Salma Hayek: One-Woman Heat Wave
Salma Hayek came to Hollywood in 1995 with Robert Rodriguez’s action flick, Desperado. For the next couple of years, her movie roles played up her sex appeal. With the romantic comedy, Fools Rush In, Hayek wanted to show she was capable of more than heating up the screen. In the Ferbruary 1997 issue of Movieline, Hayek explained shared her thoughts on the Hollywood party scene, how she cried while filming her love scene with Antonio Banderas and paid costar Matthew Perry some backhanded compliments.
In the chic, minimalist Beverly Hills restaurant where we sit, Salma Hayek is anything but minimalist. Wearing black slacks, a black leather jacket and a smiley-face T-shirt that says “Face Lift,” she’s immoderately stunning. And she is warm and assertive in inverse relationship to her tiny size. Hayek is, of course, the Mexican actress who, without a single mainstream hit to her credit, has scored big in Hollywood, thanks to her screen-scorching turn opposite Antonio Banderas in Desperado, as well as such memorable moments as her high heeled encounter with George Clooney’s chest in From Dusk Till Dawn, and her slow-burn combustibility with Laurence Fishburne in Fled. Having abandoned the womb of immense Latin American stardom (based on two fiendishly successful prime time Mexican soaps) to stake her claim to stateside stardom in 1991, Hayek now leads the pack of gifted Latinas who have spiked fuego in notoriously white bread Hollywood.
Having most definitely arrived with a flourish, Hayek herself is well aware that she’d better step out and reveal a Salma who can do more than torch the screen, or she’ll find herself mired in a contemporary version of the typecasting ruts that trapped such vintage Hollywood exotics as Raquel Torres, Dolores Del Rio and Lupe Velez. Those who believe Hayek possesses the chops to be a thinking man’s sex symbol point as proof to an epic she returned in 1995 to Mexico to make, El Callejon de los Milagros, which won her huge acclaim, broke box office records and has become the most honored movie in Mexican film history. But non-Latin audiences so far have only her wry, carnal sex-bomb performances to judge by, and so have a skewed notion of what Hayek’s about. And doesn’t she know it!
“Now, I don’t want to be like one of those actors who talk about themselves in the third person, which people do a lot here, because that’s very scary,” she observes in her scratchy Claudia Cardinale voice. “But let’s talk about who Americans think I am, which has been: sexy girl. This, to me, is a game, a game I enjoy playing, even though it is a risky game. The public wants fantasy and that is what the game is about, really. I came into this business with a sort of permission to create a fantasy, an illusion that’s much bigger than anyone or anything can really be.”
“If they think of me now as very sophisticated and sexy, I may complain about it, but the truth is, I came to America because I didn’t want to be a soap star in Mexico for the rest of my life, and I took my first opportunities, which were a lot of sexy women roles. When I do a photo shoot, I’m in a gown, my hair is perfect, my eyes are perfect and I’m often being photographed in a home that belongs to somebody else. But inside, I know I’m the same person that I’ve been since I was born, the same person who used to play on her bicycle on dirt roads in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. I know that when I’m alone in my one-bedroom, messy apartment that I’ve had since I’ve moved here, I’m likely to have pimple medicine all over my face and be wearing some ridiculous old pair of pajamas. I have the same car that I bought a year after I got here. But I do this other stuff and give a long laugh because I love to play ‘movie star.’ But I never think, ‘I am Salma–movie star!’ I think people here are a little bit too much into this image that I have, but I put it out there. To be perfectly honest, I used it.”
Used it to what end, exactly? “I’m going to do the kinds of roles I want to be doing and give up the sexier parts,” Hayek asserts. “People may not want me as much in those kinds of roles. I may not be as popular, but that’s the price you pay, and, right now, I’m willing to pay the price. Of course, I’m still young, and I could find that what I really want is to be popular and to just keep wearing dresses slit up to there, you know?”
Hayek mulls this one for a moment, tongues honey from her fingertip and shakes her head, laughing at herself, then declares playfully, “No, I don’t think it’s possible for me to keep wearing dresses slit up to there and to keep playing those roles. For one thing, I refuse to go to the gym and to not eat. I have tried to be that person. It’s not me. I become cranky, bitchy and unhappy, so what’s the point? I’m not willing to spend six hours in the gym every day, let alone give up food, which is life’s second greatest pleasure. So, that means I really need to become an artist, a real actress.”
Well, fine, but before much of the world’s male moviegoing population despairs at the prospect of never again seeing Hayek cut loose in a dress slit up to there, I must bring up the Desperado scene in which she cavorted in no dress at all. What in the name of salsa picante was with that much-vaunted “hot” love scene in which her romp with Antonio Banderas was edited in rapid cuts that packed all the erotic heat of a car commercial?
