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The sultry siren who heated up 54 and The Faculty adds sizzle to Wild Wild West

By Kevin Maynard

Salma Hayek enters the room looking disarmingly pretty. Wearing a white pantsuit with a lacy camisole, her hair styled up in a multi-shaded brown bob, she is every inch a star. But when she starts talking - about trying to tone down her accent from her native Coatzacoalcos, Mexico; her reputed unwillingness to talk about her stunning looks; her defensiveness about the media's so-called "Latino explosion" - her insecurities are revealed. In short, she's a real person and a refreshing contrast to celebrities who speak in preplanned sound bites. It's this appealing honesty that fuels her performances in what she calls the "biggest and smallest films of the summer." The first is Wild Wild West, Barry Sonnenfeld's blockbuster reworking of the '60s TV series in which she plays Rita Escobar, a sexy saloon girl who bedevils both the heroes (Will Smith, Kevin Kline) and the heavy (Kenneth Branagh). But her most tender performance to date comes later this month in The Velocity of Gary, a small indie romance. Hayek plays Mary Carmen, a feisty donut shop waitress who relinquishes the love of her life, a dying porno actor (Vincent D'Onofrio), because he's in love with a young male hustler (Deep Blue Sea's Thomas Jane). While Hayek has yet to find just the right vehicle for her considerable talents, she has been working behind the scenes to steer her career toward interesting projects. Her production company, Ventanarosa, co-produced both Gary and the Mexican feature No One Writes to the Colonel - based on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel - that was in competition this year at Cannes. Hayek's also preparing her dream project, a biopic of artist Frida Kahlo for Miramax, and she has TV deals with Columbia TriStar and Telemundo to produce shows in both English and Spanish. Among the other topics the rising star discussed with Mr. Showbiz are studio politics, the pressures of fame, and becoming a Latino actress with "crossover appeal."

How would you describe Rita?

I would describe her as a girl who gets into this adventure because she goes on a mission, and she's [also] very naive, about many things. She thinks she knows what she's doing, but she doesn't. But at the same time, she's very clever, and she's a little bit manipulative, and it's all for good reason. But she gets her way.

Was Rita difficult or easy to relate to?

Oh, they're all easy. [My characters are] all easy to relate to. I mean, being as schizophrenic as I am, every time I get a character, I just immediately find one of me in it.

What in particular did you find easy to relate to?

I like adventure. I like adventure very much. I think that all women are manipulative. And I think it's something we should recognize, and work on. It's part of our instinct. A while ago, you told a great story about how you were always recognized in your home country and then you came to the U.S. where only parking valets recognized you.

Are you recognized here now?

Yes. Yes.

Is it more fun here?

It's not fun anywhere. No, you know, it's different because the Mexican audiences are very chatty and open. I mean, especially since I was a television star there. They really feel like they're your cousin. So they immediately come and attack you, they want you to sing for them, they want your phone number, they want to send you pictures. And film is a little bit different. There's a little bit more of a distance. And American audiences are not as passionate, you know. They just stare at you. Sometimes they come over. But mainly they just stare at you, in a state of panic. In Mexico, when you know that they are coming over, you're the one that panics.

Has your ascent to stardom been pretty much the way you hoped? Have you progressed as far as you thought?

No. I came here and I said, "In three months I'll be speaking perfect English. Within a year I'll be a huge star." And how long as it been? The exciting part for me is that I've been in love with this woman and her life and her work since I was 14 years old. And I am dying to be able to make a good movie about her, so that the whole world can see it. That's what really excites me. Eight.

Eight years?

Yes. Of constant hard work. That's four-and-a-half years since I got my first job. So, it's not too bad. I came young.

You have an interesting slate of films, including this one. You've got Dogma, you've got The Velocity of Gary - it's a very eclectic slate.

I really love independent filmmaking. And maybe your question is, how [do] I pick the films? I don't have a system. For instance, why did I do The Faculty? Robert Rodriguez gave me my first shot [in Desperado]. He asked me if I could do a cameo in his film. And I was really busy; I was doing Dogma, and getting ready to do this one. And I said, of course, yes! Definitely. [He said] "Should I send you the script?" I said, "Don't worry about it. How many scenes do I have?" "Two scenes." [I said] "I'm there. I'm there, and can we do it in a day?" And he said yes. And I flew over, and I said, "What do I do? Where do I stand, what do I say?" And I did it. And I will do anything he asks me to do.

