The Unstoppable Salma Hayek
From discrimination to stereotyping to a deadly disease, the actress has risen above it all
En español | In Hollywood no one flinches at making movies about murder, global annihilation or zombie cannibalism, but one subject strikes fear into the hearts of producers and directors: menopause. So, when Salma Hayek was asked to reprise the role of Sonia, wife to a hit man (Samuel L. Jackson), in a film that focused on her story, she had one condition: Her character had to be on intimate terms with the hot flashes and mood swings known to women in their 40s and 50s.
“When I was going through menopause myself, I wondered, How come nobody talks about this in the movies?” says Hayek, 55, with a chuckle. The outspoken Latina star got her way. Her black-leather-clad, gun-toting badass in Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard cusses like a stevedore and wields a machine gun with one hand. But Sonia also grapples with the midlife issues of how a woman’s body changes with time and what that means. The film, last summer’s loud and raucous shoot-’em-up, is additionally, Hayek says, “a love story about staying in love, not just falling in love.” To put a finer point on it, she asks, “How do you adapt your love to the different versions of yourself as you go through time?”
Time has been kind to Hayek, but she has fought for everything she has attained. Her career, launched in Mexico and then established, in spite of challenges, in Hollywood, has brought her to a place where she can call the shots as an actress, producer and director. Speaking over Zoom from Los Angeles in July, she wears chunky black-framed glasses. Beneath her cascade of black hair, there is an openness about Hayek, an apparent comfort with who she is at this stage in her life: a wife, a mother, founder of her own production company and a skilled actor still in demand.
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But then she came close to losing it all. Hayek revealed in May that she nearly died last year of COVID-19. She caught the disease early in the pandemic and spent seven weeks in isolation and long months recuperating. “It was very scary,” she says. Although it wasn’t the first time in Hayek’s life that she had contemplated her mortality, she explains that “this time it was different, just because it was a shared experience. I remember thinking about all the people who were going through the same thing at the same time.”
Hayek says she was grateful for the support of her family — husband François-Henri Pinault; daughter Valentina, 14; and stepchildren François, Mathilde and Augustin. “I realized that we are so fragile, not just as individuals but collectively. I was thinking more about the global experience than about my own personal mortality, because this is what a pandemic forces you to do.”
Enriched by different cultures
Hayek grew up in Veracruz, Mexico, the daughter of an opera singer with Spanish roots and an oil-company executive of Lebanese heritage. It was a privileged existence in many ways. “I grew up very enriched by different cultures, even within my own country,” she says. “And, obviously, within my own family.”
At 22, she won the lead in the 1989 telenovela Teresa and became a national sensation. Two years later, she moved to Los Angeles in hopes of pursuing a career in film. “I didn’t speak English, I didn’t have a green card, I didn’t know I had to have an agent, I couldn’t drive, I was dyslexic,” she once recalled. “And since I hadn’t had to do anything on my own in Mexico, I was a spoiled brat!” But Hayek worked diligently on her English and learned the ropes of the industry. Before long, she was getting cast for her first U.S. parts.
Small roles led to a break playing Antonio Banderas’ love interest in Desperado (1995), though Hayek’s options were limited by narrow-minded Hollywood suits who told her that, because of her accent, she could be cast only as a prostitute, a drug dealer or a domestic. The actress persevered, taking any role that came her way and making the most of her time on set. “I learned every single day from every single person on the crew,” she notes. “And so, even the bad movies gave me so much. They also gave me the humbleness to say, ‘OK, it’s not going to advance my career. But thank you for allowing me to pay my rent.’ ”
There are more opportunities now for non-white and non-Anglo people in Hollywood, she says, “and that’s good. But for the most part, they’re segregated in boxes. Like, ‘We’ve got the Latino box checked; we’ve got the African American box checked.’ It’s an acknowledgment that these voices are important, and that I applaud. But I wish we could find a space where people feel, My voice also has to do with you, and your voice also has to do with me.”
“If you’re always changing, if you’re always curious, how can you be old? You’re someone new today.”
