Salma Hayek Makes Waves

As a Mexican soap star, she had to overcome a Hollywood that mocked her dreams. But Salma Hayek kept fighting and had the last laugh with film and TV success, her own cosmetics line and a late-in-life family. “I’ve worked hard,” she says, “for everything I have”   

by Johanna Schneller
salma hayek red dress underwater image
GUCCI silk georgette gown; for stores. MARTIN KATZ diamond and 18k white-gold earrings; 310-276-7200
Photograph: Alexei Hay

Salma Hayek knew she was right about the necklace—not one she owned but one belonging to her character, Elena, a Mexican drug-cartel queen, in Oliver Stone’s Savages. Elena flaunts her sleek style like a kind of armor, and Hayek wanted to crown it with a signature piece of jewelry, a choker of square diamonds that Elena would wear every day. “I kept fighting with Oliver about that,” Hayek says. “He said she would have new jewelry all the time, but I said no, always wearing the same one is a way to show her power.” If you’ve seen the film—with its ever-reappearing diamonds—you know who won the battle.

“Oh, that necklace!” Stone says now. “God forbid if we’d lost that! Salma’s very detailed. She’s exact about her hair, makeup, clothes, and she’s always got a point of view. She needs to get it right, and I adore her for it, because it pays off in the end. There were times I gritted my teeth—this is costing time. But she gets what she wants, this woman.”

Talk about getting what she wants: On a summer evening, Hayek is settling into a seat on the private jet that’s about to whoosh us from New York to Boston. She’s wearing a black Alberta Ferretti sheath meticulously tailored to her celebrated curves. Immediately she kicks off her towering black suede pumps and tucks her legs under her while her hairdresser, Robert, busily stows her bags, unfolds her tray table and lays out platters of fruit, cheese and crackers. The actress spent the day promoting Savages, and now she’s being flown back to the set of Grown Ups 2, the sequel to the 2010 hit comedy in which she played Adam Sandler’s fashion-obsessed wife. She’s carrying with her three days’ worth of Cooler Cleanse, the juice regimen she helped develop, and in a few minutes she’ll be telling me all about Nuance Salma Hayek, her beauty line for CVS, but for the moment business is forgotten: She’s on her cell phone, cooing “Besos!” (“kisses” in Spanish) to her daughter, Valentina, who turned five at the end of September.
Hayek scoops up a fig before the first plate is fully unwrapped, gesturing to Robert and me to help ourselves. She eats steadily (though in small bites—three per blackberry) for the duration of the 50-minute flight. “Do you want some wine?” she asks me. “I’ll have some.” Told there is no wine, she shrugs, taps my tape recorder and says, “OK, let’s go!”

I am mesmerized. Hayek, at 46, is insanely beautiful onscreen and even more so in person. Her voice is a cat’s tongue, warm and slightly rough, and her Mexican accent rolls out on a sea of elongated vowels.

She launches quickly into girlfriend mode—calls me “baby,” swats my arm or knee for emphasis, confides. “I’m not a skinny girl,” she says. “I push it. I’m at the limit of chubbiness at all times, but I’m happy at all times.” She says she’s scared of needles and plastic surgery and for now prefers using creams and oils. “I have to have all those tricks so I can show up for work and look fantastic.” She even teases a little, mentioning the intimate texts she receives from her husband, Fran├žois-Henri Pinault, the French CEO of the luxury-brands firm PPR, whose labels include Gucci and Balenciaga. “Of course, I can show you a text that would surprise you,” she murmurs sexily. “I can show you a thousand things. But I’m not going to.”

Hayek looks pretty comfy sitting literally sky high, but she had to fight to get here. At 23, she was a sensation on Mexican TV, starring as the title character on the telenovela Teresa. That kind of work, however, “was not my passion,” she says. “I was smart enough to realize that was not good acting, and I wanted to be a really good actress.” She quit, moved to Los Angeles and, as she recalls, “started from the bottom all over again. I was prepared to be unknown, but I was not prepared to be rejected so many times and to be made fun of because I came from a Mexican soap opera. It was almost like, ‘How dare you think you can be an actress here?’ Like I was a stupid person for considering that possibility.” She chortles in triumph. “God, we set them straight! I was smart enough to understand that the consumer power of over 40 million Latinos in this country eventually was going to weigh on [Hollywood] and that these people would want to see themselves reflected.”

