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Hayek's 'Frida' is an intensely personal project

News and Views Column in USA Today
By Jeannie Williams

Salma Hayek is so obsessed with the movie she's making about the artist Frida Kahlo that she doesn't care she just topped Jennifer Lopez in the People en Español poll for sexiest female celebrity.

"All I care about is the movie, is it good or bad!" she says from Mexico, where she's in the final weeks of shooting Frida. She stars in and is producing the story of the passionate Mexican painter.

After "six years of sweating it," trying to get the film on track, competing for the role for a time with Lopez, not to mention Madonna, Mexican-born Hayek says, "I come to work with a smile on my face every day. ... There's a lot of fun ... a lot of drama."

And not just with actors: A month ago, "I got attacked by the monkey — he bit me really badly!"

The capuchin monkey plays a Kahlo pet; Kahlo actually had a spider monkey, but they're now endangered. It "went for my face" but got her hands, arms and fingers. "I'm marked for life," Hayek says cheerfully, "but they have little teeth." She admits the bites were "extremely painful" and injured nerves and ligaments.

Hayek has many more complications to deal with: Kahlo was in a wheelchair for much of her life after a trolley car accident (she died in 1954 at age 47). She had a little mustache that she exaggerated in paintings of herself; her romantic life was turbulent — she wed muralist Diego Rivera twice, had an affair with exiled Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, and had many lovers, male and female. Geoffrey Rush plays Trotsky, and Antonio Banderas is the muralist David Siquieros, a good friend of Rivera's.

The movie "really is the story of the two of them," she says of Kahlo and Rivera, known in the USA for his Rockefeller Center murals; he's played by Alfred Molina (Chocolat). "She couldn't exist without him. They were two sophisticated minds." But Diego, rejected by his mother as a child, "has issues with women. He was not capable of fidelity. He told her that from the beginning. But she was capable of unconditional love, and at the end of the day he learned from her courage. He ended up loving her the same way."

Besides using a wheelchair, "I have to limp a little," Hayek says. And Miramax Films "was not crazy for me to have a mustache for the whole film. I shaved myself a couple of times so it would grow naturally. It's very small but it is there."

Hayek herself does Kahlo's painting: "It's no fake hand doing brush strokes. Painting is the best part. The worst was learning how to smoke! I couldn't do it. I wouldn't aim right at my mouth, the cigarette, and I don't understand why. I'm pretty coordinated. I hated it, I was dizzy."

She says she and Molina joke that the movie will give him a heart attack, because he had to gain so much weight, "and me lung cancer."

Despite her mustache and continuous eyebrow, Kahlo was very sexy, "or she would not have seduced so many men and women around the world with such success," says Hayek. "I think she was beautiful."

"I don't want to make her look like she's a slut," she hastens to add. But Hayek has love scenes with Molina and Rush, as well as two women.

Hayek thinks U.S. audiences have an idea who Kahlo is, or at least "they have an image of a woman with one brow."

Hayek's mother is Mexican; she has been to other Hayek movie sets, "but she gets special pride seeing me do this."

Most of her co-stars "are my friends," she notes, "doing this as a favor. We're paying scale." The movie, in English, is directed by Julie Taymor, known for Broadway's The Lion King.