Wednesday July 7, 1999
A few months ago Salma Hayek's grandmother died. "I'm not
going to tell you all the procedures that come with death in
Mexico," she says, in crisp, urgent English, "but I'm just going
to give you some. You stand by the coffin all night. Nobody can
sleep. It's very crowded with friends and family. You pray, you
do the singing, everybody cries. But I got there in the morning - I
was all night on the plane.
"You walk behind the coffin through the town until you get to the
church. They do the long mass; it's a special mass. Then you
walk to the cemetery, and everybody is walking through the
town behind the coffin to the cemetery, then they bury the
corpse. She has to be right on top of my grandfather, who died
before, and next to her elder brothers. And we all do things with
You do not need to go to the cinema to recognise Salma Hayek,
you just need to have been in a newsagents in recent months.
She graced the front of Empire's "sex issue" and followed the
Star Wars bunch on the cover of Premiere.
Her most memorable film role to date has been dancing with a
python in a state of undress in the vampire movie From Dusk Till
Dawn. Small, olive-skinned and classically sexy, Hayek is
better known for her looks than her films. So far.
She moved to Los Angeles eight years ago from Mexico, where
she tasted fame and fortune in her early 20s in soap opera. But
now, aged 32, she has returned to the port of Coatzacoalcos
(which she writes in my notebook to make sure I spell it
correctly) for her grandmother's funeral. "And as soon as it
finished, at seven, I took a plane to Mexico City and then to LA."
She leans across the table and fixes me with her intense brown
eyes, without a moment's pause in her tale. "And the next day I
was having meetings in my office in Sunset Boulevard, dealing
with Hollywood people. There are different layers to who I am."
Hayek is a sex symbol, a pin-up girl for the electronic age - she
regularly walks into offices and finds her image being used as a
computer screensaver. For Premiere, she posed in a Stetson,
blouse, mesh tights and six-shooter, and will be seen without
the tights in Wild Wild West, one of the big Hollywood summer
Cynics may suggest she is nothing more than a Mexican
version of Liz Hurley, a female Keanu Reeves. But Hayek is
more than just a pretty bottom. She is aware of her image as
Hollywood's sexy Latina and she talks passionately, and
convincingly, about being a sex symbol and the need for movies
of humanity and dignity.
Her company, Ventanarosa, which means "pink window", was
co-producer of the Mexican film No One Writes to the Colonel.
An adaptation of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel about an
impoverished but proud old soldier waiting for news of his
pension, it was one of the few watchable films in official
competition at Cannes this year. Hayek has a small role as the
prostitute girlfriend of the soldier's dead son.
Of course, any Hollywood actor worth her salt has a production
company by the age of 30. But most, when asked to explain the
move, would opt for an answer along the lines of "I wanted a new
challenge", frequently preceded by the word "um". Few would be
honest enough to admit the initial motivation was tax avoidance.
And probably none other than Hayek would use the question as
a launchpad for a lecture on the state of the Mexican film
industry, a quick assessment of Hispanic television in the
United States, an introduction to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo,
whose eyebrows joined in the middle, and a personal
perspective on the disappointments of having a film collapse just
as it is about to start.
Take away their scripts and some actors struggle to string a
sentence together. They may look a million dollars on screen,
but it is difficult to make them sound interesting if their longest
utterance consists of four or five words. Asked about becoming
a producer, Hayek's answer runs to 842 words - a self-contained
feature. And English is not her first language.
The daughter of a wealthy businessman, Hayek always wanted
to be an actress, but studied international relations first, to
placate her parents. She gave up soap-opera stardom in Mexico
to start again in Hollywood, which has been surprisingly
resistant to the appeal of actors from its southern neighbour.
In Hollywood, the land where dreams come true, Mexico is
perceived as North America's Third World poor cousin. Hayek
was up for a part in a sci-fi film only to be told audiences would
not accept a Mexican in space - even in 3000.