I am in the biggest film this summer and the smallest film this summer. The Velocity of Gary has got to be the smallest film there is out there, for 1999. It's a modern tragedy, and it's very intense. And [Wild Wild West] is an action western comedy, and it's as big as it gets. Why did I want to do this film? I wanted to do this film because I wanted to work with Will Smith, because it's fun. And Kevin Kline. And I wanted to be directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. And I wanted to be part of a big blockbuster summer movie. Why did I want to do The Velocity of Gary? Because although I knew that nobody was going to go see that film, I loved the part. It was somebody that was so strange in my world. Somebody that I have never come across who is so distant from who I am, and where I come from. And I wanted to discover her. And then I wanted to help the people make the film because they couldn't get the money, and I really wanted to make the film. So I became a producer. And that's why I did it. And every time it's for a different reason. You said that you have never run across this woman.

So where did you find her, this firecracker? How did you build the character?

I went to the streets of New York and spent some time there. Talked to people. And ultimately you find them all in your heart. They're all in there. You just don't want to see sometimes. Or you don't want to know. But they teach you compassion. And learning about them and finding those reasons for doing things makes you a better person when you do run into them and you don't look away. And you just see them in a whole different way. That's wonderful about being an actor, I think. And I really love that character.

Is it a relationship that you could relate to?

Well, it's a strange relationship because I hate the other guy. It's not like we're having a threesome. I hate his guts. And he hates me. We're sharing a man. And I don't know if I could share [that] with But you know what? That means that she is a lot more novel [than I am], and understands unconditional love better than I do. I love working with Vincent [D'Onofrio]. Yes, he's fantastic. And then the other guy is Thomas Jane, who will become a very famous person.

Why did you want to work with Will?

Oh, god. I wanted to work with Will because I thought he'd be fun. Because I am a huge fan. Because I think he's very, very talented. Did you see Six Degrees of Separation?

Yes. He was good.

I really think Will is not just some big movie star. He's a very, very good actor. And I wanted to work with him. And he was everything I expected and much more.

How do you feel about the controversy around Dogma?

Oh, I don't know. I feel good that it's not the Catholic Church that is mad at Dogma. It's a small group of people that are always mad at everybody. And that they created this organization to protest against things. So they are waiting around all year long for something like this, so they can exist, you know? And justify their existence. And it's quite normal. And I do understand that not everybody should like this film. And [if they don't] then they shouldn't go see it.

Did you like making the music video for Wild Wild West?

Oh yeah. Will asked me if I wanted to do the video. I told him I would. I thought there would be dancing, and something light and simple.

Are you inspired by the Latino explosion that's going on in this country, with Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez?

No. That is BS. That is BS. I think if you look at the statistics, the hiring of Latino actors has dropped considerably. Hey, I'm doing great, but I can't sit here and say, "Yeah, we're doing great! Latino Power!" That's not true. It's two of us. It's two of us. I have a lot of friends that are brilliant. That are great actors. Great actresses. And I get scripts for things that they want me to do because they really like the Latino girl. And I say, I'm not going to do this, but I'm going to give you a list of really good actresses who, if you contact them, they will do better than me. And the movie doesn't get done. The movie doesn't get done. If I don't do it, if Jennifer doesn't do it, the movie doesn't get done. So, you know, the statistics were published, and it's not true. [The statistics have] gone down. In the music industry it has become the thing now to be Latino. So, you know, it's going really well [for Latino recording artists].

But don't you think the American public might be getting to be more accepting, more willing to have actors with accents?

Jennifer doesn't have an accent.

No, what I'm saying is that it might be less of a hassle for you.

