Breaking the mould
INTERVIEW: She’s a pint-sized firecracker, not afraid to let her hair down – take her earrings off – and have fun. DONALD CLARKEenjoys the company of Mexican actor and film producer Salma Hayek
LOOK AT ME now! I’m taking these off. So, look at me now.” After inclining either side of her head towards me, Salma Hayek wearily removes her earrings and emits a satisfied sigh. The relevant items of jewellery – she seems to want you to know – dangled green stones to a depth of about half an inch.
If we know two things about the Mexican actor, it is that she is very short and she is very good fun. Salma doesn’t stand up during our meeting, so I can’t tell if she’s as tiny as rumour suggests. But she’s certainly a proper riot.
Now 46, she recently married François-Henri Pinault, a staggeringly rich French businessman, and moved to a suave area of Paris. Knowing what French women are like, I imagine she feels obliged to dress this smartly at all times.
“That is an issue. That is an issue,” she says with a vigorous nod. “But, hey, it’s the least I can do. There are so many other wonderful things about Paris. It’s the least I can do. I love it in Paris.” But she’s so far from home. Daughter of an opera singer and an oil executive, Salma Hayek Jiménez was raised in Veracruz and attended university in Mexico City. It’s been 20 years since she left home for Hollywood. But nobody could ever mistake her for anything other than a Mexican.
“I miss so many things about Mexico,” she sighs. “There is that sense of relaxation within people. They are always ready to be your best friend. You don’t get this guardedness you find everywhere else. There is this sense of humour. There is an ability to laugh at everything. Things don’t work well. So we have to improvise.”
Hang on. This sounds familiar. “In many ways the Mexicans are not so far from the Irish. If I tried to find a nation to compare , it would be the Irish.”
Hayek is in London to promote her appearance in the latest festival of noise and bombast from Oliver Stone. In Savages, she excels as a savage drug magnate who will stop at nothing to achieve her megalomaniac ends. It’s a cracking turn: part Scarface, part Wicked Witch of the West.
“It’s difficult to get parts where you’re a woman with power. And Oliver Stone is not known for his female roles. Watching trailers for the action films this summer, it’s all bang, bang. There’s all this testosterone. But I think maybe Oliver has got in touch with his feminine side in this film.”
Hayek mentions the difficulty of getting to play powerful women. She has – throughout her career – also had to contend with Hollywood’s reluctance to cast Spanish-speaking actors in major roles. After graduation, she rapidly secured a part in that weird class of Mexican soap opera known as the telenovela. (“That was really easy,” she laughs. “You don’t even have to learn lines. They feed the words through an earpiece and you repeat them.”)
In 1991, she moved to Los Angeles to study acting. Work did not come quickly. In 1995, she secured the leading female role in Robert Rodriguez’ Mexican western Desperado. A year later, she popped up in the same director’s From Dusk Till Dawn. Then, not a lot.
Her effervescent charm was immediately evident. But there still seemed to be a glass ceiling in place for Mexican (and Spanish) actors. With the subsequent advance of such performers as Benicio Del Toro, Javier Bardem and Hayek’s great pal Antonio Banderas, that situation does seem to have changed.
In 2003, Hayek was Oscar nominated for her performance as Frida Kahlo in Julie Taymor’s Frida, a film the actress helped produce. “Absolutely. When I came to America first, there were no parts and they would not encourage you,” she says. “They would say: ‘Go back home and do a telenovela.’ Getting a lead role in a movie was hard for a Mexican. Before me, the last Mexican who had a career as a lead actress was before sound. It was Dolores del Rio. When sound came in she had to go back to Mexico.”
So what has changed? “A combination of many things at the same time. They started acknowledging the power of Mexicans as consumers. But not right away. So many of us were pushing at the door. Eventually they had to acknowledge us as consumers.”
Throughout this progress to proper fame, her middle-class parents were consistently concerned, but only intermittently supportive. Dad made sure she went to university. Mum, a performer herself, worried that the only work for a Mexican actor would be in telenovelas.
“And she thought that was beneath me,” Salma says. But those odd shows do bring real fame.
“Oh yes. Like that!” she says with a snap of her fingers. “I didn’t deal with it so well at first. There was so much attention all of a sudden. A little fame is nice. Too much is not.”
But she must admit that part of the spur – a teeny, tiny part – for actors is the need to be recognised. “A little bit. Just a little bit,” she concedes. “I will tell you what is exciting about being an actor – much more than the fame. It’s the ability to cheat life. They tell you that you can only have one life. You can only be who you are. The opportunity to be so many things and be forgiven for what you do is tremendous. As an actor, you can kill somebody. You can be the queen of the drug cartel. You can be somebody really poor. You take that journey and then you can shake it off. Yes, you shake it off! That’s great.”
So I would take it she didn’t mind jettisoning her telenovela fame when she headed for Hollywood. It took five or six years before she became a proper movie star. Mind you, southern California – so much Spanish spoken; so many Mexicans about the place – must have felt a little like a home away from home?
“Yes. But no. No! It still feels far away,” she prevaricates. “But it didn’t really bother me so much. If I was worried I could have gone home and done another soap opera.”
Things seem to have worked out nicely. An organised woman with an unmistakable strip of steel in her backbone, Hayek straddles the planet with supreme confidence. She travels to Africa to promote Unicef’s beast-feeding initiative. She acts in the US. And her home is now in Paris.
I trust she is making her daughter Valentina, who turned five last week, aware of that Mexican heritage. “She has spoken perfect Spanish, English and French since she was two,” she almost yells. “And I am still struggling with French. There is a great Mexican community in Paris. Last week it was Independence Day and I was able to take her to a Mexican party. She had Mexican food and everyone was shouting: ‘Viva Mexico!’ She got to interact with crazy Mexicans.”
What can Monsieur Pinault have made of it all? “
My poor husband must have been in shock. But he’s such a good sport.” He’d want to be. You’re a hoot, Ms H.
Savages is on general release