She had a tiny part in the girl-gang movie Mi Vida Loca and was
appearing on a Spanish-language television chat show when she
was spotted by Robert Rodriguez, who was impressed by her
"ballsiness" and cast her as the female lead in Desperado, the
big-budget remake of his Mexican western El Mariachi.
Hayek thought she had "made it". And then nothing happened.
She made a bigger impact in From Dusk Till Dawn, but it was
still difficult to convince producers that a Mexican actress could
play anything other than roles specifically for Mexicans.
"I go in and I audition for the part, and they call my agent in
such a state of shock, which is an insult: 'She was so good, oh
we could not believe it. She was the best audition we've ever
had.' And they are like so shocked and they are so excited and
passionate. 'But we just don't think that this character can be
Hayek has taken what Hollywood has to offer - supporting roles
in the likes of the ill-fated disco movie 54 and the ill-fated Cindy
Crawford vehicle Fair Game - while working in American
independent films and returning to Mexico for local feature films
and shorts by new directors.
She is now about to make a curious reverse breakthrough from
magazine cover to film star, with a clutch of films in the pipeline
including No One Writes to the Colonel; Dogma, Kevin Smith's
religious comedy that is sharp, inventive and downright funny;
and Wild Wild West, a comedy western, based on a 60s TV
show, that cost more than £60m. It opened in the US last Friday
and arrives in the UK on August 13.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld had serious reservations about giving
a role to Hayek. So did she. About the only person who really
wanted her in the film was star Will Smith, who had met her only
once and went away with a lasting impression of her wit and,
well, "ballsiness". As you do. "When I first looked at the role, it
was not interesting," says Hayek dismissively, "but it was a very
big film with good actors and my agent was saying, 'This is very
good, this is going to be a very big film.'"
She plays Rita Escobar, who joins government agents Smith
and Kevin Kline in their battle against villain Kenneth Branagh,
who travels inside a giant mechanical spider and is intent on
murdering President Ulysses S Grant. "It was two or three
scenes at the beginning. They changed the character
completely: they made it very big and it was very good for me to
work with these wonderful actors.
"I wish I was doing more comedy but they never give the
comedy to the pretty girls. But one day I will be old and ugly and
they will have no other choice but to give me the character."
Hayek is part of an excellent ensemble cast in Dogma, in which
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are fallen angels trying to to get
back to heaven, Linda Fiorentino is the last living descendant of
Christ and Alanis Morissette is God. Hayek plays the muse
Serendipity, who has inspired all the world's great artists, was
responsible for 19 of the 20 highest-grossing films of all time (but
disowns Home Alone) and now wants to write under her own
name. But she gets writer's block, because there is no one to
The film was a breakthrough for Hayek, because the part did not
specify a Latin actress, but it faces an uncertain future. "It's
Disney who, like Pontius Pilate, have washed their hands and
don't want to release this film," she says.
It was made by Miramax, a division of Disney. Miramax bosses
Bob and Harvey Weinstein have bought the rights and it is likely
to be released by distributor Lion's Gate. Hayek is continuing
her relationship with Miramax - the company is supporting her
dream project, a biopic about Frida Kahlo. "I am obsessed by
it," she says.
It almost got off the ground once before. Hayek lacked
confidence in the producers, so she got involved in the
production. "The film was going to be made for $6m (£4m) and
then they are saying they are giving me $2m. So I left and, after
a lot of problems and pressures and law suits and a lot of
money, I finally was able to end up with the film at Miramax."
She also has a TV deal with Sony. "I am developing seven
television shows, two of them already have a budget. This little
production company that was only - you know I made it for tax
purposes - it's doing quite well."
But even in Hollywood some producers have been slow to
appreciate the layers behind Hayek's sexy Mexican image.
"They just offered me a part in a film where it was again three
scenes, this Mexican girl, and I said no and they were shocked.
"They couldn't understand until I said 'No, because I'm a big shot
now, because I am in Wild Wild West and I have, like, 10 covers
coming out, and I want a bigger part.' And then that, they