At 23, Salma Hayek had been a soap opera queen in a 1989 television show called Teresa in her native Mexico. After making her break in America with Tex-Mex director Robert Rodriguez and Antonio Banderas in their hit movie Desperado, and after her sexy dance with a live Burmese python in Rodriguez's and Quentin Tarantino's From Dusk Till Dawn, she became the go-to girl for sexy feistiness in Hollywood. Unfortunately, though, her Hollywood films – Fools Rush In, Wild Wild West and Chain of Fools – were dire.
I’m the straight person in this opera, in this circus, so it was difficult to know where to go.
Russell Crowe, her co-star in 1997's (just passable) Breaking Up, had recognised Hayek's talent and offered her career advice: choose your roles more carefully. Still, as a dark, accented, short foreign woman, Hayek didn't have much choice. Even if she mustered her considerable gusto to produce 2002's Frida—she had long dreamt of playing the troubled Mexican painter and received an Oscar nomination for her performance—her career sank into the doldrums.
After exercising her comedic chops on television's Ugly Betty and 30 Rock, the exuberant 44-year-old appeared in the Adam Sandler-produced Grown Ups, which has an upcoming sequel, Grown Ups 2 (we're really dying to see that one), while Here Comes the Boom releases at Christmas. She also voiced the Mexican Kitty Softpaws in the DreamWorks animation Puss in Boots—“Now it's okay to be Hispanic even if you're a cat!” she chortled on the promotion trail in Australia together with Banderas last December. According to Variety, wearing a Cleopatra wig, she is outstanding as a ball-busting Mexican cartel queen in Oliver Stone's Savages, alongside an equally scene-stealing Benicio del Toro as her loathsome henchman. Unfortunately, though, her foreign-language films are struggling to gain international distribution.
In the French-Spanish-English-language Americano, which premiered at last year's Toronto Film Festival, she played a Tijuana dancer and singer, a role her French director and co-star Mathieu Demy had written especially for her. At this year's Berlin Film Festival, she was a standout in the Spanish-language As Luck Would Have It, directed by Álex de la Iglesia (The Day of the Beast, Perdita Durango, The Last Circus). The film now opens the 2012 Spanish Film Festival and should release later this year via Vendetta Films, largely a DVD outfit.
A dark satire on media madness, the story follows a married couple, played by Hayek and Spanish TV comic José Mota, as they take a holiday to the site of their honeymoon in an attempt to forget their financial woes. Mota's Roberto, a former advertising hotshot, has been struggling to find work and believes he's a failure. He can't even get their holiday right as an ancient, Colosseum-style theatre had been unearthed beneath the hotel they had stayed in, so that the site is now an excavation, a giant hole.
In a freak accident, Roberto falls into the hole, landing on an iron rod, which sticks into his head. Soon his misfortune is the focus of a media frenzy, and drawing on his advertising experience, Roberto turns the situation to his advantage, hiring an agent to get him the best deal for an interview. He can now provide for his family but also have his last moment of self-gratification.
The most difficult thing for Hayek in playing his wife, Luisa, was to understand her place in the film, which she says pays its debt as much to Fellini as to Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole.
“There are so many different genres going on at the same time in the film,” she says. “You have extreme comedy and extreme tragedy. I'm the straight person in this opera, in this circus, so it was difficult to know where to go. But Alex would lead us in a direction that wouldn't have occurred to us and the characters could react and respond in a whole series of different ways. One of the wonderful things about Alex's films is that he shows the audience how people can be unpredictable.”
While there's no doubting the director has a more over-the-top take on melodrama than Pedro Almodovar, who had produced his first film, 1993's Acción mutante (Mutant Action), this film is far from his most sensational. He says he wanted to have Hayek play a foreigner, an outsider, who could take the viewers' point of view.
“Luisa is somebody who doesn't really know what's going on with these crazy Spaniards, these manipulative television people, these vultures,” he says. Though he notes his film is also commenting the current economic climate in Spain.
“The situation Roberto finds himself in is my situation and the situation of my friends and everyone around me in Spain and probably many other people in Europe and people elsewhere who are facing a crisis where it appears anyone can be knocked off their perch at any time. We're all vulnerable. An agency comes along and suddenly says, 'You're all worthless and your country's going down the toilet!' What the film does is trawl upon that topic in a cynical, comedic manner, because to survive you have to look at it that way or you might as well give up. But there also has to be dignity. If we maintain dignity and respect then we will be able to survive.”