The Mexican actress lives the dream of her life: to play Frida Kahlo. A woman that got to identify herself with a not-so-easy character. Revive the passion of Salma Hayek.
By Alicia Aldrete / Cambio Magazine
Pictures by Atonatiuh S. Bracho
Frida Kahlo always appeared as a tormented woman. The polio that affected her right leg, the accident she suffered in a tramcar, her love for Diego Rivera, the surgeries she had to go through, the abortions and the affairs of both (Frida's and Diego's), caused her an halo of constant martyrdom and of common intensity. Of scandal. That is what her paintings transmit, her face of encountered brows, the shadow of an incipient moustache, her unique way of dressing. Another Frida, different but identical, was the one who received us last week at the Forum 5 of the Churubusco Studios, in Mexico City. In spite of the fact that she was wearing a garment just as Kahlo used to wear, this Frida -Salma Hayek- of lavender underskirts, embroidery shirt, plaits and many rings, was fresher, more beautiful and less wounded.
"Hello", she said to everybody and greeted each of us with a kiss. She smiled with simplicity and invited us to go through the history of Frida -hers now- in the reproductions that were made for the film she leads.
The XXI century Frida has a long story as well -of more than 10 years-. It started with Madonna, the first one to postulate for the role of Frida, at the end of the 80's. The singer -a Kahlo's work collectivist- had already played Evita and imagined herself as Frida. She visited Mexico in several occasions as a means of testing the moods, and to approach the character. The episode didn't go forward and it remained an anecdote.
"Jennifer will be Frida, let's face reality, and a star who has box office appeal and the capacity of attracting a young audience is needed in the business of world cinema", sentenced Luis Valdez early 2000, referring to the 'Two Fridas' movie he wanted to do in the early 90's with Laura San Giacomo and Raúl Julia in the leading roles. Valdez's problem was that he didn't choose Mexican actors, fact that provoked a big wave of protests from the Latin artistic community. With a finished script and a Frida and a Diego already hired, he had to shelve the project and forget about the idea for a while. In the 2000 version of Valdez's Frida, besides Jennifer there would have been Richard Gere and Leonardo DiCaprio and Francis Ford Coppola producing.
At mid 90's Salma entered the scenery and made the character hers. It was then that HBO hired Mexican director Roberto Sneider ('Dos Crímenes') to direct 'Frida'. The project went from HBO to Trimark, and finally to Miramax. Sneider didn't stay. Salma, on the other hand, started to get into the painter's life at such degree that it wasn't difficult to acquire Kahlo's personality when it was time to stand before the cameras.
There were also many international directors involved. Brazilian Walter Salles -'Central Station'-, Irish Jim Sheridan -'In the Name of the Father'-, Spanish Pedro Almodóvar -'High Heels'-, each one, at one moment, approached the project until Julie Taymor , better known for the movie 'Titus' -her debut starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange-, as well as the direction of the Broadway musical 'The Lion King', took it.
The 'Frida' script had its very own chapter, in which seven specialists -at least- wrote and rewrote the story, between them Salma herself and, it is said, her boyfriend actor Edward Norton. This without mentioning Valdez, who already has a script and a movie at sight.
Part of 'Frida' was shot at the Churubusco Studios, a mini city full of heavy traffic -trucks and trailers- that circulated or tried to park somewhere in the 12,200 square meters place. Of the nine forums, three were used for Salma's film: 4, 5 and 6. The habitants -of many different specialties- were seen arriving in a hurry to their destiny: people pushing stuff, getting in trucks, taking utility from one place to another. And, as a matter of fact, besides us, there weren't reporters at sight. It was a cloudy afternoon with a bit of fresh air.
Inside, XXI century's Frida's excitement was contagious. Her long dresses moved restless and her smile seduced whoever was at her side. Salma is short, thin, but her uncontainable force magnified every gesture, every word, every line. Her face seems as if made only for the cameras, her factions are harmonious. She is a mediated being. Someone said: "In a party, after many drinks, we took a picture, and while one appears battered, tired, she acquires spectacular dimensions."
Salma hurried us so that we saw what there was to see. She occupied the guidance place, and with a soft pace -product of a light limp provoked by shoes designed for that effect- she went deeply into historical episodes and situations she played, that almost seemed as just-lived. "In this room I said good-bye to Trostky, and that's why the windows are walled-up; it was when we ended our relationship. Here, everybody get in, this is my bed", and while watching that piece of furniture it is impossible not to remember that it was there where Frida lived the martyrdom of her last days. "She said 'this is me'. She painted what she felt, her pain, her sexuality, and she did it with a great sense of humor, perhaps a bit macabre. Her last painting is called 'Viva la vida'", said Salma in harmony with our thoughts. "Here is where she painted, still standing", and she posed, without complaining, at the side of an almost-finished painting... Of Frida? Of Salma? Who knows? Because this Frida also smokes and paints, just as the other: "Before coming to Mexico I took classes in New York. My teachers were surprised, I've already made some self-portraits that are great. It's as if Frida's soul possessed me."
