navigate @ newsstand
latest news & archive
articles & interviews
magazine rack
rewind 2001 2000
tv schedule

articles & interviews

Salma Hayek Changing the Rules

By Kevin McDonough
Source: Biography Magazine

Sometimes you have to give up a sure thing to follow your dreams. Just ask Salma Hayek. She said adios to her native Mexico and the lead role in the hit soap Teresa to pursue the fantasy she'd had since childhood of starring in movies. After a few years of obscurity, she seduced Hollywood with her dark beauty, flawless comic timing, volcanic sensuality, and an intelligence that shines through every performance.

Hayek has shared steamy love scenes with some of filmdom's leading men, including Antonio Banderas, George Clooney, and Will Smith. At the same time she has worked with a list of directors that reads like a Who's Who of the independent film revolution (Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Mike Figgis), and become a busy producer in her own right. If versatility is a virtue, then Salma Hayek is very, very good indeed.

Born on September 2, 1968, in the oil boomtown of Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, Hayek has freely admitted that she and her brother Sami were spoiled rotten by her Lebanese businessman father and her Mexican-born opera-singing mother. How spoiled? As a child, Salma cajoled her father into buying her a series of pet tigers. She kept her favorite, Rambo, in the house until he died in an accident she remains reluctant to discuss.

Despite such extravagances, Hayek recalls Coatzacoalcos as a small city where rich and poor mingled easily. She remembers going to dingy movie theaters where she often sat next to the man who shined her father's shoes. It was in one such cinema that she first saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and decided she wanted to be an actress. "Why," she asked herself, "would anyone want to do anything else in life?"

Hayek's education included a stint at a New Orleans convent school, where she pulled pranks on the nuns by setting their clocks back three hours. She was soon expelled. Only after attending Mexico City's Universidad Iberoamericana did she feel ready to pursue acting seriously. "I never committed to anything until acting," she's told reporters.

Hayek's effect on audiences was immediate and intense. When she played Jasmine in a regional theater production of Aladdin, boys cried out for her and even climbed on stage. Aladdin led to an appearance in the soap opera Nuevo Amanecer and, ultimately, the lead in Teresa.

In 1989 Hayek and the brazenly campy and melodramatic Teresa—a poor but audacious 18-year-old social climber who would stop at nothing to get rich—became Mexican media sensations. When Hayek performed in the Alan Ayckbourn stage comedy Bedroom Farce, soap opera fans besieged the stage calling for their beloved Teresa. Fearful of being typecast, and anxious to make films, Hayek left both Teresa and Mexico in 1991. Heartbroken fans spread rumors that she was having a secret affair with Mexico's president and left to escape his wife's wrath.

The 22-year-old actress approached Hollywood with naive enthusiasm. She studied dramatics with the legendary teacher Stella Adler and learned English by practicing scenes from Shakespeare. However, she soon found that her Mexican celebrity counted for little in the American film industry where actresses were often relegated to playing menials, mistresses, and prostitutes. By late 1992 Hayek had landed only bit parts. She made her American TV debut as the wife of a gang member on the syndicated drama Street Justice, appeared on The Sinbad Show, Nurses, and as a sexy maid on the HBO series Dream On. She also had one line in the Allison Anders film Mi Vida Loca.

Feeling under-appreciated by Anglo filmmakers, Hayek vented her frustrations on comedian Paul Rodriguez's late-night Spanish-language talk show in 1992. Director Robert Rodriguez (no relation to the talk-show host) and his producer wife Elizabeth Avellan happened to be watching and were immediately taken with the brazen, opinionated young woman. Rodriguez had become an independent film hero after making the 1992 cult hit El Mariachi for just $7,000. His studio wanted a blond to star opposite Antonio Banderas in his next project, Desperado, a big-budget remake of El Mariachi, but Rodriguez knew Hayak was his star. "I wanted to put Salma onscreen just the way she was," he's said.

Rodriguez's instincts proved right: Moviegoers were as smitten with Hayek as he had been. In 1995 People gushed "the hottest thing coming out of…Desperado may not be its gunslinging hero, Antonio Banderas, but his muy bella co-star Salma Hayek."

Hayek returned to work with Rodriguez in the 1996 horror fantasy From Dusk Till Dawn written by and co-starring Quentin Tarantino, with George Clooney as Tarantino's brother and partner in crime.

After sharing the screen with two of Hollywood's hottest stars, Hayek found a leading man of her own, English actor Edward Atterton. Hayek, who had been engaged four times before meeting Atterton, had to constantly swat aside rumors of romances with her leading men, director Rodriguez, and even of a May-December tryst with Robert Duvall. More recently she's been linked to Oscar-nominated actor Edward Norton.

Hayek's first star billing came in 1997, with the romantic comedy Fools Rush In where she played strong-willed Mexican-American photographer who shares an instant romantic chemistry with a New York WASP (Friends' Matthew Perry). Her ideas so impressed director Andy Tennant that he threw out the film's script and had it rewritten.

In 1999 she starred opposite Will Smith in the $120 million Wild Wild West. Smith lobbied hard to get Hayek the part, and soon director Barry Sonnenfeld's initial skepticism gave way to admiration. Sonnenfeld went so far as to compare Hayek's comic talents to the legendary Lucille Ball's.

That same year she starred in Kevin Smith's controversial religious satire Dogma. Hayek's character perfectly reflects the dual nature of her screen career: She first appears as a stripper, but viewers soon discover that she's really a muse. Hayek's wise, witty character proves instrumental in helping Smith's motley mortals save the day.

Her next project was the obscure drama The Velocity of Gary, which she co-starred in with Vincent D'Onofrio and co-produced through her production company Ventanarosa. Ventanarosa also produced the 1999 Mexican feature film No One Writes to the Colonel, which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and selected as Mexico's official Oscar entry for best foreign film. Three film roles, Cannes, and an Oscar nomination—not bad for a year's work.

Continuing her pattern of juggling the mainstream and the avant-garde, Hayek appeared last spring in director Mike Figgis' experimental Time Code, which presents four different stories simultaneously, one in each corner of the screen. This month, Hayek joins Jeff Goldblum, David Hyde Pierce, and Lara Flynn Boyle in the heist comedy Chain of Fools, about a hapless barber (Steve Zahn) who becomes the unintended recipient of stolen treasure.

Despite her hectic schedule, Hayek hasn't forgotten her dream project: to star in and produce Frida, a film biography of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. At press time the film was in development with Ventanarosa.

The hardworking Hayek regularly turns in 18-hour days as a movie and television producer. In addition to an ongoing relationship with the Disney subsidiary Miramax, last year Ventanarosa signed a deal with Sony to develop Spanish-language television shows for Sony International and English-language shows for Columbia Tristar. Hayek delights in her busy, active life as an actress/producer. "If Hollywood won't give me the parts I want," as she put it, " I'm at the place where I can supply them for myself. Because I do believe in myself—even if they don't."

— Kevin McDonough is a syndicated television critic and author of A Tabloid History of the World.