCM Classic Film Festival where they screened John Ford’s The Quiet Man and How Green Was My Valley and now I get to talk to you.

Fionnula Flanagan: Ah, I know Maureen very well. I remember when I was about 10 we used to go the turf bank outside of Dublin — where you could go to cut turf, or peat, and  let it dry to use in fires. I remember being up there and discovering this cottage that they had built as an exterior for The Quiet Man. My friends and I would say, “Look at that. What a terrible builder — just three walls, there’s no back at all to this house!” (Laughs.) But you know, I have to be honest and tell you that I always hated that movie because I thought it was a dreadful depiction of Ireland — it’s what we used to call the “sure and begorrah” version of the Irish!

But you have to admit that O’Hara and John Wayne had an incredible chemistry in that film.

Oh yes, that part of it was great! Maureen recently moved back to the States but she had been living in Ireland for many years. She started a school there and was very involved. The last time I saw her was when I was honored at her film festival.

You are both Ireland’s gifts to the movies! I thought this film was very charming and I wanted to run directly from the theater to every four-star restaurant in town! But I understand that you don’t consider yourself a foodie?

It’s true, I’m not particularly a foodie, I grew up with pretty simple Irish food! But, you know, I love Catalonia and being there and eating their food is just a joy. Vicenta, who played the chef and restaurant owner in the film took me to so many great restaurants in Barcelona. They were all barrio restaurants, though — tiny little places with a bar in the front and two or three tables in the back. You’d just eat whatever they happened to be making that day.

tastingmenu1Did you actually get to eat that incredible food that we see in the film?

Oh yes. We had a master chef on set making everything for us that you see. I watched him make some of those elaborate dishes. It was like he was handling uranium — the precision that was required was unbelievable. We also had a master sommelier to do all the wines, it was just a fascinating experience.

What was your favorite dish?

There were so many. One thing that I still have at home is this fantastic pot of roasted sea salt. I was admiring it during the filming, it tasted so great, so the chef gave me a pot of it to take with me. I dole it out very sparingly when I have special guests!

I was fascinated by that appetizer that you all had to eat off of that big leaf.

Oh yes, that one was a kind of deconstructed margarita. Delicious! And there were other things we had to drink off leaves, too. You know, when you’re in acting school they never teach you how to drink off of a leaf and look like you know what you’re doing! Our costumer was in a constant state of panic. They would run out with bibs during the rehearsals.

And that amazing dish that you had to crack open with a mallet?

That was some kind of crab thing encased in a hard shell of salt that you had to whack. Unfortunately, you’d just get to taste a little of everything and say your lines and then they’d take it away!

Still, I imagine that craft services on such a film is a cut above the usual bagels and sandwiches!

Oh, there’s nothing wrong with any of the of the food in Catalonia. I was there for about four weeks and we stayed in this gorgeous hotel where we shot some of the film. We ate very well every day.

Who would ever turn down being in this film?


tastingmenu-ffDid you have a hand in creating the character of the countess?

I made a few suggestions. Roger said they wrote the part with me in mind. I loved the idea that her husband had died so she brought his ashes along because she wanted him to be a part of that meal. Of course, I thought the urn would be something much smaller. I had to carry that damn thing around the whole time and it was very heavy!

You must have been relieved when you got to finally dump his ashes.

Yes, but when I hurled them off that cliff they all came back on top of me like in The Big Lebowski! I turned around after that scene and the crew was falling down laughing! I said, “This is ridiculous, let’s do it again, I’m covered in my husband’s ashes!” But the light was going and they didn’t have any more ashes, so that’s what you see.

It was fun to see Stephen Rea in this film. Had you two worked together before?

No, we’d known each other for years but we’d never had the chance to work together. The Irish papers got very excited about us finally doing something together but of course we barely glance at each other in the film.

Oh, I thought you were going to say that the Irish papers were implying something else about the two of you!

(Laughs.) Oh, they’ll get around to that, I’m sure! We had a lot of good fun. Stephen and I would go to the beach and he’d sit on a rock looking mournfully out at the sea.

tastingmenu-3It looked like you all got along so well. Do you tend to bond even more when you’re in a small ensemble piece like this?

You do kind of form a little family when you make a film. You don’t always stay friends when it’s over but I did remain friends with these actors. We’re still in touch.

Did you have any advice for the younger actors in the film?

I think it’s so much harder now to have a career as an actor. I’m so grateful that I grew up in Ireland when I did and got my start on the stage. I think it’s very difficult today. You basically have to be a masochist!

