Salma Hayek Returns to Her Sexy, Action-Heroine Roots
A couple of years ago, around the time she turned 52, Salma Hayek noticed that something strange was going on. She was on a film set in Croatia, doing her own stunts while reprising her role as fearsome con woman Sonia Kincaid in the action-comedy sequel The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard. Sonia spends much of the movie wielding firearms and f-bombs (and strap-on jokes) to show Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson who's boss. One day during filming, Hayek got a confidential phone call from Chloé Zhao, the Oscar-winning director of Nomadland. Zhao was prepping the upcoming Marvel Studios blockbuster Eternals, and she wanted Hayek to play the ageless superhero and cosmic genius Ajak. Originally conceived as a male character, Ajak can lift 25 tons and fly at nearly the speed of sound.
The petite 5-foot-2 actress said yes right away but is still stumped as to why she's suddenly in demand as a formidable action star. "I was like, 'What's happening?'" she recalls. "I mean, things have changed a lot in the last couple of years for women in general. But what I don't understand is why this is happening to me." In addition to the usual limits that Hollywood places on women her age and women of color, Hayek says, another strike against her is the fact that she doesn't shoot movies in the U.S., since she prefers to stay close to her London-based family. Somehow, however, top directors keep circling. In April, Ridley Scott lured her to Rome to play a conniving psychic opposite Lady Gaga in House of Gucci.
Hayek, who started out as a telenovela actress in her native Mexico and later became an international star and producer with a billionaire fashion-exec husband, François-Henri Pinault, is one of those people who moves through the world with such poise and self assurance that you assume she's in on some secret, that she's found a way to live with blithe disregard for conventional categories and presumptions. In reality, she says, she questions herself nonstop. What has changed over time is "the quality of the questions." Whether she's meditating at home with her pet owl or bemoaning her lack of authority over her teenage daughter, Valentina, Hayek says, "you learn to get on a path of constant rediscovery. It's like, 'Who are you? And where are you going next?'"
During her early years in Hollywood, three decades ago, Hayek's main questions tended more toward "Why won't anyone hire me?" and "Can I afford my rent?" Although she was a star in Mexico when she moved to L.A., she burned through her nest egg during several years of failed auditions and denigrating encounters. Hayek recently saw a tape of her first screen test in Mexico, at age 18, and realized that she'd shown much more potential than she or her many naysayers perceived at the time. "Many people told me, 'You're no good, you're never gonna make it,'" she says. "What if I had listened to those idiots?" Then she corrects herself: "I did listen to them. I would cry myself to sleep, and give up, and then try again just a little bit - almost embarrassed to admit my dream of being an actress."
After Hayek got noticed in films like Desperado and From Dusk till Dawn, in 2002, she scored a major breakthrough when she produced and starred in Frida, the saga of Mexican painter and boundary-breaker Frida Kahlo. Hayek got an Oscar nomination for her performance in a movie that she saw as a personal mission, one she hoped would shatter Hollywood's stereotypes about Mexico. But even that feat was almost squelched by the industry establishment - this time in the form of Harvey Weinstein, whose company, Miramax, released the film. According to Hayek, when she declined to take a shower with Weinstein or give him a massage, he erupted in a vindictive rage; he later demanded that she appear fully nude in Frida while having sex with co-star Ashley Judd. Hayek detailed Weinstein's abuse in a powerful 2017 op-ed for The New York Times.
She regretted not speaking up earlier, given that many women endured even worse treatment from Weinstein."Some people got raped," she says. "It makes you wonder if you had said something [back then], would it have been different? How come I didn't have the courage? But I dealt with it to the best of my ability at the time." That meant getting the movie made despite Weinstein's intensifying efforts at sabotage. "For me Frida was a political statement, a social statement, a feminist statement," Hayek says. "It was my way of screaming. And Harvey used my way of screaming to repress me even more. So I could not let him win."
Hayek no doubt draws on her past conflicts whenever she's obliterating a villain onscreen, but in real life she tends to tackle obstacles with a softer mix of knowing frankness and wry humor. When I ask her if she often faces bigotry in Europe, where she's lived since she married Pinault in 2009, she tells the story of a group of fancy French women who were surprised to learn that she was breastfeeding her baby daughter. One of the women speculated that breastfeeding must be a tradition "that comes from the Latin American Indian," Hayek recalls with a laugh. "She actually said that!" So Hayek explained the basic science behind the practice's biological benefits for newborns. "I was shocked that such sophisticated ladies, who've had so many children, didn't take the time to investigate it. They said, 'Oh, but it's terrible for the breasts.' I said, 'Really? Look at my breasts. No problems there!'"
Hayek's estimable body parts have gotten a lot of play on Instagram lately, courtesy of a series of bikini thirst traps she posted this spring. She's quick to admit that the photos weren't all brand-new: She took them during one week over the Christmas holiday last year and banked them for later use, since she knew she'd soon be gaining weight for her role in House of Gucci. In fact, by New Year's she had decided it was time to start taking selfies from the shoulders up. "It was not even the end of the holiday yet, and I was like, 'OK, bring me caftans!'" she says. "But I don't have any shame in telling you this because I'm excited that I even got to that point. For a week I looked like that, you know?"
