by Lesley O'Toole
It's 3am and I'm zipping through the deserted streets of Cannes. In the back of a limo. With Salma Hayek. We're coming from the screening of her film Dogma - co-starring a couple of blokes called Matt and Ben (Damon, Affleck).
Salma's exhausted and can't wait to crawl into bed. But, as we draw up at her hotel, at least 20 paparazzi are waiting to pounce. She doesn't complain. She puts on a happy face and gets out of the car. Three seconds later, I glimpse her backed up against a wall, a barrage of flashbulbs firing in her face.
Welcome to Salma Hayek's vida loca.
At the lavish US premiere of her new film Wild Wild West - co-starring some other blokes called Will, Kev and Ken (Smith, Kline, Branagh) - it was Hayek the hundreds of photographers went berserk over. "I've never seen anything like it," she says. "It was crazier than the Oscars."
Though the film uses only a small proportion of Hayek's considerable assets (mainly her physical ones), director Barry Sonnenfeld was blown away: "I really wasn't sure if she could do comedy, but she's been a revelation. She reminds me of Katharine Hepburn..." He pauses, then adds cheekily "...and best of all, everything about Salma is real."
Now the toast of Cannes and Hollywood, Hayek has come a long way since she moved to LA in 1991 as a wide-eyed ingénue. A huge star in Mexico since starring in a TV soap aged 21, Hayek already knew that big money alone ("And I earned a lot") would not sustain her creative fire. She wanted to make movies. "I knew I did since I was very small and had a huge crush on Clint Eastwood. I would watch all his movies and just stare at his nose."
Even before she was making her own money, Hayek had a comparatively charmed life. Her half-Lebanese, half-Mexican father made a fortune in the oil business, so Salma and her brother Sami grew up in some luxury, including a convent school in Louisiana - from which she was expelled for unconvent-girl-like behaviour (prank-playing mostly). But arriving in LA as a Mexican speaking almost no English, Hayek immediately hit the enormous racism confronting all Latinas, whether they're gardeners or actors. Sure she had money, but her career prospects were not good. "I would walk into agents' offices with my showreel, which, of course, was all in Spanish. These people would literally laugh in my face."
More than once, she was reduced to tears. More than once, she was invited out to dinner by agents whose primary interest was not, shall we say, signing her. Finally she met a decent guy interested in helping her without the casting couch. He couldn't sign her but he remembered the sparky, gorgeous girl when a job came up for a Latina girl on the TV series Dream On. He arranged an audition but warned that her chances of getting it were infinitesimal. Naturally, Hayek went after the role with her usual tenacity. She got a call-back. And she booked the job.
"That was the beginning," she recalls. Fate soon intervened. After seeing Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi one evening, she drove home exhilarated. The film was 'new and brilliant', and she felt inspired that the part-Mexican director had also written and produced it with a budget of practically nothing. "I wanted so much to meet him. I got into bed, went to sleep and then the phone rang. It was his wife Elisabeth saying, 'Robert would like to meet you'."
Not surprisingly, Hayek believes in destiny. And in persistence. Rodriguez, who was casting his first big studio film, Desperado, starring Antonio Banderas, had spotted Hayek being interviewed on a Spanish-language cable channel. He knew he'd found his female lead and asked his wife to track her down. "It was really like a Hollywood dream come true," says Hayek.
Not that her journey from Desperado to Wild Wild West has been easy. Hollywood hasn't had a big female Mexican star since Dolores Del Rio's femmes fatales back in the Thirties. Only last year Hayek was up for a role in a big studio film - and didn't get the part: "One of the executives told me he didn't think anyone would buy a Mexican in space."
Now, all of a sudden, Latino is being touted as the USA's cultural flavour of the month. Puerto Rican Ricky Martin tops the pops, and Bronx-born Jennifer Lopez straddles pop and film. But there's also an outcry because none of September's 26 new primetime TV shows features Latinos or blacks. Anyway, I suspect Hayek has come so far because Hollywood perceives her not as Latina, but as a bombshell. Few beauties possess anything like her business acumen. Or her determination. "I know I'm a workaholic," she confesses. "I haven't had a holiday in years. But I have to work hard. It is still not easy."
Besides working on her film career, Hayek runs her own production company. Only, unlike most stars' vanity companies, this one is extraordinarily productive. Ventanarosa ('pink window') has a contract to make English- and Spanish-language TV programmes and has already produced two films: The Velocity Of Gary in English starring Hayek and Vincent D'Onofrio, and No One Writes To The Colonel in Spanish and French, also shown at Cannes this year, with Hayek in a cameo. 'I needed to be in it to raise the money to get it made.'
The next project is a film showcasing Hayek's dramatic talent, so far under-employed by Hollywood. It's her long cherished dream of playing Frida Kahlo, the tragic Mexican painter almost as famous for her love affair with artist Diego Rivera as for her work. Miramax is making it next year - with or without the Rivera that Hayek longs to play opposite. "It's no secret that we want Alfred Molina because he is perfect for Diego, but there are some issues with dates." Will there also, as Kahlo was famously bisexual, be girl-on-girl scenes? "Oh yes, there'll be some of those."
Hitherto, circumstances have conspired to keep Hayek from donning Kahlo's trademark meet-in-the-middle eyebrows. "It's been a tough ride, but I've never been so passionate about anything before in my life. Frida is so magical, she captures you and drags you into her. Every time I fight and win another battle, I can just feel her laughing, watching me struggle for years and years to get this made. But I feel she has made me stronger and by the time I make this film, I will feel I have earned it like nothing before in my life."
One thing she has already earned is the requisite house in the Hollywood Hills. Gorgeously furnished, and painted bright blue like many houses back in Mexico, it's dotted, good Catholic-girl-style, with numerous crosses and crucifixes and a life-sized wooden Jesus. "The only problem is, I'm not a good Catholic girl," giggles Hayek. The huge wooden deck, with blue-tiled pool and comfy loungers, has a fantastic view over the city Hayek calls home. "My life is crazy," she says, "so it's really important to come home and have a nice place to relax."
It's not just her acting that has paid for the home. She has a lucrative contract with Revlon and has done commercials for blue-chip companies like Pepsi. "I'm never going to be a model because you can't get shorter than me." (Curvaceous on screen, she's an extremely petite 5ft 2in.) "What I am is an actress with a certain level of celebrity which means you get to do some other business. It just happens that I've had the opportunity to do some very good business, which has allowed me to be picky with my acting jobs because I'm not desperate."
What sort of roles is she looking for? Not ones where she's required to get her kit off, that's for sure (sorry, guys). She's currently playing a detective in Shiny New Enemies, now filming in Vancouver. "I want to make films which make me feel good about what I'm doing, and I want to always be true to myself. If you do that, you will grow as an artist. Once you stop thinking that way, you stop growing."
Wild Wild West opens Fri 13 Aug.