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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Hayek makes biopic a true labor of love

Watching Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in "Frida" -- an impassioned performance full of fire and intensity -- it's hard to believe that we've never seen her this good before. Rack your brain and see what you come up with: Antonio Banderas' chick in "Desperado"; a stripper-vampire making Quentin Tarantino suck her toes in "From Dusk Till Dawn"; an industry-standard senorita in "Wild, Wild West" . . . Hayek has always been a striking beauty, but she's rarely been given the chance to act.

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Salma Hayek

But Hayek was smart enough to know that Hollywood wasn't exactly falling over itself to offer great roles to Hispanic women (see Penelope Cruz's movies for further evidence) so she did the smart thing and put her own project together. Sliding into the role of producer, Hayek spent eight long years bringing her dream project to fruition.

Curled up on a couch high above Tokyo's smog in a Shinjuku hotel suite, Hayek -- in an interview with The Japan Times -- briskly exhaled her cigarette smoke and rolled her eyes when asked how she liked producing. "Oh my God, it is such a pain in the neck," she said, with each word seemingly remembering the stress. "It's just a necessity so that you can do the other stuff, acting or directing, correctly."

Hayek laughed when she recalled how friend and costar Ashley Judd turned up midway through the shoot, filled with concern over Hayek's exhaustion. " 'This is terrible, Salma,' she said. 'You can't get by on three hours' sleep a night, people should be taking care of things. I'm going to call the producer right away and sort this out!' That's when I told her, 'Ashley: I am the producer. So you're going to have to convince me to go easier on me!' "

This sort of tenacity is what allowed Hayek to finally get her Frida bio-pic onto the screen. Her first chance came in the early '90s, when "La Bamba" director Luis Valdez was attached to a Frida project. Hayek auditioned for the lead, but was told she was "too young for the role," to which she replied, in true diva fashion, "Then you are going to have to wait until I'm old enough." When Hayek started pitching her own project, studio after studio passed on it, saying there was nothing "sexy" about a love story between "this short, hairy woman and a big, fat man." Hayek notes, with some satisfaction, that many of these same people were quick to say how much they loved the film, once "Frida" picked up an Oscar nomination.

But Hayek readily admits that her own stubbornness also lay behind the film's eight-year gestation. "At a couple of points, there were some people ready to make this film," said the actress. "I was the biggest problem because I didn't want to make the film the way they wanted to make it, and I didn't want to settle for anything less. It wasn't like, 'Well, I have to make this film about Frida Kahlo, I don't care how it turns out.' There were moments that I thought that, but when the time came, I'd say no. It was not just a character, one more role to play.

"So I changed companies, directors, writers. . . . I just never thought all the elements were there. I think what was definitely key was getting Julie Taymor to direct it, and Edward Norton writing Hayek's film is a labor of lovethe script. [Norton, then Hayek's flame, did an uncredited final version of a screenplay that had passed through four writers' hands.] And also all my friends coming on board and working for scale; with these big names, it became easier to get the right amount of money."

Julie Taymor was only contacted after the search for a Latin director proved fruitless -- "the people who the studio would authorize didn't want to make the film, and vice versa," said Hayek -- but from their very first meeting, Hayek knew she was the right choice. Hayek says they saw eye-to-eye in feeling that "neither one of us wanted to portray Frida Kahlo as a victim, as a martyr, because we don't believe she was. Somebody who embraces life to such an extent that she can even create something out of pain cannot be a victim. And not just the pain in her body; look at the stuff she went through with her husband. Instead of just sitting around and crying, she says, well, if you want to be unfaithful, you know what, I'll have my fun, too."

For Hayek, it was also important that her director could handle a visual approach that was informed by Kahlo's artistic sensibility. "Frida Kahlo had a parallel life," explains Hayek. "When she was told she was a Surrealist, she said, no. I paint my own reality. I completely believe that she saw the world this way. She saw it. Not she imagined it. For her, this was as vivid as the conversation we're having. This is what makes an artist a true artist. And I knew that Julie would understand it and get into that part of her brain.

"And Julie had fantastic ideas, whereas everyone else was very timid about taking the visual language to that extent. She immediately came up with ideas that were organic, and this was key for me: Was it going to be pretentious and just a show-off? Or would it be integral to the story? We tried to use this surreal, internal imagery as a kind of voice-over."

Her first encounter, at age 14, with Kahlo's paintings provided quite a shock. "When I saw the paintings, I thought they were horrendous and disgusting and scary," says Hayek. "But I couldn't get them off my mind. They haunted me. So I had to see them again, and I had to inquire why she painted them. And then I had to find out who she was, and the curiosity just kept growing and became an obsession."

Hayek will say, "I have grown with Frida; every couple of years, she means something different to me," but it's clear that Frida's core individuality -- like Hayek, the daughter of a Mexican mother and an immigrant father -- has been a continually inspiring role model. "Frida married the most amazing, respected artist, but she never changed her style. She was bisexual since the early '20s, she was never ashamed of who she was. She obviously dressed completely differently from everyone else, celebrating her Mexican roots at a time when it was chic to look French in Mexico."

After all the years of research and immersion into Frida's (and Diego's) life, Hayek let herself go in the role. Some things were easier than expected (upon trying on one of Frida's dresses, Hayek found she was exactly the same size) while other aspects were more demanding: Hayek wore actual plaster body casts to better understand Frida's immobility. But surely the hardest thing to imagine was the agonizing pain Frida experienced. "No, and I'll tell you why not," says Hayek. "When you love someone so much, it's very easy to feel their pain. Sometimes you feel it more than the person who's experiencing it. And I really loved this woman."

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