Trying to shed the weight is going slower than Hayek would like: "I've lost very little. You go, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa.' You gain it so fast, but it takes so long to lose it." She's determined to get back in good shape, partly for health reasons and partly, she acknowledges, because of the pressures of "what's expected for a woman who people consider good-looking. As you get older, you're expected not to age." But thanks to a meditation practice she's maintained for years, Hayek says, she's usually pretty good at accepting things as they are. Given "how much mileage I put on my body," she explains, "and how much pressure and judgment I put on it, my body has been incredibly generous. I don't think I am some hot tamale, but I know that for my age, for the lifestyle that I lived, I'm not doing too badly. And I attribute all of this to meditation." Her practice involves a combination of breathing techniques that she first started exploring in her late 30s, when lower back pain sometimes kept her in bed. "It makes you experience your body with a lightness that's really delicious and satisfying. With the breathing and the going inside, you explore your body in a different way, and you learn not to go crazy with the expectations."
Valentina is now 13, and Hayek has been trying to arrange some mother-daughter time in the meditation room. No luck so far. "She's like, 'I cannot think of anything more boring! And if I'm going to meditate, I'm going to do it on my own time.'" Like a lot of parents of teenagers, Hayek often finds herself baffled by her inability to communicate with the creature to whom she gave birth. "She's amazing, and she mesmerizes me over and over, but you know, when I talk to her, I find myself out of words," Hayek says. She often rehearses future conversations with Valentina in her head. "Or when we fight a little bit, afterward I'll think, 'I should have said this or that, and I'm going to tell her next time I see her.' Then the next time comes and I find myself out of words again."
There seem to be few such communication issues between Hayek and her husband. "We understand each other really well," she says. One of most powerful men in the fashion world, Pinault is the chairman and CEO of French luxury group Kering, whose brands include Gucci, Balenciaga, and Saint Laurent. How does Hayek take advantage of her direct access to some of the world's most coveted clothes? "I'm lucky, and it makes my life easier, but it was never a priority for me," she says. Hayek notes that most of her close female friends are fashion obsessed, and they find it a bit unfair that she ended up with Pinault. "One friend said, 'I cannot believe that out of all of us, the one who cares the least about fashion is the one who landed that guy!' So I told my husband this. He laughed and said, 'That's why you landed me.'"
House of Gucci explores the extreme pleasures and perils of life at the highest reaches of fashion, recounting the scandalous 1995 murder of family scion Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) by a hit man working for his ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). The film is based on the nonfiction book of the same name and is not backed by the fashion label. But given the social media frenzy sparked by on-set photos of Driver and Gaga in their cable turtlenecks, fur hats, and other vintage finery, the expected November release will surely bring extra attention to the Gucci brand. Hayek first heard about the project before she met Pinault, via her close friend Giannina Facio, who's producing the film and is married to Ridley Scott. (Gucci has made its archives available to the filmmakers.) Now, Hayek says, "the entire thing is very incestuous. It's very funny for me." On set, Gaga assiduously fact-checked the script through Hayek, asking her to verify certain points with Pinault. And Hayek knows several people who remember the witchy machinations of her real-life character, Pina Auriemma. Reggiani's best friend and psychic, Auriemma orchestrated the details of Gucci's killing and ended up serving time in a Milan prison.
Though her screen time in House of Gucci is fairly limited, Hayek has a way of leaving audiences wanting more. In The Hitman's Bodyguard (2017), Sonia Kincaid was a supporting part, but strong viewer reaction led the filmmakers to make her a lead in this year's sequel, turning the project into a three-way buddy movie. "So I said, 'If we're going to have a female lead in an action film, let's bring in some of that femininity and have fun with it,'" Hayek recalls. Now Sonia's savage gunslinging alternates playfully with her ferocious determination to have a baby with Samuel L. Jackson before menopause sets in.
Hayek's next project might be the most important of her career. "I shouldn't be telling you this," she says, before explaining that she's written a script for a movie she's been hoping to direct for about 17 years. Once again, the odds are against her. "I'm highly dyslexic," Hayek notes. "English is my second language, and I'm not a good writer. But this was too personal and too complicated for me to find a writer to do it, so I had to write it myself." Hayek has only two previous directing credits, a music video for Prince ("Te Amo Corazón") and the 2003 Showtime drama The Maldonado Miracle, for which she earned a Daytime Emmy. She promised herself that the next film she helmed would be this one. Hayek is currently shopping it around and can't reveal more details but says, "It's a completely original script, and I emphasize 'original.' The problem is, it's not a cheap movie."
In the meantime, as quarantine winds down in the U.K., Hayek has been spending quality time with her Southern white-faced owl, which she adopted after seeing an ad for a rescue organization. (Originally intended as a gift for Pinault, the bird is named Kering.) Often she allows it to fly around the house, including the bedroom. "When my husband's out of town, I sleep with the owl," Hayek says. "Her favorite place to be is in the yoga room when I'm meditating. She's completely calm. She gets it." Hayek says she's developed an interestingly nuanced rapport with the bird, partly because Hayek doesn't treat her like a toy. She knows the importance of allowing the sensitive creature to do her own thing.
"I understand her," Hayek says. Then she laughs. "I don't know if she understands me."
Lead Image: Alberta Ferretti blazer and trousers. Sabine Roemer earrings. Boucheron necklace. Right hand: Chanel High Jewelry bracelet. De Beers ring. Left hand: Chopard watch. De Beers bracelet. Chanel High Jewelry ring.
Styling by Sam Ranger. Hair by Miguel Perez/The Wall Group. Makeup by Sofia Schwarzkopf-Tilbury. Manicure by Kate Williamson/Caren. Prop styling by Julia Dias/The Wall Group. Production by Susannah Phillips/Turo Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the July 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 18th.