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Mexican actress Salma Hayek proves she's a lot more than just a pretty face with "Fools Rush In"

Interviewer: Wade Major

Rule number one: don't call Salma Hayek a "Latina." Rule number two: don't call her "Hispanic." And most importantly: don't refer to her as a "minority." "I can't conceptualize all these different terms," she says firmly. "They're confusing to me, so I don't pay attention to them. I am the same now as I was when I came to this country--a Mexican actress."

As stunningly beautiful in person as she is on-screen, Hayek nevertheless exudes a down-to-earth charm rare for a rising young star. Yet there remains an ambitious glint in her eyes, evidence that this is also a woman of indefatigable drive.

At the tender age of 22, the future star of "Desperado" and the forthcoming "Fools Rush In" was already a household name in Mexico. In the title role of the top-rated soap opera "Teresa," Hayek had attained the kind of superstardom most Mexican performers only dream of.

She was, in fact, bewildered by the magnitude of her success with "Teresa." "I don't know how the Mexican people could sit through it every night and bear it. I couldn't. I did a terrible job. I had people constantly saying to me, `I love you, Teresa!' and I said, `This has nothing to do with real life! If I have any real talent, this is going to kill it.' So I decided I had to leave, go somewhere else and start from scratch. But this time I had to do it right."

Hayek's longstanding goal was feature films, and that meant Hollywood. That she spoke no English at the time was not of great concern. "I knew it was going to be difficult," she remembers. "But I thought I'd be speaking perfect English in three months because I'd just set my mind to it. I'd just work really hard, take nine hours of classes a day and never sleep. It didn't work out quite that way."

Despite her burgeoning stateside career, Hayek is reluctant to declare herself a "success" in Hollywood. After years of American sitcom guest spots ("I hate sitcoms more than soaps!") and assorted bit roles, she received her first starring role in, ironically, a Mexican film. "Midaq Alley," written by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mafouz, went on to win more international awards than any other Mexican film in history, as well as four international best actress awards for Hayek's portrayal of a proud woman struggling to escape poverty.

It was, in many ways, a story that mirrored Hayek's own struggle and foreshadowed the triumphs to come. Soon thereafter, Hayek's Hollywood breakthrough arrived thanks to "Desperado" director Robert Rodriguez, who cast her in the film's female lead opposite Antonio Banderas. Hayek's star soared, landing her co-starring roles in major studio films like the recent "Fled" and "Fair Game," as well as an infamous "snake dancing" cameo in Rodriguez' "From Dusk Till Dawn."

It is Hayek's forthcoming projects, however, which she hopes will secure her a place among Hollywood's elite leading actresses, most notably the scheduled Valentine's Day release of "Fools Rush In," in which she co-stars with "Friends" star Matthew Perry. "People usually describe this kind of film as `Boy Meets Girl,'" she says. "But I think that's a little sexist, so I'm going to say it's `Girl Meets Boy.'" The offbeat romantic comedy from director Andy Tennant ("The Amy Fisher Story") centers around a beautiful Mexican-American woman and an East Coast yuppie who elope on a whim after a one-night stand. "It's basically about two people who know nothing about each other and how they deal with being married," says Hayek. "It is a romantic comedy, but it also deals with some tough issues. Hopefully people will cry a little bit, too."

For co-star Perry, Hayek has nothing but praise. "He's a joke machine. He knows exactly what faces he's going to make, how he's going to move the lines around to give it the right timing. He's very good."

Perry is only the latest in Hayek's long line of talented male co-stars. "Russell Crowe is one of the best actors I've ever worked with," she says of her co-star in the recently completed "Breaking Up," the screen adaptation of Michael Cristofer's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Also special for Hayek was the chance to act with Mandy Patinkin and Richard Harris in an upcoming TNT production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," in which she plays Esmerelda. Shot entirely on location in Hungary, the production gave Hayek a chance to stretch as an actress in a specifically "non-Latin" role. "These are all very special individuals to me," she says of her co-stars. "I feel incredibly lucky to have acted with them."

Luck notwithstanding, Hayek does not discount the value of hard work. "I've encountered every kind of resistance," she says, pointing to her accent and "exotic looks" as frequent obstacles. "Most of the major actresses in this country are women who could be your neighbor, the girl-next-door. But it doesn't make any difference to me how anyone else sees me. I read a part and I know that it's me, that I can be this woman. And it's very hard to convince me otherwise. If you get me in a room with a director, chances are I might convince him, too. But I have had to break every mindset and collective thought in this city. The parts I could've played were never written. The parts that I could play, I didn't fit."

While even Hayek is forced to admit that an increasing number of roles are beginning to "fit," she again stops short of proclaiming her goals achieved. When asked about her criterion for "success," she emphatically declares, "At least 20 years of constant work. And even then, it's not about one movie. It's not about two movies. Whoever thinks they've made it, no matter how big they are, if it's before the age of 60, they're wrong. They may have had a time in their life when they were famous, but you cannot evaluate a career like that. Even if you get an Oscar, what happens if you don't work again? Are you going to be kissing the Oscar in your free time? I think you're successful when you're 70 and you look back at an honest life you can feel proud of, that you left the world stamped with children, grandchildren and many wonderful movies to watch."