In the backyard of the Kahlos' house -pink at the time, then blue, then a museum, in Coyoacán- Salma convoked the crew for a general photo. Trotsky, Nelson Rockefeller and Cristina Kahlo accommodated behind the balustrade. The different spaces delimitated eras; we went through years just by crossing a thin wall. In real life, Frida fell in love with Trotsky in 1938, then moved to her parents' house in 1941 and settled in the same house at Coyoacán in the 50's. The time which indeed obeyed a formal chronology was that of the production work of 14 weeks, of which they are almost all consumed right now.
The tour continued and Salma kept explaining us: "Here we are in New York, there's the mural Diego painted at the Rockefeller Center (1933). That is the second floor of the Secretaría de Educación, where she used to visit Diego when he was married to Lupe Marín (1927).
Frida interrupted the tour in order to search for his bug (term that in Mexico means insect) Edward Norton, who is Nelson Rockefeller in the movie, and her boyfriend in real life. With him close to her, the actress became a simultaneous English-Spanish translator and her face was filled with joy. Even if Norton has a small role in the movie, it was evident that he occupies an enormous place in the actress's life, and neither she nor him tried to hide it that day.
Trotsky -Geoffrey Rush- went in and out of scene, circumspectly looking for his glasses while denying the memory that the Marquis de Sade's madness in 'Quills' left.
The only ones who didn't appear that day were Diego (Alfred Molina), Siqueiros (Antonio Banderas), Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd), Guillermo and Matilde Kahlo (Roger Rees and Patricia Reyes Spíndola).
At that time we shared -besides appetite- a story that seemed confusing because of its similarities: we didn't know if it was being narrated in present form, first person or as a professional performance by Salma. The resemblance between the painter and the actress isn't fortuitous, it obeys a physical truth, both's joy to live and do. "I'm of the same height as Frida was -she told us-, I tried on some of her dresses and they fit me perfectly."
BEFORE THE CALL
"Lets eat, please -Salma insisted- I'm starving." The dining room is outside: a corridor covered with awnings. The menu was as varied as the aspect of the people thee: young men with red and long hair, technicians from every specialty, distinguished visitors.
We chose a big table so that we could sit together. Still dressed as Frida she rolled behind her companions and served herself some meatballs, red rice, a little bit of salad and a diet soda. She ate with grace and never abandoned the chat, or the English version that Norton -who sat by her side- heard without missing any detail, although his Spanish is already quite good. On the other side, Cristina, Mia Maestro, sat. She's the one from 'Tango', which once again plays sister to Salma, just as in 'In the Time of the Butterflies', in which both die for opposing dictator Trujillo's regime, in the Dominican Republic.
The top was occupied by Julie Taymor, director of 'Frida'. She doesn't speak Spanish, but that didn't leave her outside the conversation. Julie is better-known in the theater world. She is famous for the puppets and masks she designs, of oriental inspiration, product of long periods of time in which she lived in Indonesia when she was young.
Salma offered us some dessert. She stood up and brought us some cheese and stuff. She went back to Frida and asked for a cigarette, which she smoked and enjoyed as if she had years with the vice, when as a matter of fact she had just learned for the movie.
Edward Norton was kind and well-mannered. He could pass as any boy walking through a park or sitting in a coffee shop. He wore jeans, a blue shirt and tennis shoes. He has nothing to do with his performances in 'Fight Club' and 'American History X'.
Norton studied at Yale, and his big screen debut was in 1996. He is an entertaining chatter. He told how his parents met in the New York City subway; qualified as "not so deep" his upcoming movie costarring Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando; and told the story about Rivera's mural in the Rockefeller Center: "The job was first offered to Picasso, but he declined", he said. "Other artists went by, and because of Rockefeller's son insistence the job was offered to the Mexican muralist. When he presented the preliminary work Lenin wasn't in it, he appeared as a revenge of all the negative noise his project provoked."
Mia Maestro was always attentive. She's exceptionally beautiful. She really looked like the younger sister of Frida, or Salma, and she behaved that way. She spoke softly and with an Argentinean accent, a detail that denounced the absence of real family bonds between them.
When Salma was called back to shoot, Mia stayed with her brother-in-law and translated the conversations for him.
One by one, everyone left to continue with their work. So did we, with the impression of having truly lived the miracle of the two Fridas.