She won the heart of Antonio Banderas in Desperado, and in this month's Wild Wild West she seduces Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh
without breaking a sweat. Want to know what makes Salma Hayek so special? Just ask anyone with a Y chromosome. By Josh Rottenberg
Salma Hayek is having trouble staying focused. Sitting on the sun-deppeled patio of West Hollywood's ultrachic Mondrian Hotel, she's distracted by a guy who keeps staring at her.
Seated two tables over, the guy in the form-fitting designer sweater, designer sunglasses and designer teeth and tan can't take his eyes off her. She's not checking him out - please, she has a serious boyfriend, British
actor Edward Atterton (The Man in the Iron Mask) - she just thinks she might know him from somewhere. "Is he on some TV show, maybe?" she wonders as she zips her chamomile tea. Could be. Then again, out her in La-La-Land even the guy filling our water glasses
looks ready for prime time.
Within minutes, the object of Hayek's distraction has noticed he's been noticed and makes his move. He strides up to her table and introduces himself - yes, he does know who she is, but there's no disguising
the fact, man, that he'd like to know her better. "I've had a terrible morning", he tells her, "and you are the best thing in the world for it."
Hayek smiles and thanks him. "Well, I hope your day gets better," she says.
"It can't possibly get any better now," the man replies smoothly as he walks away.
Hayek seems to get this kind of attention a lot. Wearing a simple black Armani suit over a grey cotton sweater,
a cellphone ready at her ellbow, she looks unassuming enough. But the thirty-year-old former Mexican soap star has a deeper power
at her disposal: the ability to inspire worship in every man within a fourty-foot radius. Casting directors have taken notice, pairing Hayek with some of Hollywood's hottest leading man.
We're talking actors like Antonio Banderas, who fell so hard for Hayek's character in Desperado he killed his own brother rather than see her harmed; George Clooney, who jumped at the chance to become her vampiric love slave in 1996's From Dusk Till Dawn;
and Ryan Phillippe, who risked losing his best friend over her in last year's 54.
Now, in this summer's big budget action comedy Wild Wild West, Hayek effortlessly hog-ties the hearts of no fewer than three tough hombres: a government agent (Will Smith),
his sidekick (Kevin Kline) and their villainous enemy (Kenneth Branagh). "Everybody wants me", Hayek says, referring to her vampy Marilyn Monroe like character,
Rita Escobar. "She's a little bit of a tease and she uses her charms to get people to do things for her."
In an industry where the loftiest pedestals have traditionally been reserved for less exotic strains of blondes and brunettes - and where Mexican roles have too often been limited to wise-cracking maids - Hayek has managed to carve out her own unique niche.
"Believe me, everyone falls in love with Salma", says Wild Wild West director Barry Sonnenfeld. "Whenever she was on the set, there always seemed to be more grips and electricians around. Even my six-year-old daughter Chloe, glommed on to her."
Long ago, years before perfect strangers tried to woo her in restaurants, Hayek was already been told she were special. Growing up in the small city of Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf of Mexico, she and her brother Sami lived a life of luxury with maids, horses, trips to Europe.
Her doting father, who'd made his fortune in oil, told her she deserved it all and more. "He said, 'You are my princess'", Hayek recalls."'Don't let anyone treat you less than you are.'"
"I blame my father for that," she adds with a laugh. "Well, I blame him for it and I thank him for it. Because at times in my life when people tried to abuse me, like when people tried to be racist with me when I first came to this country, I would think of what he said and it would give me strength:
'Wait a minute, you bastard. You cannot treat me like that.'"
Hayek discovered a passion for acting at a young age after seeing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. "I knew that was it," she recalls. "I thought, why would anyone want to do something else in life? There's a place in the world where the rivers can be chocolate and the flowers can be candy!"
Her upper-crust parents, however, encouraged her to pursue a career in international relations. Finally, in spite of their objections she dropped out of a Mexico city university to enter acting.
Starting with small parts in neighborhood theater companies, which led to TV commercials, Hayek eventually landed in the world of soap operas.
Mexico's super-sudsy telenovelas, which are more like daytime miniseries than long running American soaps, are a national obsession. After playing a tiny part on one show, Hayek was cast in the lead role in a series called Teresa.
At age 21, Hayek was one of the most well-known celebrities in Mexico. "It was a very glamorous life," she recalls of her two busy TV years. "The level of popularity was absolutely ridiculous. Everybody wanted to know when you got up, what lipstick you put on, what scissors you used to cut your nails. And a big soap star in Mexico makes a lot of money."
