AFTER fame in Mexico, Salma Hayek hit Hollywood with charming innocence, self-belief and persistence. It may have taken time for her calls to get through, but now nobody puts her on hold.
Some actresses shy away from discussing age or looks. Who can blame them; it’s a minefield. Too self-deprecating and you risk sounding phony. Too ebullient about a set of good genes and you may come across as smug. And, of course, there’s the whole knotty question of whether it’s a bit sexist to quiz actresses about beauty when nobody feels compelled to ask James McAvoy or Ewan McGregor whether they owe their careers to some exquisite cheekbones or an ability to eat without gaining a pound.
Salma Hayek makes it easy. “Forty six,” she says, with some pride. “And no Botox.” She’s used to this kind of scrutiny. While researching her role as a drug kingpin in Oliver Stone’s Savages, she met with a mob boss, who decided that sharing lifestyles should be a two-way street. “She gave me a lot of information but she also wanted a lot from me – like, ‘Do you do Botox?’ We were about the same age, and I told her ‘I don’t do Botox, or fillers.’ So she asked, ‘Do you have any very good plastic surgeon doctors that you can recommend?’”
When you see Hayek in the flesh, you can understand the curiosity. She is small, but not insignificant. “When I was young, I was teased about being so short. It was like a deformity and I’d go home and say, ‘Everybody teases me, I’m always the first one in the line,’ but my father said to me, ‘Intelligence is not measured from your feet to your head, it is measured from your head to the infinite.’”
She may not give door-lintels a hard time but there’s a lot packed into Hayek. Even for an actress, she is ridiculously beautiful, with clear, unlined latte skin and a va-va-voom silhouette that is accentuated by careful, structured dressing, with the emphasis on glamour. (“Weight goes to my bosom first, and if I don’t show a little cleavage I just look fat.”)
More importantly, she’s also dynamic, hyperbolic and enormous fun. Hayek is comfortable in her body, and clearly her comfort extends to talking about it. She launched her own line of cosmetics, skincare and haircare products in America, based on potions her grandmother used to cococt. “She had something with pepper that could grow hair on a bald man,” enthuses Hayek, although that’s not part of her range. And she’s keen to stress that a beauty regime should not get in the way of enjoying life. She drinks (“I married a Frenchman”), she sunbathes and until recently used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day.
She’s also happy to share horror stories from the time when she first arrived in the US and struggled to find work. “I had acne so bad that I could not leave the house. I would wake up the morning and touch my face before I got up, to prepare myself before looking in the mirror. And I was so depressed that I turned to food. So I was fat and I had spots. I couldn’t leave the house and I couldn’t pay my bills.”
She credits her friend Alfonso Cuaron, who directed arthouse hits like Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men as well as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He encouraged her to take positive action by seeking out stress-management techniques and the acne medication Accutane.
Hayek had arrived in the US feeling as if she was already a star, thanks to a Mexican soap opera that made her famous in Hispanic countries but cut no ice with Hollywood casting agents – who told her that she would have to lose her accent because it reminded the audience of their housekeepers.
Mexico was not that supportive either – there was a little schadenfreude when she was not immediately successful. The feeling was that by leaving a successful television career for another country, she had overreached herself. Yet, at the same time, her fellow countrymen offered some unexpected consolation after another unsuccessful audition at a studio. Hayek remembers making her way to the car park to retrieve her vehicle, feeling small and ignored, and immediately found herself mobbed by Latino valets who were fans of her earlier work. At this point, she spoke very little English. “I could say ‘blue sweater’, ‘crème brûlée’, and ‘Caesar salad’. Good words for vacations but not really for engaging with Americans,” she recalls.
Soon after arriving, she signed up for acting classes with renowned coach Stella Adler. Classmates included Benicio Del Toro and Mark Ruffalo. Then someone told her that the very best actors were represented by the William Morris agency. So she called them. “I said, ‘May I speak to Mr Morris.’ And they said, ‘He is dead.’” Even then, Hayek failed to realise that her call was the equivalent of phoning Disney studios and asking for Walt. “So next I asked to talk to Mr William Morris’s son – and they hung up,” she laughs.
“I was so naive that I’d send the tape of my soap around, and I’d pick all the crying scenes. I thought that crying would really impress them. People would look at me like I was an alien.”
Her big break came when Robert Rodriguez cast her in the 1995 western Desperado as the local bookstore owner in a violent bandit town whose occupants are serially gunned down by Antonio Banderas. “I read the first review, and it said, ‘Salma Hayek is a bombshell,’” remembers Hayek. “I had heard that when a movie does badly here, they say it bombs. So I cried because I thought they were saying, ‘Salma Hayek is the worst part of the movie.’ It wasn’t until I called a friend that I discovered, ‘No, they’re saying you’re very sexy.’”