Hayek laughs nervously. “I couldn’t do the scene,” she admits. “My fault, completely. They’d give me something to do for two seconds and I couldn’t handle it. What you saw in the movie was pretty much the only footage they got. I started crying doing it and I couldn’t stop. All I could think about the whole time was my family. ‘Oh, my God, what is my father going to think? My friends? Are my brother’s friends going to tease him into fistfights?’ I felt like I’d betrayed them. When we were doing the press junkets for the movie, I blamed Antonio and said, ‘Antonio was clumsy,’ or ‘He hit me with the guitar.’ He finally got upset, going, ‘You know, saying that is not good for the image of the character, the mariachi,’ and, ‘I’m going to tell everybody the truth–that you cried during the love scene and it wasn’t me at all.’ I finally said, ‘I’ll tell them myself! I don’t care!’ But I didn’t, really. And I’m sorry. When I saw the film with my family and that scene was coming up, I made my father leave. But they were great about it. They said, ‘We know who you are, forever. We know how hard you’ve worked for this. If there’s one group of people you don’t have to worry about, it’s us, because we know you.” As she says this, Hayek’s eyes actually brim with tears.
The Catholic sensibilities of Hayek’s parents should be far less assaulted by their daughter’s turn in the upcoming romantic comedy-drama Fools Rush In, in which she stars with Friends heartthrob Matthew Perry. There is sex and romance–she’s not playing a woman on death row, mind you– but her character is no tamale. “I really think this film can change my life,” she declares. “It’s the first time in America I’ve gotten a chance to really work with a character. The movie is really funny, sexy, sweet and really sad.” The screenplay, about a couple who meet, marry impulsively, have a baby, and actually fall in love, was not, in the beginning, to Hayek’s liking. She recalls: “I told [the filmmakers] it was vulgar, ridiculous and insulting to Mexicans.” Most of Hayek’s suggestions for script changes were accommodated by the time shooting began. Did she have it her way with costar Perry, too? “At the beginning of shooting, I didn’t understand Matthew’s sense of humor,” says Hayek.
“I mean, here it is five a.m. and you’re on the set and the star says, ‘Pee!,’ and 20 people laugh hysterically because he’s the star. And it’s so early and all so boring. I’m staggering around like, ‘Shut the fuck up! I just woke up,’ you know? And he’s going around making faces, doing all sorts of cutesy things, making nonsense noises and everyone is just laughing madly. Let’s say the Mexican sense of humor didn’t register it. Finally, he came up to me and said, ‘Do you, like, hate me totally?’ I said, ‘You’re absolutely adorable. What are you talking about?’ and he said, ‘Well, you never laugh at my jokes.’ I told him, ‘I think you’re very funny, even if I don’t laugh. But, I’ll let you know next time, OK?’ So, every time he’d say something clever, I’d say: ‘That was funny.'”
Hmmm, I’m guessing that if these two actually heated each other up offscreen back then, as journalists hinted, the heat’s off now. “I do have to say, though,” continues Hayek, “that Matthew is very, very clever–for his age, especially.” Meaning? “I hadn’t worked with anybody who had everything so figured out before he got there. He was really smart about taking the script and finding out where the jokes were. I try to live the moment. Comedians study their scripts, going, ‘Dot-dot-dot, joke here, dot-dot-dot, joke there, I do this line up, I do this line down.’ I was lost at the beginning. It worked out great with Matthew, though. It was a perfect balance, somehow, because it was what the characters were about. My character is a lot more sensitive, centered, with a lot of emotions and a different depth to her. With his character, everything is on the surface– he’s funny, sarcastic and really a jerk. So, I say they did a hell of a job with the casting.”
Because the film is a romantic comedy, she and Perry do kiss in it. I ask how Hayek would rate him, along with such other costars as Antonio Banderas, Laurence Fishburne and Russell Crowe, with whom she stars in the upcoming independent film Breaking Up. “All of them have been good kissers, but you tend to judge these things with your head when it’s for a movie, which is not what you do with a real kiss,” she observes.
“Laurence kissed me the way his character was supposed to. Antonio really kissed me because his character really kissed me. Matthew really kissed me–a lot. He’s one terrific kisser. I must tell you that this English actor that I worked with on [TNT’s] The Hunchback, Edward Atterton, who plays the poet Gringoire, well, I couldn’t kiss him enough. He’s absolutely beautiful and of all the actors I’d want to go back and kiss some more, it would be him. By the end of the movie, I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, I wish we could just kiss and kiss.’ He has a girlfriend, so I had to keep my mouth shut. But the one person in a movie that I got into kissing the most was Russell Crowe. He completely throws himself into the character and you can’t escape him. He was like, ‘Aarrrrgghhh!’– absolutely there.”
