I’ve interviewed famous people before, even personal heroes of mine, but I’ve never found anyone quite so intimidating as Salma Hayek. She just has that mean girl energy about her. Not because she’s actually mean, per se, just that she’s incredibly famous, talented, and rich. A cruel word from Salma Hayek has the kneecapping potential heretofore possessed only by random tweens (have you ever been owned by a tween? devastating).
Some things you may not know about Salma Hayek: she’s the daughter of a Lebanese-Mexican oil exec and a Spanish-Mexican opera singer. She was a teen gymnast who was approached to join the Mexican national team, though her father vetoed. She was diagnosed with dyslexia in her early teens but still managed to graduate high school at 15. She enrolled at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City to study international relations and political science, but dropped out halfway through to pursue acting. This proved relatively easy for her as well, given that, according to a 2019 profile in Town & Country, “She was so beautiful that casting agents often stopped her in the street and asked her to audition.” She quickly became a soap star in Mexico.
Coming from anyone else, all this might sound a little like Hilaria Baldwin-style self-mythologizing (Salma on Hilaria: “We all lie a little bit.”). But then you look at Salma Hayek and think, “Well sure, that checks out.”
Currently, Hayek is married to French fashion magnate Francois-Henri Pinault (since 2009), a multi-billionaire and, as of this writing, the 26th richest man in the world, according to Bloomberg. She won a humanitarian award from UNICEF in 2018 for her work in neonatal vaccination efforts. In a wild twist, she also starred opposite Owen Wilson in a movie called Bliss, leading to the surreal situation in which she found herself across a Zoom screen from yours truly, a man who hasn’t had a haircut in five months asking movie questions in front of a velvet painting of twin rottweiler puppies.
This dynamic actually mirrors the movie itself, in which Hayek plays a mysterious woman who may have magical powers, trying to convince Owen Wilson’s character that he’s not some schlubby drone but rather a scientist from a parallel utopia who has been living in a cruel simulation. Hayek-Wilson are a strange combination on paper, but in practice it works, and I was getting a first-hand illustration of why. Every time Hayek paused slightly before answering a question I started to sweat, convinced I was finally about to exposed as an impostor and a slob, a crude interloper into Hayek’s bubble of wealth and beauty.
But, you know, she was nice. When she clowned on Owen Wilson I laughed like we were at the same lunch table. When she waxed nostalgic about a bygone Mexico I actually felt sympathy for her. Me! For Salma Hayek! In the end, she even complimented my dumb dog painting. Don’t let her fool you, Salma Hayek is a pro.
Okay, basic question, tell me how you first got into acting.
I think I did a play. Well, I did a couple of commercials first. I know it’s not acting, but for me it was a big deal, you know? And then I played Jasmine in Aladdin, and this is when I discovered that I had stage fright. I knew it was an opportunity, so I did it anyway. And there was a lot of suffering being in front of all the people. I love the acting, I just didn’t like to be in front of the people.
So then I found television and then I became a soap star in Mexico. But I hated soaps! At some point, I got offered to be a singer. I could have done it, and it doesn’t look like I would be stage fright, but I am. Then I did acting with a camera, but in a genre that I never watched, the soaps. And so my dream was to do films, and this is why after becoming big soap star in Mexico, I came to the States. Because at that time the film industry in Mexico was practically non-existent. I came to the States and I started again as an extra, even though I was a big star in Mexico.
Little by little I paid my dues until I starred with Robert Rodriguez. And he practically discovers me. And then you know the rest.
Do you think the industries are still so separate these days? Do you think you’d still have to start as far down as you did?
Yeah, but I think that I would have arrived much faster because back then I encountered a lot of racism. Any sci-fi concept would have been way more easily digested by the industry than a Mexican having a lead in a movie. I was told, “You will never lead a movie because the minute you open your mouth, you will only remind people of their maids. Go back to your country. You’re a big star there. Here, you will only play the whore or the drug dealer girlfriend.”
Wow. Do you spend time in Mexico now? What do you miss most about it?
I miss the Mexico that no longer exists. That was fun, the most fun place in the world, and safe, and people were full of joy and optimism, and a lot of the beaches were virgin and the nature untouched and full of mysticism and contradictions. And so that Mexico. I go to Mexico, but it’s not the same Mexico. The Mexico I miss the most is the one that I hope we get to be one day again.
What’s so different about it now?
I guess the biggest aspect would be safety, and the lack of hope that has come through pain and that.
Okay, so switching to the movie, what are the quirks of working with Owen Wilson and what did you enjoy the most about it?
Hmm. We’re both very strange creatures and on paper it would never work. Actually, we spent most of the time bickering, but laughing about it. I had to play two characters that were very demanding in a universe that was very demanding and strange, with a director with a very specific view of things. And I had to keep the track of also two movies, because he wanted everything to work in two possible interpretations by the audience. Then Owen would add to that his own take on how I should do it and what I should add.
For example, crazy stuff. Like in a moment that it’s very important where I have to confront authorities, he thought I should dance and sing and turn it into a musical. And he had all these layout, strange logic, and he’s super excited about how I should do, that was just bonkers. But he’s so convincing that for some point you go like, oh my God, should I? No, stop it. I have enough to think about.
But it was always a joy to hear his insane… To have a window into his mind. And he’s a lot more relaxed in ways than [director Mike Cahill] and I, in certain aspects, and then he can be very intense in different ways.
Was his idea for this musical, was that something that he talked to Mike about, or was that just something that he sort of sprung on you on the day?
It was sprung on the day. Mike didn’t care, by the way. We were all enjoying each other. Because Mike knows that I’m not going to do something like that without telling him, or because Mike would’ve enjoyed it and laughed about it and said, “Okay, let’s go again. But I think…” Or maybe Mike would have gone for it. I don’t know. It was all free. He had a very specific vision. This is not a director that knows exactly what he wants, but he’s open.
I’ve heard you talk about this before and I always want to ask you things like this, but what are some of your favorite Spanish words or phrases that you don’t think there’s an English equivalent for?
Oh, God. I’ll tell you what would never work in Spanish. “We’re in a pickle.” If you said that in Spanish they’d go like, “What’s wrong with her?” You catch me off guard and in a daze.
[Editor’s note: “We’re in a pickle,” is a key line in the movie.]
What are some of the Spanish words? I can’t think of one right now. I told you one that is the other way around. I like your dogs in the back, by the way.