Force of nature

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Stylist Team
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Mexico's hottest export, Hollywood trailblazer and France's most ferocious football fan; Stylist speaks to Salma Hayek

Words: Sarah May

Salma Hayek is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful and sensual actresses on earth. It turns out that today she’s also one of the hungriest. “Where’s the food?” she gasps, striding into the suite we’ve reserved in the Four Seasons, Beverly Hills. “I heard there were churros? Where are the churros?” We quickly discover that the hotel is fresh out of the foot-long doughnuts. “Oh well,” she shrugs, and declares herself ready for our interview. It’s safe to say Salma’s latest character, Elena ‘La Reina’, wouldn’t have been so blasé about this turn of events.

In her new film Savages, the 46 year old plays the ruthless and terrifying leader of a Mexican drug cartel with a penchant for eyewateringly expensive clothes and savage violence. It’s a role that Salma relished and one she pulls off with aplomb, managing to steal every scene she’s in with some apparently improvised withering one-liners.

Playing strong and powerful women is second nature to Salma, a fact evidenced by her impressive CV. “I’m grateful to everyone who gave me an opportunity, but strangely there haven’t been that many. I’ve had to fight very, very hard for every silly, small role,” she admitted recently at an American film festival. She wasn’t exaggerating. After she arrived in Hollywood from her home in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico at the age of 24, directors would often throw her out of auditions when they heard her accent or ask her to play a housekeeper. Undaunted, Salma continued to fight for parts she believed she deserved, and her tenacity paid off when she landed the lead opposite Antonio Banderas in 1995’s Desperado. Her scorching talent (and sex scenes) made her a star and led to roles in From Dusk Till Dawn, Wild Wild West and Once Upon A Time In Mexico. In 2002 she produced and starred in Frida, a biography of artist Frida Kahlo. Her moving portrayal earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination and confirmed her status as a member of Hollywood royalty. And in 2006 she helped bring Ugly Betty to our screens, serving as executive producer and appearing as cutthroat editor Sofia Reyes.

Yet despite all her success, Salma is wonderfully approachable and clearly besotted with her five-year-old daughter Valentina, who has escorted her mother to our interview. Valentina’s father is Salma’s husband of three years, Francois-Henri Pinault, chief executive of PPR, the conglomerate that owns Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Stella McCartney. He is also heir to a family estate rumoured to be worth $11.5billion.

Above: Salma's latest film Savages sees her take on the role of a ruthless drug cartel leader

With fashion obviously playing such a key role in her life, it’s perhaps no wonder that she looks immaculate for our chat, in an exquisitely tailored black Botega Veneta dress. She kicks off her Sergio Rossi heels and curls up her 5ft 2in frame in an armchair and tells us about her family, her views on feminism and how she became a trailblazing Mexican female in a white male-dominated Hollywood.

Your story is inspiring. What did your family think when you first said, “I’m off to Hollywood”?

They thought I was crazy. You have to remember that at that time, there was no-one working in Hollywood who was Mexican. It was like a taboo. Isn’t that crazy? You could not get a job if you were Mexican. The people I was auditioning for would make fun of Mexico and frankly, would make fun of me too, like, “What are you doing here?” It was humiliating.

How did that make you feel? It made me feel like they were stupid.

[Laughs] I felt, “How stupid of them not to give someone a chance because they are from another country.” I was shocked. I hadn’t experienced discrimination before, but even if I had, it would still be stupid. It doesn’t change how stupid it is, discrimination, whether you have experienced it before or for the first time. It doesn’t justify it – it’s just dumb.

Did it make you more determined? Or make you want to give up?

Both. Many times it made me want to give up. Like anybody in any job, you confront mediocrity – and I am sure every woman can identify with what I am saying – there are so many times when the choices of people in charge are silly, yet you are helpless. For example, I had many situations where they would say, “That was brilliant. If you were American, you would definitely have got the job. If you could get rid of your accent, you would be perfect.” That’s silly. If I moved you, if this character would gain something by my interpretation, what do you care? I would understand if the role was for a Norwegian model – I’m wrong for the part. But if the role is a waitress, sometimes they would say, “It’s not a Mexican waitress.” So they would say “no”.

When did that attitude change?

I think I changed it. I think Jennifer [Lopez], myself and Penélope [Cruz] changed it. That generation. We had it tough. Now it’s a lot easier.

Are you proud of being a trailblazer?

Yes, because it would have been easy to give up. I had somewhere to go back to, you see. I could have just gone back and been a star in Mexico, I had a lot of offers. I am proud of myself because I didn’t settle. That wasn’t my dream – I wanted to do films. So that’s where the real courage was, because I was broke.

You came from a privileged background in Mexico. Was it hard to make your own way in LA?