In 2002, Hayek’s passion project came to life: Frida, the story of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Hayek produced the film and starred in it with Alfred Molina, who played Kahlo’s husband, famed muralist Diego Rivera. Hayek fought for years, against sizable odds, to realize her cinematic vision of Kahlo. That struggle imbued Hayek’s performance with “an authenticity” that no other person could have provided, Molina says. “It’s the difference between someone who reads all the books and someone who lives the life.”
It wasn’t until 15 years later that Hayek revealed the full level of torment she’d experienced to get the film made. In a 2017 essay in The New York Times, she described bringing the project to Miramax cofounder (and now convicted sex offender) Harvey Weinstein, and the years of bullying that followed: demands for sex, fits of rage. “The range of his persuasion tactics went from sweet-talking me to that one time when, in an attack of fury, he said the terrifying words, ‘I will kill you, don’t think I can’t,’ ” she wrote. When Weinstein grew tired of her refusals, he tried to kill the film by imposing a list of near-impossible demands on Hayek, but she met them all and was able to hold him to his contract.
In the end, the film was nominated for six Oscars, including a best actress nod for Hayek, and won two. Why, she asked in her Times essay, do female artists “have to go to war to tell our stories when we have so much to offer?”
Gratitude and excitement
And now Hayek has ascended to the Marvel Comics universe. In Eternals, directed by Chloé Zhao, she plays Ajak, the leader of a group of immortal super beings — a project she’d never expected to land. “I was shocked to get that role in my 50s,” she admits. “I felt a sense of gratitude and excitement, not only for this but for what it meant about the possibilities for the future.” But Zhao says Hayek is perfect for her part in the film, which opens on November 5: “Ajak is the leader. She is full of wisdom and very perceptive — a mother figure to all the Eternals.”
Her first role after recovering from COVID was in the real-life crime drama House of Gucci, which premieres on November 24. As a clairvoyant convicted of helping Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) murder her ex-husband, Hayek had a plum assignment: She had to gain weight for the part. “It was the easiest thing in the world,” she says, laughing. “I was like a child in a toy store. Give me that! Give me that!” she recalls.
Along with acting, Hayek has continued to produce films and TV shows through her company, Ventanarosa, which seeks out women-driven narratives. And for more than a decade, Hayek has undertaken humanitarian work, traveling with UNICEF and other agencies to assist Syrian refugees in Lebanon and earthquake victims in Mexico and to provide tetanus shots in Sierra Leone. On one 2009 trip, when her daughter was newly weaned, she famously breastfed a newborn whose undernourished teenage mother had no milk.
“People ask me, ‘Do you work with women because you’re a feminist?’ ” she says. “Well, I am a feminist, but that’s not why I work with them. I work with them because I’m a humanist. And if men were the ones who were not given the same human rights, I’d be fighting for them.”
That desire to help others is something she’d like to instill in Valentina, she adds, along with a love for animals and nature, and a joy in engaging with life. “You just want your children to know that,” she says. Hayek believes she has been a better mother than she would have been at a younger age, because she pursued her professional goals first. “It’s painful to have children because you’re worried 24-7, you judge yourself 24-7, and they judge you 24-7. Society does, too,” she points out. “If you have dreams, career dreams, it’s easier to raise children once you have had the good fortune to establish your career. Then you’re not as distracted.”
Lately, Hayek says, she has developed her own philosophy of aging. “Growing old, to me, has to do with repetition,” she explains. “Something gets old when you’ve done it for a long time.” People of any age who approach life with a sense of wonder and openness to change defy that process. “If you’re always changing, if you’re always curious, how can you be old?” she asks. “You’re someone new today.”
Syndicated columnist Ana Veciana-Suarez is the author of several novels, including Flight to Freedom and the forthcoming Dulcinea.
Salma’s Greatest Hits
In her first U.S. star turn, the actress played a bookstore owner who gets caught up in a deadly feud when she saves a vengeful gunman (Antonio Banderas).
Wild Wild West (1999)
Though a box office flop, this film marked the actress’s ascent to Hollywood’s A-list; she starred alongside Will Smith and Kevin Kline.
This Oliver Stone thriller featured the actress as a ruthless drug-cartel boss.