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Salma, the original Latin goddess

by Lesley O'Toole

London Film Festival: Monday 19 Nov, 9pm

Odeon West End 2

Move over Penelope, Watch your back, J-Lo. Salma Hayek wants her crown back.

Back when Salma Hayek started wowing Hollywood, no one had ever heard of Penelope Cruz.

The tussle for the Queen Latina crown was between Hayek and Jennifer Lopez, but true Latinos knew that Lopez was born in Brooklyn. Hollywood noticed Hayek - quite a bit of her, in fact - in Desperado, where she more than held her own with Antonio Banderas, in and out of bed.

She recently reprised the role for her director friend Robert Rodriguez alongside Banderas and Johnny Depp in Once Upon A Time In Mexico, which won't be seen until next year. Before that, there will be Hayek's years-in-the-works biopic of Frida Kahlo, the artist twice married to the 'Mexican Picasso' Diego Rivera who befriended Leon Trotsky during his Mexican exile in the Twenties.

A pet project in which she starred - and which she produced - the film wrapped in July. And before that, Hotel, Mike Figgis's second foray, after Timecode, into avant-garde, entirely improvised cinema.

With Lopez now Mrs Latina, Hayek is back to reclaim the title of queen for herself. Sure, there's Penelope Cruz all over our screens, billboards and magazine covers - but Hayek is Mexican, for heaven's sake. Much more exotic. It's just that we haven't seen her around much lately. Kevin Smith's Dogma was unhelpful, and few people got to see her shine in a smallish role in the Mexican film, No One Writes To The Colonel. But everyone saw her slinky cameo in Traffic, in which she also spoke Spanish, thereby effortlessly announcing 'Queen Latina is back'. And you should see her in the flesh, here at her house in the Hollywood Hills, where she has just emerged from the shower after an hour's yoga. She's wearing not a scrap of make-up and in fact is filthy by the time we finish chatting, thanks to the muddy paws of her rambunctious puppies. But she is stunning. No wonder a recent AOL water-cooler poll in the States saw its millions of viewers voting Hayek way hotter than Lopez.

Hotel sounds rather exotic, too, though it wasn't exactly balmy in Venice, where it was filmed: 'It actually snowed the day I left.' And Hayek says she knows as much about her new film as the average audience member. Don't get her wrong. She saw Hotel at September's Toronto Film Festival, but won't be seeing that particular incarnation of Figgis's project again. 'He's completely re-edited it since I saw it. He redid it when he went back to London. But then, he's got 20 hours of material.'

Hayek won't be in London to shriek audibly as she did at the Toronto screening. And therein lies the beauty of Hotel. She was only on the film's set for a few days of the five-week shoot, so hasn't seen huge chunks of the improvised action. She became fast friends with the cast, if not the normal guests - 'civilians' as Liz Hurley would say - also resident in the hotel which housed the entire cast of Hotel. And she's clearly enamoured of both cast and project - the latter being an entirely different undertaking from Timecode.

Timecode presented a screen split predominantly into quarters and anything from one to four 'storylines' (all improvised) played out concurrently on screen. 'It had a beginning and an end, it was one take and you had to be in a certain place at a certain time. But if you thought that was scary as an actor, then this was really scary. It wasn't one take, it didn't have a story, and you didn't have to be anywhere at any particular time. It was the ultimate freeing experience.'

So low budget was Hotel that the stars flew economy to Venice, and had no trailers, no hair and make-up. All Hayek had was a character - 'Mike told me, "Some sort of interviewer for MTV, an MTV personality." '

She left for Venice, telling him she only had a few days as she was on her way to Mexico to film Frida. His reaction was sanguine. 'He told me there would be cannibals in the hotel. "Whenever you have to leave, they'll just eat you." ' Not, however, before Hayek discovered the film's thematic backbone was the filming of a Dogme-style take on The Duchess Of Malfi. 'So I said to Mike, "What would an MTV personality be doing interviewing a bunch of Dogme actors?" And he said, "Figure it out, that's your problem."'