At some point, here in LA, I went completely broke, and I remember looking at my designer clothes, they were so expensive – I was very much into Chanel at the time – but I knew I couldn’t pay the rent with them. I would go to auditions in Chanel too but they didn’t get me parts or pay the rent. I remember realising how useless the designer clothes were. I needed a job – it was hard.

What’s your advice to women who have ambition?

You have to believe in yourself. You have to take care of yourself, work for yourself, believe in yourself, and also be patient with yourself. Learn when not to push too hard, and give yourself a break. Make sure that what you want is what you want, and not what society expects of you, or how you can impress the idiots. It’s what you want.

You were nominated for an Oscar for Frida. Did you feel you had proved yourself then?

No, after I did Frida, still nobody hired me! People would be like, “You were so good.” I would say, “Yes, because I had a part!” I was always good, just nobody gave me a shot. Afterwards, nobody gave me a shot again, but it was OK because at least I had done something I was proud of, that was meaningful to me. I didn’t have that chip on my shoulder. I was more relaxed after that. But the only part I had was the part I gave myself.

Is that why you started your own production company?

Yes, and also to give other people opportunities too. We were lucky to do that with Ugly Betty. I produced Frida from scratch; I got the money, the cast, I did all the jobs, like a salmon against the stream – it took eight years. So I got a lot of respect for that. I earned it.

What does feminism mean to you?

It means being proud of being a woman, and [having] love, respect and admiration and the belief in our strong capacities. I don’t think we are the same, women and men. We’re different. But I don’t think we are less than men. There are more women than men in the world – ask any single woman! So it is shocking that men are in more positions of power.

It’s often said women are paid less than men in Hollywood. Have you ever experienced that?

Definitely. The only jobs where women don’t get paid less than men are pornography and modelling.

Savages depicts a Mexican drug cartel. Were you concerned about the stereotyping? In that the Mexican was in charge of a drug cartel?

It is a reality. I do wish there were other realities shown about my country, but the redemption with this is that at least it shows that the Americans are just as involved. There are tens of thousands of deaths in Mexico, but do you know where they get the arms? They all come from America, and no-one talks about it.

The violence in the film is severe.

It’s disturbing to the point where you can’t sleep. It’s even more disturbing when you think that it actually happens. Have you heard about the city of Juárez? The women that disappear? Over 600 women, between the ages of 16 and 24, cut into pieces, mutilated, burned. This has been happening for a long time.

Were there any positive sides in portraying the ruthless Elena?

Yes. I enjoyed the complexity of it, expressing the power and loneliness of that game, her absolute conviction that what she does is the right thing for her to do, demanding respect from these savages that work for her, and being number one in that world, because she knows the day she is number two, she dies and her family dies. I tried to make a character who was epic and flamboyant but intimate enough so we could identify with her.

Your character is so rich and powerful, yet she’s such a target that she’s trapped in her house.

Completely. She’s in jail. A little bit like fame. I forget I’m famous. I live in France and the French are too cool to display any kind of excitement if you are famous, especially where I live, so I completely forget. I have it good.

Where are you happiest?

I am happiest with my family in the country, whether it’s my ranch or the country house close to Paris. I like the outdoors, I love gardens, plants, trees. I’ll go for a hike, or take a run in the park. I like the simplicity and the complexity of nature, and the beauty. I love the different seasons, because I grew up by the beach where it was always hot. Or I really enjoy a good football match. I adore it. I know I should be saying, “I love my shopping sprees,” but that’s what I like. I love soccer. It’s something that ignites my fire. I become very, very passionate and, at the same time, very emotional about it. I’m tough, but it’s one of the few things that can make me cry.

Do you shout at the referee?

I do when I’m watching on TV at home, but when we go to games the French are so very composed, and I am [mimes screaming, shouting and pulling hair]. I saw pictures of myself on the internet, and everybody made fun of me, so now when I go, I try not to move a muscle. I almost prefer to watch it at home where I can drink my beer, be in my pyjamas and insult them, in Spanish, in English, and if necessary, in French.

What gets you up in the morning?

Well, if you have children, they get you up whether you want to or not. I’m grateful for my life. Sometimes I am really tired. I’m always tired… I have been tired for five years, every day.

Is that because you have a child?

I think so. And because I work hard, and have a complicated [life]… but I am tired every day. I wake up tired, I go to sleep tired, and somewhere in between I get a second wind where I feel energetic, then I crash again. But I feel that a lot of mothers will identify with that. So you do need motivation and when I really, really cannot move any more, I think about the fact that I have love in my life, and I remember the times when I didn’t have it, and no matter how tired I am, I get up and I get it done.

What aspects of your job still excite you?

The creative process I love, but sometimes it’s so frustrating when you are stalking that job. It’s like, “Why am I doing this?” But when I say that, then I have my husband saying, “You do it for me because I am a fan and I want to watch you. You do it for your daughter. You do it so we can watch you because we are so proud of you.” Then that gives you the strength to keep on going.

Savages is out in cinemas now