Her persistence paid off. Hayek landed films, including Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, that gradually increased her profile. When she wanted to produce and star in Frida, a biopic about the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, “everybody closed the door, for nearly 10 years, but I stayed on it,” she says. Frida earned six Oscar nominations (including Best Actress for Hayek) and won two. When Hayek’s production company, Ventanarosa, pitched U.S. TV networks on the idea for the series Ugly Betty, they were initially hesitant. “So instead of taking one year to get it on the air, it took us three,” she says. The show eventually ran on ABC for four seasons, netting three Emmy awards and 19 nominations, including one for Hayek as Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. Of her stick-to-it-iveness, Hayek says, “I don’t have stamina in exercise”—she grins, gives me a swat—“but I have it in life.”

She’s also unafraid to challenge herself. In 2003, as a first-time director, she won a daytime Emmy for a Showtime film called The Maldonado Miracle. “Directing is the best thing I do, and for me it’s the easiest thing I do,” she says. She directed a music video for Prince and recently did another for her friend Jada Pinkett Smith, whose song “Nada Se Compara” (Nothing Compares) has a story line about human trafficking. Hayek insisted that Pinkett Smith perform naked, “to show how vulnerable it can be to be in the body of a woman,” she says. “You’re gonna go, ‘Whoa, Jada can sing like that? She looks like that?’ All of a sudden you’ll see you’ve been looking at this person, but you’ve never really looked at this person.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to take my clothes off, but Salma asked me once, and it’s done. It’s not even a question,” Pinkett Smith says. “That goes to show you how much I trust and adore her. She said, ‘I need you to be courageous! This is the power they try to steal from us—you must show it!’ Her passion is just contagious.” She laughs admiringly, then continues, “Life in general is difficult for women, the patriarchal culture that we live in and also this Hollywood game. Sometimes you can get very disconnected from your deepest sense of self. But she’s someone who can naturally connect to it and understand it. Every time I’m with her, she has something to offer me.”

Hayek won over Oliver Stone, too. When the director cast Jennifer Lopez in U Turn, Hayek chided him for not auditioning her; years later, Stone envisioned Savages’ Elena with Hayek in mind. “She was right” about the necklace, he says. “She brought the prop to life. I’d work with her again in a second. She’s a delight.” He laughs. “Well, not exactly a delight—she’s a hot chile pepper in a blue dress. She’s one of a kind.”

Hayekis having the time of her life, both professionally and personally. Not giving birth until age 41 was “the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “I think I’m a better person now, I understand things better now, so I can be a better guide. I’ve done a lot of things with my life that I’m satisfied with. So I don’t have the sensation that a child is limiting me. If I sometimes have to stop everything and just be a mother, I’m like, ‘Ooh, that’s cool. I love it.’ It’s different for everyone, but in my case, it was better to do it now. Not to mention I found the right guy now, too.”

Hayek sounds giddily, happily married, which thrills her, because she didn’t think she could be. Though she’d had her share of high-profile boyfriends, including the actor Edward Norton, “I didn’t think marriage worked,” she says. “I thought everybody who was married was secretly miserable—that it was something they just put up with for their children.”

Instead, she’s delighted that she still feels in love. “And my God, you have a partner who’s there with you and for you,” she says enthusiastically. “I have a master of decision making helping me out, so of course my life and my career are better. I really enjoy having somebody that I can be weak with. If I’m insecure or afraid, I can talk about it, and he’ll give me strength and courage. I noticed in the past, a lot of guys who like strong women, they really freak out if you’re not strong 24/7. Or they complain about you being strong, then the moment you’re not strong, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, no, no.’ With us, there’s no power struggle. I don’t mind doing things for him because he does so much for me, and he feels the same way.”

Her professional life is equally strong. Hayek enjoys her work more than ever—“now that I don’t have to work,” she interjects, laughing and swatting my arm. “It’s so much more fun! The minute I didn’t have that huge pressure over my shoulders, I started getting more work.” Her electrifying, slyly comic mix of the maternal and the lethal stood out in Savages. In the French independent film Americano, released in the U.S. last June, she played a struggling Tijuana prostitute and performed an erotic striptease.