There’s a thread of steel in Hayek, who doesn’t seem to have learnt the word no in any language. “I’m grateful to everyone who gave me an opportunity,” she says. “But there hasn’t been that many. I fought very, very hard for every silly little role.” When she couldn’t get the parts she wanted, she created them. Frida, the biopic she produced in 2002 about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
Her persistence is generally credited with getting the picture produced, after being talked about for eight years. Not even Madonna had enough star power to make the film a reality. It earned her a string of Oscar nominations, including one for best actress, but surprisingly it did not change her life. Casting directors still have difficulty seeing a Mexican actress as anything but “a waitress, a whore or a maid”, she explains. And though she and other Spanish and Latino actors, including Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Gael Garcia Bernal, have joined the ranks of the Hollywood elite, there is still a fight against preconceptions. “After I did Frida, still nobody hired me, but it was OK because at least I had done something I was proud of, that was meaningful to me.”
Hayek has also become a director, winning an Emmy in 2003 for The Maldonado Miracle, and has also branched out into producing, including an upcoming animated film called The Prophet, and most successfully Channel 4’s Ugly Betty, adapted from a hit Mexican series. “What I loved about Betty is that she is a fighter, she has a sense of humor about herself, and she’s more confident than anyone else around her. And in a country that is so image-oriented, I wanted to see that on television. I wanted to have a character that was just normal-looking, or maybe even pretty; but the fashion industry that thinks she’s ugly just because she’s not skinny and tall. The name is sarcastic.”
As the only daughter of a wealthy Lebanese-born businessman and a Mexican opera singer, some of her entrepreneurial drive is inherited. Her father owned a chain of hardware stores, a construction company and oil fields, and she had a privileged childhood that included a series of pet tigers. Now, after long-term relationships with actors Edward Norton and Josh Lucas, she is back in business again since marrying her Frenchman, the billionaire François-Henri Pinault, whose companies include Christies, Gucci and Yves St Laurent.
They married twice; once privately on Valentine’s Day, then later, in Venice, in an opulent ceremony where the bride wore Balenciaga (he owns that too). This brought clarity to the relationship after some public vagueness. They had lived on separate continents, Hayek had their daughter Valentina, Pinault got sued for maintenance for a child by Linda Evanglelista (now settled out of court) and there was a point where they split up entirely. That, according to Hayek, was their last big row, and the relationship has gone smoothly ever since.
Hayek now splits her time between Paris and Los Angeles, and takes four-year-old Valentina everywhere. “She’s young, but if it gets in the way of her development, I’ll just stop working. For now, I take it day by day.” As well as Savages, she also shot a comedy Here Comes the Boom, with Hitch’s Kevin James. “Valentina loved it because she could sit right next to the monitor, and the director would let her call, ‘Action’, so Kevin and I were following orders. But I know Oliver Stone would not let her come on set and take over.”
It is, perhaps, the oddest romantic coupling since Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques plighted their troth in Carry on Matron but James jokes that that Hayek committed totally to the role. “There’s a bit that isn’t in the film where she attacks me and knees me down south. I was out for, like, ten minutes. She’s crazy,” he says affectionately.
Hayek just laughs at this. “When I was young, I was much more melodramatic. There were times I even enjoyed suffering a little, or at least I was inclined towards it. Now I prefer making comedies.”
Occasionally, she also makes headlines. In particular, she caused a minor sensation when she visited Africa as part of a Unicef campaign and was filmed nursing a starving baby. “I received so many hate letters,” says Hayek, who was weaning Valentina at the time. “She was not there with me, and there was a hungry baby who was crying because his mother had no milk. I thought, ‘Why throw away my milk if I can give it to a baby who needs it?’ We were in a remote place, the mother was desperate, her baby was starving and I had milk. It was such a practical, normal thing for me to do. I have never been a controversial figure and I don’t want to be.”
This was supposed to have been a private gesture, but the story and footage leaked out. Hayek, however, has no regrets. “My husband thought I did the right thing. My daughter thought it was a good thing too when I told her.”
Another reason for her empathy was that her own pregnancy had been difficult. Hayek developed gestational diabetes, but Valentina was a longed-for child. “I had thought maybe I would not marry, but I always hoped to have children,” she says. “My life is completely different now. Other things are more important than my career, so if someone said I could be the most famous and best-paid actress in exchange for my current life, then I wouldn’t do it.”
Sweetly, she throws in a final thought that seems to have sealed her deal. “It is easier to get an Oscar than a good husband.”
Here Comes the Boom is released on Friday