Salma Hayek: One-Woman Heat Wave

Salma Hayek blazed her way into Hollywood with exotic beauty and screen-scorching sexual charisma. She wants to do better than that. Will her film with Matthew Perry, Fools Rush In, prove she's an actress with more than erotic moves to offer on the big screen?

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In the chic, minimalist Beverly Hills restaurant where we sit, Salma Hayek is anything but minimalist. Wearing black slacks, a black leather jacket and a smiley-face T-shirt that says "Face Lift," she's immoderately stunning. And she is warm and assertive in inverse relationship to her tiny size. Hayek is, of course, the Mexican actress who, without a single mainstream hit to her credit, has scored big in Hollywood, thanks to her screen -scorching turn opposite Antonio Banderas in Desperado, as well as such memorable moments as her high heeled encounter with George Clooney's chest in From Dusk Till Dawn, and her slow-burn combustibility with Laurence Fishburne in Fled. Having abandoned the womb of immense Latin American stardom (based on two fiendishly successful prime time Mexican soaps) to stake her claim to stateside stardom in 1991, Hayek now leads the pack of gifted Latinas who have spiked fuego in notoriously white bread Hollywood.

Having most definitely arrived with a flourish, Hayek herself is well aware that she'd better step out and reveal a Salma who can do more than torch the screen, or she'll find herself mired in a contemporary version of the typecasting ruts that trapped such vintage Hollywood exotics as Raquel Torres, Dolores Del Rio and Lupe Velez. Those who believe Hayek possesses the chops to be a thinking man's sex symbol point as proof to an epic she returned in 1995 to Mexico to make, El Callejon de los Milagros, which won her huge acclaim, broke box office records and has become the most honored movie in Mexican film history. But non-Latin audiences so far have only her wry, carnal sex-bomb performances to judge by, and so have a skewed notion of what Hayek's about. And doesn't she know it!

"Now, I don't want to be like one of those actors who talk about themselves in the third person, which people do a lot here, because that's very scary," she observes in her scratchy Claudia Cardinale voice. "But let's talk about who Americans think I am, which has been: sexy girl. This, to me, is a game, a game I enjoy playing, even though it is a risky game. The public wants fantasy and that is what the game is about, really. I came into this business with a sort of permission to create a fantasy, an illusion that's much bigger than anyone or anything can really be."

"If they think of me now as very sophisticated and sexy, I may complain about it, but the truth is, I came to America because I didn't want to be a soap star in Mexico for the rest of my life, and I took my first opportunities, which were a lot of sexy women roles. When I do a photo shoot, I'm in a gown, my hair is perfect, my eyes are perfect and I'm often being photographed in a home that belongs to somebody else. But inside, I know I'm the same person that I've been since I was born, the same person who used to play on her bicycle on dirt roads in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. I know that when I'm alone in my one-bedroom, messy apartment that I've had since I've moved here, I'm likely to have pimple medicine all over my face and be wearing some ridiculous old pair of pajamas. I have the same car that I bought a year after I got here. But I do this other stuff and give a long laugh because I love to play 'movie star.' But I never think, 'I am Salma--movie star!' I think people here are a little bit too much into this image that I have, but I put it out there. To be perfectly honest, I used it."

Used it to what end, exactly? "I'm going to do the kinds of roles I want to be doing and give up the sexier parts," Hayek asserts. "People may not want me as much in those kinds of roles. I may not be as popular, but that's the price you pay, and, right now, I'm willing to pay the price. Of course, I'm still young, and I could find that what I really want is to be popular and to just keep wearing dresses slit up to there, you know?"

Hayek mulls this one for a moment, tongues honey from her fingertip and shakes her head, laughing at herself, then declares playfully, "No, I don't think it's possible for me to keep wearing dresses slit up to there and to keep playing those roles. For one thing, I refuse to go to the gym and to not eat. I have tried to be that person. It's not me. I become cranky, bitchy and unhappy, so what's the point? I'm not willing to spend six hours in the gym every day, let alone give up food, which is life's second greatest pleasure. So, that means I really need to become an artist, a real actress."

Well, fine, but before much of the world's male moviegoing population despairs at the prospect of never again seeing Hayek cut loose in a dress slit up to there, I must bring up the Desperado scene in which she cavorted in no dress at all. What in the name of salsa picante was with that much-vaunted "hot" love scene in which her romp with Antonio Banderas was edited in rapid cuts that packed all the erotic heat of a car commercial?

Hayek laughs nervously. "I couldn't do the scene," she admits. "My fault, completely. They'd give me something to do for two seconds and I couldn't handle it. What you saw in the movie was pretty much the only footage they got. I started crying doing it and I couldn't stop. All I could think about the whole time was my family. 'Oh, my God, what is my father going to think? My friends? Are my brother's friends going to tease him into fistfights?' I felt like I'd betrayed them. When we were doing the press junkets for the movie, I blamed Antonio and said, 'Antonio was clumsy,' or 'He hit me with the guitar.' He finally got upset, going, 'You know, saying that is not good for the image of the character, the mariachi,' and, 'I'm going to tell everybody the truth--that you cried during the love scene and it wasn't me at all.' I finally said, 'I'll tell them myself! I don't care!' But I didn't, really. And I'm sorry. When I saw the film with my family and that scene was coming up, I made my father leave. But they were great about it. They said, 'We know who you are, forever. We know how hard you've worked for this. If there's one group of people you don't have to worry about, it's us, because we know you." As she says this, Hayek's eyes actually brim with tears.

The Catholic sensibilities of Hayek's parents should be far less assaulted by their daughter's turn in the upcoming romantic comedy-drama Fools Rush In, in which she stars with Friends heartthrob Matthew Perry. There is sex and romance--she's not playing a woman on death row, mind you-- but her character is no tamale. "I really think this film can change my life," she declares. "It's the first time in America I've gotten a chance to really work with a character. The movie is really funny, sexy, sweet and really sad." The screenplay, about a couple who meet, marry impulsively, have a baby, and actually fall in love, was not, in the beginning, to Hayek's liking. She recalls: "I told [the filmmakers] it was vulgar, ridiculous and insulting to Mexicans." Most of Hayek's suggestions for script changes were accommodated by the time shooting began. Did she have it her way with costar Perry, too? "At the beginning of shooting, I didn't understand Matthew's sense of humor," says Hayek.

"I mean, here it is five a.m. and you're on the set and the star says, 'Pee!,' and 20 people laugh hysterically because he's the star. And it's so early and all so boring. I'm staggering around like, 'Shut the fuck up! I just woke up,' you know? And he's going around making faces, doing all sorts of cutesy things, making nonsense noises and everyone is just laughing madly. Let's say the Mexican sense of humor didn't register it. Finally, he came up to me and said, 'Do you, like, hate me totally?' I said, 'You're absolutely adorable. What are you talking about?' and he said, 'Well, you never laugh at my jokes.' I told him, 'I think you're very funny, even if I don't laugh. But, I'll let you know next time, OK?' So, every time he'd say something clever, I'd say: 'That was funny.'"

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