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Wild Wild West, with salsa - Salma Hayek adds Mexican spice to comedy

By Bob Thompson Tuesday, July 6, 1999

HOLLYWOOD -- When Salma Hayek drives her car in L.A., she likes to move it from A to B as efficiently as possible.
H She learned to drive, you see, in Mexico City where hesitating is unthinkable. "If you don't get in there, you'll never make it to the next block," confirms Hayek, referring to the congested Mexico City streets and highways and the aggressive drivers who drive them. The 30-year-old, decked out in a all-white Chanel suit at a Beverly Hills Hotel, grins devilishly, letting the image sink in a little. "My driving abilities from Mexico," adds Hayek, making her point, "have helped me get through Hollywood."

No kidding. She certainly navigated her way into one of the biggest summer movies, Barry Sonnenfeld's Wild Wild West. She plays the damsel in distress opposite Will Smith in the special effects remake of the '60s series. The film also stars Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh. For Hayek, the role represents a high-profile turning point. Previously, she had near misses with well-received portrayals in The Faculty, Fled, 54, Fools Rush In, Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn. Not that she's complaining. Hayek is happy with her American movie industry lot in life. She should be. Hayek could barely speak English when she arrived here less than a decade ago fresh from a highly rated Mexican TV soap, Teresa.

Movie star mingling was not her motivation. Neither was becoming as famous as she was in Mexico. She wanted to get better. Now, toward that goal, the hands-on Hayek has her own production company with TV deals and more than a few movies in pre-production, including a Frida Kahlo movie biography she will star in next year. Vanity projects? Not really. A producing staff to help her? As a producer, she's on her own. "I'm tough, though," says Hayek as if to explain the contradiction of her cheery self. "It comes naturally to me. "And in the beginning, I had to be. Everybody was like, 'Yeah right, it's another actor who has a production company, has somebody run it for them.' " Presently, she's an actress for hire, filming the comedy Shiny New Enemies in Vancouver with Jeff Goldblum. She's also featured in Kevin Smith's Dogma, due out in the fall. "I play a muse, Serendipity," says Hayek of her part in the film, which spoofs religion generally and the Catholic Church specifically. Imagine all of that and she just turned 30. So what was it like for you? "Next question," she says joking. "No, I really do feel like I have accomplished a lot. I feel like where I am is a good place to be."

Indeed, she had those same feelings when she was 18 and famous in her native land. She also remembers the advice and the warning from Lucy Orozco, the Mexico City producer who discovered her. "She said to me, 'You know what? Being a star has nothing to do with being a good actress, or a nice person. It's very simple. It's a chemistry that you have with the camera.' "And she said to me, 'You have it. And don't let anybody tell you different. You can be sure of this.' "Then she looked me in the eyes, and she said, 'The question you have to ask yourself is, is that enough for you?' " Apparently, it wasn't.