She metamorphosed into a 'really obnoxious' MTV gal called Charlee Boux who hosts her own show, Hello. In Timecode, Hayek had said 'hello' and rather more to Jeanne Tripplehorn, since the pair played lovers. There is no sapphic action in these Hotel rooms, though there is in Frida ('one image which will take you aback is Frida with another woman, but it's very fast'). In Hotel, she engages in hanky-panky with David Schwimmer, having dreamed up a failed affair with him as a plot device (Schwimmer plays the producer of the Duchess Of Malfi film). But she thinks that may be 'out. We did one scene which was really something'. Really something how? 'I have a nightmare, go to his room and ask if I can sleep there. You see, he's dumped me and I'm a little obsessed. I'm doing that self-destructive thing women do when you can't help yourself. It's a graphic way of showing what we do. I did it when I was younger, but not any more.' What she does is throw herself at him and, for a moment, he rejects her. 'Then he pushes me on the bed and we start making out.'

Wasn't it just like kissing Ross? 'No! David plays an asshole in this. I was so impressed by him. He was very good and very free, and fit right in.' It was Max Beesley, though, who was the cause of Hayek's shrieks in Toronto. 'Max Beesley is dead and naked and he has a boner! I'm sitting there going, "Ohmygod!" So I was seeing it purely from the audience's point of view because there was so much stuff I never previously saw.' Spoken like a true convent girl, which Hayek was, in the US, for a couple of years.

Plenty of Hayek's scenes have been excised but, mercifully, not one guaranteed to get quite a few Londoners hot under the collar - 'I have a catfight with Lucy Liu.' Of those on the cutting-room floor, one at least presumably entertained a rapt audience of Venetians on the day in question. Filming without permits, the production ran into the local law. 'And I was up on a stage filming where I wasn't supposed to be. So the police came to get me down. They wanted to take me in for disturbing the peace. The next day, there were so many people around that Mike decided maybe I needed a bodyguard. Then Heathcote Williams, who's acting, comes over and attacks me, wearing this mask. And the bodyguard starts choking him and Mike doesn't say cut. It was funny and scary at the same time.'

Hayek thinks her boyfriend, Edward Norton, may not have made the film's final cut either. A shame, since he surprised her on set, conspiring with Figgis and the entire cast so that Hayek would have to stay in character when the longtime beau she thought was in New York strolled in. 'I had just talked to him the day before. I was nervous and shocked and I had to pretend he was a famous actor I was trying to interview for my show. I just couldn't believe it.'

Hayek remains one of those interesting actors who seem under-served by a Hollywood that doesn't quite know what to do with her. They will see what she can really do next year, when Frida is released. Miramax has seen a rough cut of the film and likes it, but Hayek is in no rush. 'This film took six years to make. I want to take my time to do it the best it can be done. We will adapt the release time to the movie, not the movie to the release time.'

She is hoping to take Frida to either the Cannes or Berlin Film Festival but, perversely, seems in no hurry to show Hollywood her film-making abilities. 'No, that's what's so weird. I'm not desperate for it to come out. And I discovered I don't really want to talk about it. Everyone wants to know about my personal triumph of making the movie but to me, it doesn't feel like that. It feels like an accomplishment, but not like I made a grand thing happen.'

Did she have a hard time letting go of Frida? 'No. But I will never really let go of her. She was here before I did the movie. Is she out of my life? No. Will she ever be? No. Look at this house. It's like a shrine to Frida.' She's not kidding. You can barely move in her house for works by Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the Mexican painter she married in 1928. She jokes that she can't afford to buy clothes any more because she has spent all her money on art. Perhaps that's why she is considering a role in the next Bond film. But isn't she trying to get away from stuff like that? 'Yes, but it's being directed by Lee Tamahori, who made one of my very favourite films, Once Were Warriors.' Next, though, she will probably play a 'crazy Indian rock star' in director Raoul Ruiz's follow-up to Time Regained, to be based on Salman Rushdie's novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

So - does she consider herself Queen Latina? 'Oh, we're all Queen Latinas. There are many Queen Latinas, and many more to come. And I'm going to meet my lovely friend Penelope right now, as it happens.'

Hot Tickets @ The Evening Standard 2001

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