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A Brush With Greatness

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By Anna David

Salma Hayek and Julie Taymor put their art and sould into a biopic of painter Frida Kahlo.

Salma Hayek recalls the first time, when she was a young teenager, that she saw some of Frida Kahlo’s very personal, very disturbing paintings. “A friend of mine showed me her art, and I went, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting, so ugly,’ ” the actress says. “And then I said, ‘Would you show me that again, that horrible picture?’ I became fascinated by them, and then I became obsessed.”

So obsessed that the Mexican artist, who died in 1954, invaded Hayek’s dreams during the making of Frida (due in theaters next year). “I was dreaming about something else, and I heard her voice in Spanish yelling, ‘They stole my little leg!’ Her voice was that of a little girl, and [she was] screaming to get my attention.”

Hayek has devoted six years to realizing her own dream of playing Kahlo onscreen. “I never knew if it was really going to happen until the first day of shooting,” she says. “Even then, I was cautious about everything I did, terrified that I was going to break a leg.” Along the way, she snapped up the rights to film Kahlo’s artwork (or likenesses thereof) and fended off competition from Madonna and Jennifer Lopez, who were among the many inspired by the bisexual, unibrowed artist and her juicy life story, which involved physical hardship (a near-fatal bus accident and crippling polio) and free-spirited sexuality (Kahlo had a loving but mutually unfaithful 25-year marriage to renowned muralist Diego Rivera, and her lovers included Leon Trotsky). In her homeland, she is also an icon. “Frida and Diego are the two biggest stars of Mexico,” says Julie Taymor (Titus), the film’s director. “Frida’s even on every phone card.”

Taymor, who reworked the script with the help of Hayek’s boyfriend, Edward Norton, says she was drawn to “Frida’s outrageous, death-defying life, as well as this extraordinary romance that is unlike any other. The test of fidelity and loyalty. People are very disturbed by these issues—how can you love somebody and still be unfaithful?” The cast includes Alfred Molina as Rivera, Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky, Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, Valeria Golino, and Norton. But it is Hayek who is in virtually every scene, and who logged at least 18 hours each shooting day (“sometimes 22—once 24,” the actress says cheerfully), aging from 16 to 47 and learning to paint for the role. “I never really could draw,” Hayek says, “[but] I painted two portraits of [Kahlo] that are really good.”

“No one’s seen Salma like this,” Taymor says. “She can use her sexuality, her humor, her innocence, and then have this incredible sophistication and acerbic smartness. That’s a fascinating combination for a woman, because we don’t allow it to happen very often.” Also rare is the combination of talented women who came together on this project, including the director, producers, line producer, editor, and many others. “It was so filled with female energy,” Hayek says. The shoot, which took place in Mexico with a largely Mexican crew, included regular Thursday-night dancing excursions and a great deal of affection. “I must have kissed 30 or 40 people every morning,” says producer Sarah Green (Girlfight). Hayek says with a laugh, “Geoffrey Rush would look at all these great, interesting, nurturing women and say, ‘My God, I think I’ve gone to heaven.’ ”

© Premiere Magazine October 2001