Hayek is just as emphatic about the movie she and Crowe made together. She describes the small-budget Breaking Up, which is about a couple who can’t live together or apart, as “the number one script I fell in love with after Desperado. Once I fall in love, that’s the end of it. See, right after I finished the movie with Antonio, I didn’t have a job for the longest time until it came out. When Desperado opened, I was offered some commercial things, but I didn’t think they were that great to begin with. This small film I really wanted to do.”
For all the heat on-screen and in her career, Hayek appears to be one of those knockouts who spends, at least at the moment, many nights at home ordering in and reading scripts or watching American Movie Classics.
“Listen, I don’t think I’m going to find anybody in this city, where everyone is too hectic, too unhappy about where they are in life,” she tells me, dropping her voice from scratchy Cardinale to throbbingly contralto Sophia Loren, while daintily dipping a fingertip into the honey jar again, and slipping it into her mouth. “I must say, though, that I’m not going to have a boyfriend until I find one who has bigger balls than I do. So, I’m going to have to be checking, looking around to make certain first.” With that, she lifts herself up slightly over the table to ease a playful, judgmental glance below my belt, then casts a surreptitious gaze at the crotches of waiters passing by, in a knowing parody of the way guys check out women’s anatomies. We’re both laughing.
“I’m going to make a confession to you I’ve never made before,” she says. “I try to be–no, I am–very independent. I’m the easiest girl in the world to get rid of. If you don’t call me once when you say you will or if I don’t think you’re calling enough, I think you’re not interested and I just walk away. I’m tough like that. The truth of the matter is, though, I am sort of needy–I just don’t show it. I would really like to find someone.”
What sort of someone? “I never want it to be someone in the movie business.” she says, sighing, “but, then again, I want somebody who will understand the things that go on in this business. I mean, this career is crazy. Sometimes I think I have met someone who is like what I’m looking for, but they turn out to be not right at all. The better I do, the tougher it’s getting to be because the guys who aren’t making as much money or aren’t as successful as me get uncomfortable about that. The guys who are making as much money or are as successful as me are, in my experience, really, really screwed up. Or else they always want something bigger, something better. I was spoiled by Mama, I was spoiled by Papa. I hope to God I keep being spoiled by every man I meet in my life. I’ve never been into being spoiled materially, but I’m getting older and I think it’s about time I gave it a try.”
To further her effort, has Hayek gotten caught up at all in this town’s relentless, all-fun-all-the-time party scene? “I went once to a party at a bar on Sunset,” she says. “There were so many girls in little, tiny outfits looking around with hungry eyes. The men weren’t looking at these women as if saying, ‘How beautiful.’ They had no respect, no love. I was not impressed. This was not a party at all–this felt like a market.” Not a market, obviously, at which Hayek would find the right sort of person. “I don’t want the pressure on my back of ‘I’m looking for someone.’ I like to go out with my friends and all, but if I meet someone, when it happens, it happens. Look, I’m going to admit something else: I’m not going to be picky anymore. I just want someone that’s nice to me, doesn’t have that many complications in his life, someone who doesn’t drive me crazy, who doesn’t try too hard to make himself interesting to me, someone who isn’t afraid of me.”
Afraid of the woman who had the moxie to leave stardom in Latin America and spend a solid year and a half studying English in preparation for a Hollywood career? Or afraid of the woman who had the strength to pass up, after Desperado, the lead in a $70 million movie to instead do a tiny independent movie that only recently found a distributor? Or afraid of the woman who appeared on a magazine cover clad in a froth of whipped cream and a $1 million Cartier diamond ring? Or afraid of the actress who plays characters like Santanico Pandemonium, the vampire who enslaved George Clooney by growling, “You will eat bugs, you will be my slave”?
Just on the off chance a guy this ballsy may not be waiting offscreen on every street corner, I ask Hayek which one of her costars might be most like her ideal. “You’re going to think I’m crazy,” she asserts, laughing. “Richard Harris made The Hunchback with me. I could die from Richard Harris. I heard terrible, terrible things about working with him, but nobody on that movie was more loved by the time we finished. I’m finding that Irish people and Mexicans have a lot of things in common. Most of the other actors that I have worked with are very smart, very cool, very professional, very diplomatic. Not Richard Harris. If there was a problem, he was either on one side or another. I love that about a man. He is magnificent, passionate beyond explanation, with such vigor, such convictions, always there to listen to you, to tell you brilliant stories. This I know is the kind of man that, under different times and circumstances, would be dangerous. If I found somebody like that, somebody of my age, I would fall for him immediately.”
