While she politely never says it, I get the impression that Salma Hayek thinks I’m somewhat square. “The thing is,” she tells me, standing above me, cigarette in one hand, green juice in the other, “you need to dance more, make love more. You need to buy some sexy lingerie,” she continues, finger wagging, after I admit I struggle with the idea of ‘sexiness’ as a feminist… “Laugh alone, dance alone, sing alone. Try to sing opera, feel ridiculous.”
I am sitting among the animal-embroidered, ecclesiastical Gucci cushions that scatter Hayek’s plush sofa in her north London home, thinking how she is my new oracle. No hyperbole. If anyone has navigated a successful career through an onslaught of sexism and racism (and some ageism for good measure), in one of the most rigid, old-fashioned industries out there – Hollywood – it’s her. And, boy, does she have some life lessons.
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Now 52, acting for big and small screens for over 30 years and counting, the trials and tribulations of Hayek’s complex career have only recently come into sharp focus. It’s not that she hasn’t been saying it all along, but it’s now – in the time of Trump and Brexit, Weinstein and walls – that she is being heard. “You see, I have overcome abuse,” Hayek states with an eye-lock. “I have, to a very strong degree. But I never wanted to use any of my sad stories to draw attention to myself.” She shrugs, defiantly. “I wanted to remind people, when they thought of me or when they saw me, that they could overcome. I want to remind people of the endless possibilities.”
In some ways, as I soak up the surroundings of Hayek’s mansion, full of fresh flowers, art books, Jeff Koons pieces and a Damien Hirst on the stairwell, I can see how one could wonder what Hayek has overcome exactly. The actress/producer/activist, who married French billionaire Fran?ois-Henri Pinault in 2009 (CEO of luxury fashion group Kering), is wearing sweatpants when we meet, ‘GOOD KARMA’ written across her posterior, and without a scrap of makeup on she could easily pass for two decades younger than she is. She's used to people making assumptions about her, based on what they think they know. “Prejudice is the uncomfortableness with something that is different. Now I am married to a very successful man, I also experience prejudice with that. Instead of thinking I’m inferior, [people] see me as feeling superior, so they don’t like that either! It’s the strangest thing, but it’s OK, I’ve made peace with it.”
Hayek doesn’t deny that she comes from a privileged family in Veracruz, Mexico, daughter of an opera singer mother and oil executive father. She became a household name across the country when she was cast, at 23, in the eponymous role in the Mexican soap-opera Teresa – but it was when Hayek dared to dream bigger, of an international acting career, that she hit the glass ceiling. In fact, in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2003, Hayek said Hollywood studio heads told her that she was born in the wrong country, that she could never be a leading lady in America as, when she spoke, she’d remind people of their maids.
“I battled racism by using their sexism,” says Hayek of navigating all the naysayers back then. “So I invented this sexy character. That was what [Hollywood] was able to open up to, that’s how I went in. I remember understanding this, and making a choice: 'Am I degrading myself?’ I didn’t sleep with people. It was just that this was something they could understand. In their head, the audience is attracted, and with this me on the screen, they could forgive the accent. So, I said, ‘OK I can do that.’”
With each “hot girl” part Hayek won, she would delicately inject more character, pushing the limitations of the role: “Let me add a little bit of intelligence – then they would say, ‘You cannot be intelligent, we do not want this character to be intelligent, take this out'. Let me add some comedy – ‘This is too funny, you cannot be funnier than the guy'. OK, let me add some warmth or humanity. If I could inject something into one or two scenes, I did. I did the best with what I had there. Does this still happen? Yes, it still happens. But trust me, we’ve come a long way. It’s a process; revolutions are very messy,” she smiles, sagely.
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Nowadays, of course, parts are changed, if not written, with Hayek in mind. “[Kim Nguyen] thought of me for the role,” Hayek says in regard to the director of her latest release, The Hummingbird Project, in which she plays the silver-haired, villainous tech-tycoon, Eva Torres, starring alongside Alexander Skarsg?rd and Jesse Eisenberg. “I am a very powerful woman in New York, stealing finances with the most advanced technology,” she explains. “Before, I would never have gotten this role. I don’t know if the part was written for a woman, but for sure it was not written [for a] Latin[a], so he changed it for me. You know, people are more in tune with me being a strong woman, than being Latina.”
This ‘strong woman’ image was cemented just over a year ago when Hayek detailed for The New York Times (written in one sitting, by hand) her powerful and appalling account of the years of sexual harassment she allegedly experienced from film producer Harvey Weinstein (who, to date, has denied the allegations). Because Hayek was distinctly unfulfilled by the roles Hollywood had offered women so far, let alone Latina women, she fought for 10 years to bring her passion project, Frida, a biopic of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, from conception to cinemas. Along the way, Hayek lobbied for Weinstein, famous for his Academy Award Midas touch, to join her project. Little did Hayek know, however, that in doing so, she would invite the industry’s biggest alleged sexual predator onto the very movie designed to rail against Hollywood’s misogyny. “Why did he do what he did?” Hayek’s eyes widen. “For the same reason every dictator abuses power. Why do they do it? Because they can. Because we allowed it.”
