Woman on a Mission
Salma Hayek knows how to get a movie made against all odds—ask anyone involved in bringing Frida to the Screen, including sweetheart Edward Norton. Just don’t dare ask Hayek about Norton. Robert Norton explains.
Today, it’s 98 degrees in Eureka, Utah—population 766, if you don’t count the three stray dogs chasing cars down Main Street. Inside the clapboard house up on the hill it’s a good 15 degrees toastier, the carpet smells like a cat box, and Peter Fonda is struggling, take after take, to remember his lines. Salma Hayek, however, is keeping her cool, which is pretty remarkable, given that we’re on the set of her directorial debut—a made-for-Showtime feature called The Maldonado Miracle.
“Cut! Let’s try it again.” That’s Hayek shouting from behind the monitor, all five feet two inches of her. Her voice, normally the onscreen purr of a Latin sex kitten, sounds different; perhaps because she’s working with a diminutive budget, a whirlwind production schedule, and Fonda’s short-term-memory problems. Here, the kitten has her whip. “Roll it!”
A day later, Hayek and I are relaxing at Robert Redford’s nearby Sundance resort. Her hair’s in a ponytail; a comfy black dress covers her well-publicized curves. She’s animated, painting illustrations in the air with her hands as she talks about Frida Kahlo, the iconic Mexican artist renowned for her surrealist self-portraits, unapologetic monobrow, and tumultuous love affair with muralist Diego Rivera. Hayek, thirty-four, spent the last seven years trying to bring Kahlo’s story to the screen; now the payoff is Frida, starring and produced by Hayek. What she won’t discuss is her three-year relationship with actor Edward Norton (more on that later).
“Originally, nobody wanted to make this movie,” says Hayek of the early ‘90s, when she caught the Frida bug. Hayek was a Mexican TV actress who’d walked away from the country’s biggest evening soap to pursue a Hollywood career, but, as I’m quickly learning, she’s not one to get caught up in the details of her rйsumй. When, at an audition to play Kahlo years ago, Hayek was told by producers that she was too young for the part, she famously shot back: “You know what? It’s not going to get done until I’m old enough to do it.”
When Hayek arrived in L.A., her English was so rudimentary she spent a year and a half studying the language before cold-calling agents. She picked up some better-left-forgotten TV guest spots (The Sinbad Show, Nurses, Jack’s Place) and a small role in 1993’s Mi Vida Loca. Then El Mariachi director Robert Rodriguez saw her on a Spanish-language talk show and changed her life.
“I was writing Desperado and looking for someone to play opposite Antonio [Banderas],” Rodriguez says. “I knew I had to discover somebody, because there were no Latin actresses getting roles at the time. You could just see that she was a sharp wit. I wanted her so badly I did a Showtime movie called Roadracers and wrote a part for her so she could show something in English to the studio.”
With Desperado came the Hollywood heat and a Latina-sexpot image that owed as much to her Revlon looks (she signed with the beauty maker in 1997) as her willingness to dance with a snake in From Dusk Till Dawn. High-profile roles came and went—Fools Rush In, 54, The Faculty, Wild Wild West—but her leading-lady status never ignited. Frida director Julie Taymor (Broadway’s The Lion King) offers one theory: “Heterosexual [male directors] aren’t interested in going beyond the beauty. This isn’t always the case, but for Salma, Frida is a breakthrough role because she can show her range.”
Whether talking about her next project—Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico, with Banderas—or her low-blood-sugar issues (“I can be a monster!”), Hayek is funny, smart, and hell-bent—a “ribbon around a bomb,” to borrow surrealist Andrй Breton’s description of Kahlo’s work. When she shopped Frida around, she often heard, “A period piece about a crippled Mexican Communist woman who had a moustache and was hairy and ugly? That’s the formula for failure!” But then, her film—which saw competing diva-fueled projects by Madonna and J.Lo fall by the wayside—became a sort of missionary quest for Hayek. “I wanted the world to see this side of my country and change their concept of who we are,” she says. “Frida and Diego were avant garde. All the brains that were kicked out of their countries because they were more evolved came to Mexico.”
Hayek’s steamy interludes with Geoffrey Rush (as a randy Leon Trotsky) and Alfred Molina (who plays Rivera), along with some femme-en-femme dalliances, may redefine sexual appeal. “Frida was sexy as hell; she slept with everybody she wanted,” Hayek says. “Americans think sexuality is about waxing and being on a diet. I want them to see this movie and be turned on by the beauty of these fantastic personalities.”
But while Hayek’s eager to expose the intimate details of Kahlo’s life, she’s not as hot about highlighting her own, specifically her romance with Norton, who has a cameo in Frida and rewrote the script for free. When I ask her why she won’t discuss him, she lays into me with the same fervor that gets someone like Peter Fonda to remember his lines: “I don’t know you. I don’t know the people reading the magazine. I’m doing this article to publicize the movie. I am being honest. I’m not sitting here to try to be friends with you. I’m here because I’m proud of this movie, and I want people to see it. Is this my first choice for spending a Saturday? No! No! No! Why would I use my sacred, wonderful personal life to promote a movie? That’s not where my head is. I think it’s distasteful.”
Good enough. But it’s hard to imagine that a celebrity today really believes her six or seven- (or eight!) figure paycheck is solely a reflection of talent. Part (arguably, most) of being a star requires living your life in the public eye. For public consumption. Warts, relationships, and all. That’s the game. I’d mention this to Salma Hayek, but something tells me it’s best to part with the actress while the going is good. There’s no fun, after all, in untying the ribbon around a five-foot-two-inch bomb.