this Latina powerhouse, with 34 movie roles and counting and a production company of her own, describes the hurdles women in general, and Hispanic women in particular, must overcome in order to be successful
by Susan Hornik and Matt Scanlon Photo by Patrick Demarchelier/condenast
Spanish language telenovelas (we know them as soap operas) are popular not just in Latin nations, but around the world, with hundreds of millions of regular viewers. Yet from the earliest days of the Brazil-produced Your Life Belongs to Me (1950) and the Cuba-filmed Paths of Love (1951), to a modern age in which there are production facilities in more than a dozen countries (including Canada, Indonesia, Germany…even Turkey) the chances of a telenovela actor leaving that market and breaking through to mainstream Hollywood were and are close to nil. One of the very notable exceptions is Salma Hayek, the first Latin actress nominated for an Academy Award. A well known soap star in her native Mexico, Hayek risked her career to come to Los Angeles and has since become one of the most bankable names in the industry, and a woman Time magazine included among its “25 Most Influential
Hispanics in America.”
Born in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, on September 2, 1966 and raised in a devout Catholic family, she was sent to a Louisiana boarding school at the age of 12. After makings things difficult for the nuns there, Hayek returned to Mexico, but was sent to Houston to live with her aunt, where she stayed until she was 17.
She then moved to Mexico City, where she studied international
relations, but left to pursue a career as an actress, starting out in local theatre but pivoting to television, and at 23, scored a starring role in the popular telenovela Teresa. After taking a year to learn English and study acting with Stella Adler, Hayek got her first break in cinema when Allison Anders cast her in a supporting role in Mi Vida Loca (1993). This enabled her to get a Screen Actors Guild card, and she continued auditioning until she appeared on a Spanish-language cable access talk show, where director Robert Rodriguez caught a glimpse. He cast her in Desperado, his bigger budget 1995 sequel to El Mariachi. The film’s success opened doors, and Rodriguez cast Hayek again in the vampire-centric From Dusk to Dawn (1996), co-starring George Clooney and featuring perhaps the most played-and-repeated exotic dance clip in modern movie history.
At the turn of the century, Hayek founded the production company Ventanarosa, through which she produces film and television projects. Her first feature as a producer was 1999’s El Coronel No Tiene Quien Le Escriba, Mexico’s official selection for submission for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.
Another breakthrough role was in the 2002 film Frida, in which Hayek portrayed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and for which she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress, along with BAFTA, SAG,
and Golden Globes nominations. She won a Daytime Emmy in 2004
for Outstanding Directing in a Children/Youth/Family Special for The Maldonado Miracle, and received an Emmy nomination for Guest Actress in 2007 for ABC’s Ugly Betty. She also guest starred on NBC’s 30 Rock from 2009 to 2013.
In addition to acting, Hayek has modeled for Avon, Revlon, Chopard, Cartier, and Campari, and is a longtime advocate for women’s rights and raising awareness of issues related to violence against women. She has testified before the U.S. Senate to advocate for reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, and in 2014 was an artist signatory of Amnesty International’s letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron supporting women’s rights in Afghanistan.
At May’s Cannes Film Festival, Hayek described her early career struggles. “Imagine, I came not only as a woman to Hollywood but as a Mexican Arab. People would laugh at me for having the dream of being able to work in Hollywood,” said the actress, whose father is Lebanese. “I was the only Mexican or Latino in the drama school except for Benicio Del Toro, who is Puerto Rican, so kind of American, and he’s a man. And nobody laughed at him. They were laughing at me in Mexico, too, for having the idea of trying to break into that market. For every single agent and every single studio, it was a laughable concept.”
Of sexism in Hollywood, she explained, again at Cannes: “It is true that maybe if you are pretty, you can get parts easier, but [the assumption is that] if you are pretty you are stupid. It’s particularly macho. If they realize that you are smart, their anger gets multiplied. It’s almost like they say ‘Okay, get a monkey,’ and then the monkey talks and they go, ‘Oh my god, the monkey talks! What do we do? Oh, maybe we can make money! Maybe this is interesting…we have a talking monkey!’ Then one day they catch the monkey doing algebra and they say, ‘Kill the monkey! And they try to get rid of it.’ It’s violent, this natural force to try to suppress. That is why we have this problem with women behind the camera as directors and producers.”
Hayek further explained that Hollywood has largely disregarded the female audience.
“They have not realized that women are a great economic power,” she said. “These people don’t understand we are a huge audience. We have been neglected for so long…they don’t know what we want to watch. We don’t even know, because we always think of who we will be watching a movie with—the husband, the family, the children.” (Hayek married French businessman François-Henri Pinault in 2009, and they have a 10-year-old daughter, Valentina Paloma Pinault.)