What is me without an accent? These actors that you're talking about, they don't have an accent. There are still people who have accents. There's no one else. You see, the problem is that everybody says Latino, and yet some of the Latinos you mentioned - the people we're talking about - some of them, their Spanish is pathetic. They learn Spanish when they became famous as Latinos. "Oh girl, I'm a professional Latino now." But I knew them before. So, the thing is that you can't just put them all in the same thing as this big Latino explosion. Yes, there is [one] in the music [scene], but I can't sit here and I'm doing great. Somehow, I've made it as an actress; right now, I am the one that's working the most. But I do have a lot of friends that are so talented you'd cry. So talented. Do you remember the girl in Like Water for Chocolate [Lumi Cavazos]? Yes.

She's been here all this time. She's been here seven years with me. She's better than me. She's so good. When was the last time you saw her, you know? There are so many, and there are a lot who also don't have an accent. It's hard.

What would you say is the difference between you and her?

I don't know. I got lucky. I work very hard. I'm not afraid. I don't know. There are many things. I got lucky because I got smaller parts - because if you also stop and look at the parts that I have been given, I'm in [a film] for like five minutes, not more than that. And what I do is I take what is there and I make it memorable. And then the audience is very good to me. And because of the audience having been very good to me, the studios [will say], "She's on the list." And [then] I'm fighting for them to see an audition. And they finally say, "Well, let her in." And then I go in and do an audition and I get the part. It's never like, "Here you go, here's an opportunity for you. We're going to give you a fantastic leading part for a woman and this is your chance." No. So, I don't know why, but there's another girl that's very good. I'm a huge fan [of hers]; I've been a fan forever. She is so good. She also has an accent. And she's beginning to do really well. Her name is Penelope Cruz. Watch her because she's brilliant. So that's good. That really tells me that something's happening. Don't get me wrong, something is going to happen now, I think. But people are talking about it like it's right now. Like they're handing us parts, and it's the Latino thing, and it's like, "You're so lucky to be Latino." Yes. Try talking with my accent for a week.

Does it put you in an awkward position because you and Jennifer are getting all the parts?

No. Me and Jennifer are not getting well, in a way, yes. But Jennifer doesn't get the Latino parts. Jennifer's from New York. Jennifer doesn't have an accent. I mean, she could [but] there are no Latino parts. The Latino parts [that there are], the reason I don't do them is because I [would] have a small part in the movie, or it's a very, very small low budget film. There are no Latino parts.

What about Selena?

Selena, yes. How long ago? [And that was] because Selena died. So there was one Latino girl who also didn't speak Spanish, [who] was from Texas, OK? And that's because she died, it became this thing. "Let's make a movie. Let's make a movie right away."

The Mask of Zorro?

OK. Zorro. It's one movie every two, three years. But, it's good because before it wasn't even that [in the past]. And Zorro was done by a [Welsh] girl. Do you have any interest in doing any Spanish-language movies?

I do. I just produced a film called No One Writes to the Colonel, based on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. I have a small part there. Hey, look, I shouldn't be complaining. I'm doing great. All I'm saying is, it's a little bit of a fantasy that has been created by a media that is so hot to be Latino because two people are singing songs and selling records. The truth is that there is an audience out there and there are a lot of us in the country. And Americans are [just] beginning to realize that. By the way, Ricky Martin has always been big in that market. For years. It's just that now he's added the American market, which I could not be happier about.

Does it boil down to money?

This is a business.

What do you think might change things? What is needed? More Latino screenwriters? More Latino directors?

Right now, yes. More Latino screenwriters. But honestly, my very personal opinion is it [works] out to people. Like saying, "OK, we wrote a part for a Latino. Bring in a Latino." But people say, "OK, we have a man here who's lost a child, who's lost a job, and goes into middle age crisis and is trying to rebuild his life." They should open the door for Latino actors to come and audition for that. Even if it doesn't say it's a Latino guy. It's just a conflict that [anyone] can go through, that he can go through.

So, it's not more Latino parts, it's opening up all those areas.

That's what I think. That's what I think. And that's the same for blacks. I think it's good for the industry. [But] that's a lot to ask. So maybe it would be a good start if they started writing some Latino parts so that some Latino people can be put in them.

Speaking of Latino parts, do you still plan on doing a Frida Kahlo biopic?

Yes. The exciting part for me is that I've been in love with this woman and her life and her work since I was 14 years old. And I am dying to be able to make a good movie about her, so that the whole world can see it. That's what really excites me.