I’m curious about how Hayek’s family, which includes a Lebanese businessman father, a sometime-singer mom and a younger brother, views her. What’s it like for a father and mother to rear such a willful knockout? Is it true, for instance, that she announced she would go on academic strike and fail her classes unless her parents let her study in a Catholic girls school in Texas? She nods. “When I got there, I made a lot of problems. Innocent problems, not vicious things, but problems. I was a nightmare. I got expelled, but, even when I left, they gave me a medal for being the most spirited.” She declines to elaborate upon just how nightmarish or spirited she was, but she insists she possessed then, and has now, deep religious faith. “I’ve felt God standing right next to me,” she says quietly. “I’ve never seen Him, but I have felt Him. I have a great relationship with God. I’m not very religious–I’ve committed a lot of sins in my life that go against the Catholic church. I don’t go to Mass every Sunday, but I think He likes me. God is very, very generous to me and I’m very grateful for it.”
In speaking of her family, her faith and her heritage, Hayek reminds me of one of these Catholic girls who’d mess with me after catechism but never missed Sunday communion. “Being my father is a tough job– although he says it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. My parents supported me when I wanted to come here, even though they were terribly worried for me.” Now Hayek appears to have an entire nation of surrogate parents who’d do more than worry for her. “There is a pride many people in Mexico seem to feel that puts an immense amount of pressure on my back. It sounds selfish, but I came here because it was a personal dream. In a way, for Mexicans, it’s turned into a collective dream. People come up to me there and here and say, ‘Yes! You represent our country.’ In the back of my mind, I did wish that if something happened with my career, it would inspire a lot of people. This thing about, ‘You have to keep it up, you have to rise higher,’ puts pressure on me. What if I make a terrible choice? What if I’m trashed by the media? They would take it personally if I failed.”
“I understand this, of course, because of the terrible financial, social and political situation there, they need somebody that comes from there to get wider recognition. Coming from a history of abuse, we have very low national self-esteem. We’ve become masters at taking abuse. We also grew up in the shadow of a giant next to us, to whom we looked up. When I first came here, I did several public service announcements trying to convince people who came legally to the States to learn English. It broke my heart to discover that most Mexicans didn’t think they were even good enough to speak the same language as these tall, blonde, blue-eyed people. It’s very tough to come out of that cycle, but for the first time, at least we’re saying, ‘We’re not taking any more of this.’ ”
How does she feel being in the forefront of a group of Latina actresses who, say many in Hollywood, may be the very next Big Thing in movies? Is she at all competitive with, say, Jennifer Lopez, who snagged the lead in the biomovie of the slain Tejano singer Selena and the sizzler role in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn? “I passed on Selena because, though I’m sure it’s going to be a big hit, it’s unnecessary, maybe redundant. I mean, she just died, she’s still very present.” What about Elpidia Carrillo, chosen by fledgling director Johnny Depp to star opposite him in The Brave? “Elpidia I really respect,” says Hayek. “I think there’s something really special about her. She’s the best thing in some films I’ve seen her in. I really like Elizabeth Pena, too, because she has strength and smartness. I became Maria Conchita Alonso’s and Sonia Braga’s number one fan, because when they came here, there really were no parts for Latinas. The more we do our work well, the more parts there will be for all of us. I’m very competitive, but not that competitive.” Hayek thinks about this a moment, then breaks out in a wicked laugh, adding, “I’m not going to be a hypocrite. Probably if I were still down there auditioning for parts and not getting them, I would hate their fucking guts–every one of them.”
Now that she’s taking on the challenge of solidifying a Hollywood career, how does Hayek size up her skills and attributes? “I have gotten a lot more attention than some of the other women that I find incredibly beautiful. And this has happened to me ever since I was a girl, when I was flat, had no teeth, was skinny and small as I could be. I always got more attention than anyone else. If I hadn’t, I would have made sure I did. But there is also a relationship some people can establish with the camera that others can’t. It’s got nothing to do with talent. It’s nothing you’ve earned. I learned in Mexico that the lens likes me, but I kept thinking, ‘I’m famous, but am I good?’ It wasn’t enough for me to be famous. Now, I’m trying more and more to be good at what I do.”
Stephen Rebello interviewed Teri Hatcher for the October ’96 issue of Movieline.