A clue as to where she finds her drive and will might be found in a video project she completed last year for the motivational company, Goalcast.
“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” she said. “It’s better than to do nothing and learn nothing and not evolve. Your mistake is your greatest opportunity. And if somebody’s making fun of you because you made a mistake, don’t go down because of it…. If you say, ‘Yes, so what?’ to their face, they are powerless. ‘Yes, I messed up. Tomorrow it will be another day. Next year will be another year. It is my mistake, not yours.’”
For Hayek’s last film, How to Be a Latin Lover, released on April 28, she was engaged by Pantelion Films, considered the first major Latino Hollywood studio, “and the new face of Hispanic entertainment,” according to its website. The production was a partnership between Lionsgate Entertainment and Grupo Televisa, and for which Pantelion tasked actor/writer Ken Marino (Burning Love, Childrens Hospital) to take the director’s chair.
In the script—while growing up in a loving family in Mexico, Maximo (played by actor, comedian, and scriptwriter Eugenio Derbez) dreamed of never having to work hard for anything. For 25 years, he succeeded, perfecting his seduction skills with the goal of marring a rich, older woman, yet never banking on the day when his wife would trade him in for a younger model. Cast out on the street, Maximo is forced to reconnect to a world of reduced circumstances, turning for help to his younger sister Sara (Hayek) and her 10-year-old son Hugo (Raphael Alejandro). When the opportunity presents itself to help his nerdy nephew gain the attention of a cute and wealthy schoolmate, Maximo additionally schemes to unleash his skills to secure the attention of the girl’s billionaire grandmother, Celeste (Raquel Welch). Armed with his best Speedo and sexiest walk, Maximo sets to restore his privileged existence.
“I’ve been friends with Eugenio for a long time,” Hayek explained in a Pantelion Films interview. “When I started my production company, one of the first ideas that I had was to do a show for Eugenio. But America was not ready yet (this was before Ugly Betty) to understand the power of the Latino market. We are very similar in many ways. I cannot think of a better fit for the characters than to be brother and sister. For me, it was a great opportunity to act in Spanish and play a Mexican woman and to have fun, reliving a little bit of our childhood. I got to relive my childhood in Mexico with a brother who in real life feels like a brother to me. “
For Derbez, there were other practicalities in wanting Hayek to join the cast. The duo even took to the recording studio later in the film’s post-production to capture a salsa version of the classic ballad “El Triste” (also featuring Jungle Fire) for the soundtrack.
“It was an amazing good time because she’s lovable, she’s crazy, and she’s very creative,” Derbez said. “She’s always bringing new stuff. When we were acting in Spanish, it was like we weren’t even acting. We were, like, just playing around, like brother and sister. It’s not easy to find something with that sort of chemistry. It’s just so good to have two real Mexicans playing Mexicans, because I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood films with supposed Mexicans who aren’t. Another producer would have hired an actress from another place and probably some audiences wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, but for us, you can absolutely tell when somebody has an accent from Colombia or Argentina or Spain.”
“What’s great about the movie is that I think there are a lot of different audiences for it,” Hayek said, “I liked the idea that in some ways Maximo also enjoys his job. It’s important to him to make these women feel special. It gives him joy. The minute they get older, they are abandoned or overlooked by society. I think that it’s a lovely quality of the character that is original in the film. Everybody gets to laugh about themselves in the way we laugh about the concept of the Latin lover. It has a lot of heart, and that is extremely important. It’s a little naughty but it’s done in a clever way so that it can go over the kids’ heads, but there are still things they get to enjoy.”
The DVD and BluRay disc for How to be a Latin Lover will be released on August 15.
As part of a busy summer for Hayek, August 18th brings her third film this year: The Hitman’s Bodyguard (the drama Beatriz at Dinner, co-starring John Lithgow and Chloë Sevigny, was released in June). Directed by Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3), the action-comedy’s plotline details the struggles of the world’s top protection agent (Ryan Reynolds) and his new client, a notorious hitman (Samuel L. Jackson) as the two tackle a Russian dictator (Gary Oldman) in exchange for getting Jackson’s wife (Hayek) out of jail.
Lionsgate president of domestic distribution, David Spitz, noted that Hayek is “the person who steals the show,” even in a cast of veterans.
“This film is so magnificent that I am going to have the courage to predict that there will be a sequel,” Hayek said at this year’s CinemaCon, before praising Reynolds and Jackson. “The two stars of this film are, I think, the best people in the world to balance action and comedy.