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“Both Trump and Weinstein are big charismatic personalities, men obsessed with being loved and respected. And I think they feel like, ‘If you don’t absolutely love me, you’re going to hate me [instead].’ There’s something really fragile about that, something really dangerous, when they are in power.” Hayek has come up against both. “They don’t love like you and me! They’re desperate. ‘You will be destroyed for not loving me. You will be destroyed for loving me too, just not as bad.’”
“With Harvey though,” Hayek continues, offering me a mezcal from her well-stocked drinks trolley, “Harvey was in love with cinema. I don’t know what Trump is in love with other than himself. I don’t know what is the outside force, source of inspiration that moves him? I don’t recognise in his story, in his life, one love story with something that was outside of him. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have it, I’ve [just] not been able to see it,” Hayek holds her hands up. “Harvey had it very clearly.”
With stinging irony, given POTUS’ foreign policy towards Mexico, Trump once famously tried to woo Hayek away from her boyfriend at the time, demanding she date him instead (“I’ve run into him on several occasions [since]. We pretended that didn’t happen.”) These days Hayek positions herself as a vocal critic of Trump’s racist rhetoric – posting on Instagram her Trump pi?ata, or retweeting his speech that declared: “When Mexico sends its people [to the US], they’re not sending their best”, perfectly timed to reference her friend and compatriot, director Alfonso Cuarón’s triple Oscar win for Roma.
“There’s something so incredibly beautiful and pure about her,” Hayek says of Yalitza Aparicio, breakout star of Roma, as we discuss Mexico’s recognition at this year’s Academy Awards. “[She] is an interesting [Oscars] nominee. I have heard from friends that some people are really nice to her, but there’s been lots of attacks; people make fun of her because of her indigenous background. In Mexico, racism is a big problem, against Mexicans. So, [her nomination] is a triumph, beyond the Oscars.”
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Hayek remains patriotic about Mexico. Despite not being able to visit as often as she’d like, she’ll soon return to produce a show for Netflix. She feels palpably connected to her country, she says, and is not one to shy away from addressing Mexico’s political issues. “The [Oscars] recognition [for Mexico] is such a source of exciting energy,” Hayek continues. “But that doesn’t change the security problem, the safety issue, the violence. It’s not just the drugs, it’s not just the cartels; there’s so many other groups. It’s an infestation of mafias. Everyone is trying to see how they take away from the people that work hard for everything they have, even if what they have is very small, and it’s done in a very violent way. What blows my mind even more is the corruption. People get into power and steal all the money of people who have nothing. [Hayek references Mexico’s shamed 2010-16 governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, who – after state authorities seized properties and cash reportedly worth around $120m – pleaded guilty to charges of criminal association and money laundering in 2018 and was fined and sentenced to nine years in prison.] They take all this money that doesn’t belong to them, and it’s killing people of hunger, destabilising a country, and they’re in hiding. And I think, what can you buy? What in the world you can buy that is worth the shame of their own children? That can give you enough satisfaction to forget that somebody else is dying of hunger? In what universe can you think that this is going to bring you any joy? I cannot understand. It's like heroin: an addiction – to money, to power, to ‘more for me’. And you know there is really no rehab for that one.”
Hayek leaves a powerful impression – candid, opinionated and unafraid. She saunters around the house giving a guided tour as we wrap up, before her daughter returns from dance class. There are pockets of colleagues and confidants (interchangeable, it appears, if you make Hayek’s squad) dotted all over the house, speaking in fevered Spanish, ‘glitch-fixing’ scripts, plotting luxury holistic hotel launches, planning interior refurbs. “If my acting career ended today, I would be very grateful for the journey, but thank God I don’t have to pay the bills with it,” Hayek states, matter-of-factly. “That's why I started a beauty company and a juice company, because I was ready to be completely dismissed by Hollywood. You're not going to bring me down, you know? I am surviving this system, and I'm going to be happy no matter what. I am not going to depend on your mood whether you like me. They can kiss my soft brown Mexican ass!”
Hayek tells me about meditation and how she’s currently engrossed in a binge-fest of 24 with her action-loving husband – before she’s called away. I’m led out of the hive of buzzy activity by her assistant and suddenly, everything seems so much less exciting, boring even, on the kempt, quiet streets of Hampstead Heath. I hail a taxi and smile thinking of Hayek’s advice to sing opera to navigate my feminist quandary. “Push your own limits,” she had continued, “and break free of anything that’s supposed to be ‘the right thing’. There is not one way to eat or dress. You’ve got to be comfortable and free in your own body so that your soul is indestructible. Be curious about who you can be when nobody is looking!” And I hum a little "Nessun Dorma" as we pull away.