“I was in the best shape of my life,” she says with a grin. “I exercised, dieted. I was so excited about my body. I thought, I can do this! This can happen!” Then, the day before filming started, she aggravated an old ankle injury and, with no budget for reshoots, had to do much of the dance lying down. “But it worked for the character and turned out to be very sexy,” she says. “I thought, What the heck. This for sure will be the last prostitute I ever play. In the next one, I’ll be the madam.” She laughs.

It’s easy to see Hayek in a sexy role; more surprising, perhaps, is her involvement in another new film, this month’s Here Comes the Boom with Kevin James, best known for the TV series The King of Queens. Hayek plays a high school nurse who helps a teacher (James) become a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter to save their school’s music program. “I take things for a lot of reasons that make no sense for anyone else,” Hayek says. In this case, she came aboard because of her affection for James and for Adam Sandler, whose company produced the film. “I love them and their wives. I’ll go with them anywhere, I don’t care what the movie is. Because we have fun, they take care of my child, it’s a great family environment.” She’s happily impressed with the way Boomturned out. “One of my favorite movies is Rocky,” she says, “and this is in that vein of sporty movies where the underdog succeeds.”

She brought that same interest in non-movie-star people and their lives to her cosmetic line, insisting on price points low enough that most women could afford them. The Nuance products, which Hayek actively helped develop, are based on creams created by her grandmother in the city of Coatzacoalcos, where Hayek grew up, the daughter of an opera singer and a Mexican-Lebanese businessman. Her grandmother, who was a trained cosmetologist, relied on indigenous Mexican ingredients such as bark from the Tepezcohuite tree, which is used to treat burn victims.
The actress recalls accompanying her grandmother to buy bottles of injectable vitamin A (aka retinol). Hayek recommended them to her cosmetic team, but she says the dose turned out to be too concentrated to sell over the counter in the U.S. So they developed a time-release mechanism. Other lines may offer similar creams, Hayek says, but at prices far higher than hers ($22). “Every woman should be entitled to preserve her beauty and youth,” she says.

Hayek’sbeauty empire and acting obligations don’t take up all her time. She’s also developing an animated film adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet; working with charities that address domestic violence; and promoting the Cooler Cleanse regimen. She plans to do a three-day cleanse herself this weekend, because she wants to drop a few pounds before her husband visits. “Everybody has a weakness,” she says. “Mine is food. If you love food and you love red wine and they put you in France, you’re in a good place and you’re in a bad place at the same time.” She laughs. “You have to weigh yourself every day, and you have to have an alarm number. When you get to that number, you have to start putting it in reverse. I think if I was not in love, I would probably let myself go faster. Love gives me the vanity to continue. I’m not necessarily vain, but when I gained fifty-something pounds in the pregnancy, it did something to me. Since then, at least I make an effort.”

By now the plane has landed, and we’re in a car on the tarmac. I compliment her on her boundless energy. “Ay, I’ve been tired for five years,” she replies. “But I’m the luckiest girl in the world. How could I possibly complain?” In her thirties, she suffered a restless, insecure period, when it felt as if, after Frida,nothing more was going to happen for her. “I could have done anything. I could have played anyone,” she says, “but I never got the chance. And I was very frustrated for a long time. But then I became so happy about other things in my life that it didn’t matter anymore . A good career—it’s a great thing to have. But I see a lot of people with great careers who are not happy people.

“And I never thought that I was going to direct,” she continues, “or produce a successful TV show that would help a community or be nominated for an Oscar. My daughter can always say that: ‘My mom was this actress from Mexico who was nominated for an Oscar.’ ”

She certainly never thought her forties would be her favorite decade, but that’s what’s happening. “I feel more relaxed,” she says. “I don’t have to prove something. I don’t have that urge of ‘Something’s missing, gotta get out there and find it somehow.’ ” She hugs me good-bye and gets out of the car. “I was always dreaming big,” she sums up, “but my life is better than anything I dreamed.”

JOHANNA SCHNELLER last profiled Kyra Sedgwick for More.

Next: Diane Lane is a Lane Changer

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First Published Tue, 2012-09-25 18:09

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