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Salma Hayek craves Hollywood stardom

Talk to the actress, and you detect a determination to raise the profile of Hispanics.

Beverly Hills, California - Eight years ago, Salma Hayek was a big television star -- in her native Mexico.

And then she gave it all up and moved to the United States.

"I came here saying that I would learn to speak perfect English and that within a year I would be a huge star," she says philosophically.

That didn't happen. When she arrived in the U.S., Hayek couldn't speak a word of English and although she's secure with the language now, it's still heavily accented.

But she does hope that audiences will notice how well she's doing with English in the current Wild Wild West, in which she plays a mysterious entertainer who becomes a colleague of government agents played by Kevin Kline and Will Smith. And she also hopes her presence in that movie will help fulfil her dreams of major stardom.

"My accent in that film is less than my accent is talking to you now -- so please, please tell me that you noticed it?" she asks in a wheedling tone. "You did notice? Thank you! I worked hard with a coach for that film. But to get rid of my accent completely I'll have to work with a coach 24 hours a day."

On the other hand, maybe her accent shouldn't matter. The mischievous tone returns. "Why can't you accept me as I am?" she asks in a funny, little-girl voice. Among Hayek's many assets is a sense of humour. Another is a determination to succeed.

The level of stardom she enjoyed back home still eludes her in the U.S., but this dark-eyed beauty isn't giving up. Talk to her and you detect a sense of mission -- a determination to raise the profile of America's growing Hispanic population in the world of entertainment.

Hayek has been getting steady work in Hollywood, going back to her first starring role opposite Antonio Banderas in Robert Rodriguez's Desperado. More recently, she has adorned such films as The Faculty, Fools Rush In and From Dusk To Dawn. But she's still upset that not enough Hispanics are landing good roles.

She says when pundits talk about "Latin power" they're really talking about two people -- herself and Jennifer Lopez. Then she adds a trifle acerbicly that Lopez shouldn't really count because she was born in the United States.

"Sure, I'm doing great. Somehow I've clicked in. I'm the one who's working the most, but I have a lot of friends who are so talented you could cry. That girl who was in Like Water For Chocolate -- she's been here as long as me. She's better than me. But she has trouble finding jobs."

But she also knows she has a long way to go in dealing with a Hollywood mentality which in last year's Mask Of Zorro cast Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones as the Hispanic female lead.

Zeta-Jones's involvement in Zorro infuriated Hayek, and it's situations like this that led to her decision to set up her own production company, which currently is negotiating deals with two major studios.

The company exists not only to find good parts for Hayek but also for other good Latin actors. And she's not just looking for high-profile projects. She cites the low-budget The Velocity Of Gary, a comedy-drama about an unusual love triangle, which is due to arrive later this summer with herself and Vincent D'Donofrio starring.

"I'm in the summer's biggest film, Wild Wild West, and in the summer's smallest film. I did Velocity Of Gary even though I knew nobody would probably see it, but I loved the part. It would be playing somebody who was so strange in this world, somebody I had never come across in life and who was so distant from what I really am and where I come from. So I wanted to help the people making this film and when they couldn't get the money I became a producer and helped them find it."

Hayek is starting to be recognized in public places, but she says it will never be the way it was in Mexico.

"Mexican fans are very chatty and open. Because I was a television star there, they really did think I belonged to them. If they met me on the street, they would always ask for my phone number. American men are different. They keep more of a distance. They're not as passionate. They just stare at you in a state of panic."

Saturday 17 July 1999
Jamie Portman The Ottawa Citizen