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Wild Wild Wild at heart

She's gorgeous and talented, but it is her feisty spirit and quick wits that have made Salma Hayek

25 July 1999 - Hollywood's most successful Latina actress flutters her tiny hands and shrieks with laughter. "If I wasn't an actress I'd be the president of Mexico," she says in her scratchy voice. "No question about it."Phew! Could Mexico cope with a slow-burning Latin spitfire, the hottest thing to come out of that country since the rest of the world discovered enchiladas and hot chilli peppers? With her scorching charisma and fast tongue, Hayek would have them revamp from third to first world overnight.

Hayek is now Hollywood's hottest Latina. We saw her in From Dusk 'Til Dawn, written by Quentin Tarantino, dancing naked on a table wrapped only in a large snake. She also got to sleep with Antonio Banderas in Roberto Rodriguez's Desperado, made Laurence Fishburne's blood rise in Fled, and had mother-in-law problems with Matthew Perry in Fools Rush In.

She's been busy, with two new films set for release soon: Dogma, the controversial Kevin (Clerks) Smith's comic celestial fantasy-horror, and the Mexican film of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel No One Writes to the Colonel in which her production company Tabasco Films was involved. Then there's the $102-million Will Smith hit Wild Wild West, which opened in South Africa this weekend.

"In Dogma I am a muse who asks God's permission to come to earth to become a famous writer," says Hayek, who turns 30 in September. "In No One Writes to the Colonel I have a tiny role as a girl who had a relationship with the late son of the colonel. In Wild Wild West I am a mysterious entertainer called Rita Escobar."

Wild Wild West, directed by Barry (Men in Black) Sonnenfeld, is set in America's Old West in 1869 and is based on a '60s TV western series starring Robert Conrad. Will Smith plays a retro-cool government agent cowboy, James West, with Kevin Kline as his sidekick, Artemus Gordon. They match wits and weapons with Dr Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a brilliant inventor who, due to a botched scientific experiment, has lost the lower half of his body. Now half man, half machine, Loveless is seeking revenge on the world and plans to assassinate the US president. Along the way they meet a seductive entertainer (Hayek) with an agenda of her own.

"Wild Wild West was both easy and difficult to make because it's a movie about many things, not about the characters, but about the wild, wild West," she says. "My character is definitely out of her element and doesn't have a clue how she will manage this adventure. "Let's say she's a little naive. But hell, Kevin Kline's character has a crush on me. Can't be too bad!

"It's clear that Hayek doesn't take shit from anyone. She started life as a soap opera diva from Coatzacoalcos in Veracruz, Mexico and, after chipping away at Hollywood's white-bread face, seems to be getting a toe-hold on the high-rise of fame.

"I'm half Lebanese - my grandparents on my father's side are Lebanese," she says. "My father's an entrepreneur, my mother's a Mexican firebrand, and I wasn't born to be mild."

Apparently, when she was 12, Hayek told her father she'd go on strike and fail all her school work unless he sent her to school in the US. He sent her to a posh Catholic college in Texas, but she was thrown out - and that was not just for flunking chemistry.

"I was bad," recalls Hayek mischievously, a sort of young latin Lucille Ball, tiny, a lot of fun and fizzlingly attractive. Apparently dyslexic, she can talk the back leg off a Mexican ass.

Hayek left school at 16 and skipped university to start acting. Her first role was on stage in a Spanish play during which, it is said, lads in the audience were so enchanted by her they used to regularly storm the stage to save her during scenes in which the villain threatened her.

She became a regular on the day-time soaps and soon, in Latin America, everyone who watched TV hung on Hayek's every tantrum in Teresa, Mexico's most popular show.

Aged 22 she headed for Hollywood with no job and not a lot of English either. "Everybody thought it was crazy," she says. "Nobody leaves when you're doing so good, but I believe in instinct."Her Hollywood break came after producer Elizabeth Avellan happened to be channel-surfing in bed one night. "She was talking about the state of the entertainment industry towards Latinas," recalls Avellan. "She was so ballsy. I wanted to put her on screen just the way she was."

Hayek is still vocal - and passionate - on the subject.

"Gringos always paint Latinas as sexy spitfires," she says, looking every centimetre the part. "They don't shape when it comes to playing non-Latina roles. America wants nice white American girls for that. They tried to change my name. 'Anything other than Salma Hayek,' they said. 'it's difficult to pronounce.' I said, 'I'm sorry, this name has been with me since I was born; it stays.' How could I abandon my name?"

It will be years before me and mine with our funny accents and fiery tempers are totally accepted in Hollywood. I will die and it will take three generations of Mexican actresses to finish the work that I'm sure I didn't start - there must have been someone in front of me fighting already - but certainly will keep up as long as I breathe."

Hayek (pronounced High-ek) now lives up in the hills in Los Angeles, in a '50s house that her brother Sami recently converted into an exotic Mexican hacienda. She lives with English actor Edward Atterton whom she met a couple of years ago. (She was previously engaged to Richard Crenna Jr, the son of Richard Crenna who played the grizzled colonel in all the Rambo movies.)

"I believe in destiny," Hayek says. "It was my destiny to meet an Englishman in France. My family love him. His parents are lovely. He is feisty and sexy and I love him so much. Love is way too precious to be too easy. It's something you have to earn, have to achieve. I think you have to go through many obstacles in life together and overcome them before you realise whether true love is there or not."

There has to be the chemistry, the compatibility. And we both know it's not bad to be sexy. My grandmother keeps asking about babies. She might have a grandchild in maybe a year, a year-and-a- half, but I am so busy. I am only 30. I have 10 years to go."

The same grandmother, Hayek recounts, used to shave her young granddaughter's head and clip her eyebrows in the belief that it would make her hair more luxurious. It seems to have worked on the hair and as for the eyebrows, any help in that department will come in useful for Hayek's next project, a biopic of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who died in 1954.

Kahlo was married to fellow painter Diego Rivera, she was bisexual, and sported a unibrow - eyebrows that joined in the middle. The test shots of Hayek as Kahlo reflect some of her grandmother's forethought."God knows what the execs at Revlon are going to think," she jokes, being the occasional "face" of Revlon. "It's fun to come to America and do action projects, but I always want to go back to Mexico and make art films. Believe it or not, I have been studying acting for years and want 'acting' not 'action' for a change. I even studied with Stella Adler before she died. I still take classes in Los Angeles when I'm not working.

"I was so relieved to play in a romantic comedy like Fools Rush In as opposed to an action film like Desperado because I was beginning to worry that I'd be an action chick for the rest of my life. I must say that I found comedy as hard, or harder, than action because, being Mexican, my humour is nothing like that of an American. We don't always get those 'knock, knock/who's there?' sort of jokes. There's a difference in cultures."But I've had so many laughs in my working life. A recent one was when the snake dance I did in From Dusk 'til Dawn became a hit with the strippers in Las Vegas. I was shooting a film there and went with the guys to a club for a bit of fun. During a break in the show all the strippers came up to me and asked me to do the snake dance for them because they get a lot of people coming in and asking them to do the dance for them.

"I didn't do the dance, but I took it as a huge compliment."