She raises an eyebrow. "A lot." Still, the ambitious Hayek had always set her sights on bigger screens. "I wanted to do movies," she says. "And the film industry in Mexico was not exactly happening."
So at the height of her TV career, the 22-year-old actress headed for Los Angeles to become a movie star. "I thought I'll get there, I'll learn English, and in 3 or 4 months I'll be starring in big movies," she recalls shaking her head. "I didn't take so many things into consideration. Like, for example,
you have to be legal to work in this country. You have to get an agent - I didn't know what an agent was! It was a big, big shock for me. I was so lost and confused."
Three or four months became three or four years, during which Hayek took English lessons, taught herself to drive and struggled to get acting jobs. Once a house-hold name in her native country, she now found herself playing glorified extras in sitcoms like Sindbad and Dream On.
"It's very rare that Hollywood writes a female character who's incredibly smart and sexy and also foreign," Hayek points out. Finally, in 1995, El Mariachi director Robert Rodriguez spotted Hayek's guest appearance on a Spanish language cable talkshow and cast her as the bookish beautie who tames Banderas in Desperado.
Suddenly all those who wouldn't give her the time of day were lining up to cast the sexy actress. Her next two films, Fled and Fair Game, didn't exactly wow audiences but Hayek went on to land better roles in movies like Fools Rush In and 54.
Still, while Hayek and Jennifer Lopez have helped bring Latina women into Hollywood's mainstream, roles are not exactly in abundance for a woman with a café con leche complexion and a distinctive accent. "Hollywood has never been extremely receptive to Mexican actresses," Hayek says.
(In fact there hasn't been a Mexican-born female movie star since Dolores Del Rio in the 30ies.) "Producers are never comfortable with things they are not extremely familiar with. So I've had to open doors for myself."
To that end, Hayek has a development deal to produce television programming and has also formed her own production company, Ventanarosa (Pink Window), to develop other projects. Closest to her heart is a film about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, in which she will star.
It's a role Madonna once coveted but when her project fell through Hayek picked it up. ("She probably hates my guts," says Hayek. "But I hope not, because I'm a big fan.")
Hayek's strong, independent spirit goes beyond just her career. This is, after all, a woman who has been engaged four times! "I've had relationships where I've become dependent and then I'm miserable," Hayek says.
I used to be into these passionate relationships, full of complexities. It was just so romantic. But then the smart, business side of me that sees things in a clearer way would say, what the hell are you doing? You fight with this man every other week!
I knew it wasn't going to work, but I'd fool myself into thinking that it would." She pauses. "Do I sound like Woody Allen?"
Despite her past bouts of Woody like neurosis, Hayek now gives off the contended glow of the romantically settled. For two and a half years she's been involved with Atterton, whom she met when the two co-starred in a cable production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
"I've got a brave man now," she says of the actor. "He lets me be so independent. If I want to get married he'll do it. But I don't know how important it is to me."
Suddenly, a good hour after his original appearance, the guy who's terrible day was turned around by meeting Hayek reappears at her table. "Can I interrupt you again? Are you free for dinner?" he asks. "No, sorry, I'm not," Hayek says sympathetically.
She smiles mischiefly. "Nice try, though." "It was, wasn't it?" he says, walking away, a disappointed but hardly dissatified customer. "Brave man," Hayek says with a smile. "But I handled him well, don't you think?"
Salma dishes on her dishy co-stars:
Antonio Banderas in Desperado:
"Antonio was very nice to me. When anyone tried to put me in second place because I was just starting out, he would say, seriously, no, no, no. She's the star. He made me feel very special."
George Clooney in From Dusk Till Dawn:
"In the movie I had to dance backward in a bikini and I was embarassed. I said, George, you have to promise you're not going to look. And he said, I promise, cross my heart. When I saw the movie, I saw that he was staring at my butt the whole time!"
Matthew Perry in Fools Rush In:
"Matthew and I bonded really strongly on this movie. He's very funny, exactly like you see him on Friends: very sarcastic. Exactly the same type of talking too, like could it be any hotter?"
Will Smith in Wild Wild West:
"Will is fantastic. Loving, caring and always in a good mood, always singing. He tried to get me more lines. He didn't succeed but he tried. Kevin Kline did too. They were both considerate and generous and made me laugh very very much."