Do you ever get a chance to act in the Irish language these days?

Yes, I did a four-part mini-series for an Irish-language television channel about five years ago that was very fun. It was about this woman called Peig Sayers who lived on Great Blasket Island where no one lives anymore.

Why not?

Because it’s so remote and difficult to get there. Even helicopters have a hard time. So the government evacuated the whole population years ago.

I have to say that I’m fascinated by the Irish language. If I went to Dublin today and walked into a shop, would the young people there be able to speak it?

Not necessarily although it is becoming fashionable again, I’m happy to say. When I was a girl we lived in this housing project and my brother and I had to take the bus to our school in the center of town. We were always getting beaten up by the local kids who’d hear us speaking in Irish. Our school was where most of the old Irish Republican Army families sent their kids because they were the only ones who really valued the language at the time.

I remember a time when Northern Ireland was constantly in the news here but today we don’t hear much about this part of the world.

They just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the signing of the peace process. But as with any war, there are still some hard feelings on both sides. But you know, the border hardly exists anymore, they took down the army posts so you can now drive right into the North. The cross-border relations are wonderful now and this is largely due to one of the Sinn Féin leaders called Martin McGuinness.

Didn’t he run for president?

Yes, he did, but we were all glad he didn’t get it because it would have been such a loss to his party — he’s the Deputy First Minister. Martin recently was at Buckingham Palace with our president, Michael D. Higgins, and a group of people who were invited to meet with the Queen. Martin has done a fantastic job of promoting cross-border relations. He’s been able to do that in a way that nobody else could have — it had to come to the IRA side.

But I’m guessing there are still some people who will never listen to anything he says because of his history?


I’m sure the meeting with the Queen was very controversial in some circles.

I heard him say the other day that the Queen of England had any number of reasons not to meet with him and he had endless reasons not to meet with her but he said that we have to move forward for the sake of our children and our children’s children. And that’s what he’s doing. Even though there are people on both sides who have tragically lost so much, they are all trying to move forward.

I know you’ve done some films that touch on these issues.

Yes. One picture that I’m very proud of was Terry George’s first time out of the box as a director — Some Mother’s Son that I did Helen Mirren. They told the story very well about the hunger strikes.

Have you ever met the Queen yourself?

No, I haven’t had that experience yet. But I don’t think most Irish people have any real antipathy toward the royal family because we see the Queen for what she is: a figurehead and a brand. And she has really reached out. She came to Ireland two years ago and was very well received.

I saw a video of the current president of Ireland giving you a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Film & Television Awards.

Yes, that was very exciting. Michael D. Higgens is such a learned man. He’s a brilliant poet and he’s spoken out on civil rights, on poverty, and on inequality all over the world. He’s very humble, and he behaves just like an ordinary citizen. We saw him last summer in Dublin and I remember he was just crossing the road without any bodyguards or anything.

How often do you get back there?

I go back as often as I can. Ireland will always be home to me. It shaped me and made me who I am.

It’s nice to see that the Irish film industry seems to be flourishing these days.

Yes, it is! I just worked on this wonderful animated film called Song of the Sea that will be out later this year that’s being done by the same people who did the The Secret of Kells.

flanagan-lostI’m also a big fan of your TV work and have to admit that I was a major Lost fanatic. Did you enjoy playing Eloise Hawking on that show?

It’s funny because when I got that part I had never seen the show. Jack Bender, who directed a lot of episodes, sent me the script in the fourth season. I asked him to send me some DVDs so I could see the show and he said, “Oh, don’t bother. If you haven’t seen it from the beginning, it won’t mean anything!” I asked, “Then how do you expect me to play this part?” And Jack said, “Here’s all you need to know: Eloise is the only character in the whole thing who knows what happened in the past and what’s going to happen in the future.” I thought, “Okay, I can play that!”

Did you figure out what was going on once you were on set? 

I kept going up to different actors and asking, “Now who are these people? What’s going on here?” And the actor would say, “You know, I’ve only been on this for two seasons, I’m not really sure!”

There was certainly a lot of controversy over the ending of that series.

I know, and people blame me for that! I constantly get accosted at airports and I remember a man chasing me down Regent Street and grabbing my arm. He said, “That was your photograph on the desk, wasn’t it?” It made me realize what this thing meant to people. But, you know, maybe if enough of you write letters, they’ll do another ending!

Tasting Menu is currently playing in select cities.