The Guardian-Hadley Freeman
Salma Hayek … ‘As an actress, I want to play a Puerto Rican, I want to play a Colombian, I want to play a martian!’ Photograph: Philip Cheung/The Guardian
The actor talks about being bullied by the disgraced movie mogul, marrying a billionaire and becoming a superhero at 55
Salma Hayek is dreadfully jetlagged, which is one of the perils of having homes around the world and frequently hopping between them. “Let me tell you about my craziness,” she says by video chat from her home in west London. “I’m here for less than a week, then I go back [to the US] for five days for my husband’s work, then I come back here for my work, then I go back to LA because I’m getting a star on the Hollywood Boulevard! It’s crazy,” she says. After this interview she has a fitting for dresses for various movie premieres.
“We’re just making it up as we go along!” she says in exasperation at her crazy life. Despite the craziness, she looks impeccable in a Gucci dress (“As comfortable as your sweats!”), framed by the enormous mirrored painting behind her. “It’s by [Takashi] Murakami,” she says casually of one of the most expensive living artists. She blows a kiss to her husband, François-Henri Pinault, as he leaves the house. Pinault is the CEO of the fashion conglomerate Kering, which is behind labels such as Gucci, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and many others. The Pinault family wealth is estimated at $49bn. It’s crazy.
Hayek could have easily opted for the cosy, cosseted life of a mega-rich housewife. And, to be honest, there are times when she does sound a bit like one. Her favourite outfits at the moment are Balenciaga dresses: “I have four that I love,” she says. Of course, it helps that her husband owns the brand. Is she allowed to wear brands that aren’t owned by her husband? “I’m allowed to do whatever I want!” she says with mock indignation, although she adds “it’s just easier to buy the [Kering] brands. They know me there.”
Yet, despite possessing a walk-in closet presumably as big as an average house, Hayek is not your average gazillionaire’s wife. By the time she met Pinault, she was 39 and a famous actor with an Oscar nomination, for 2002’s Frida. Plenty of actors before her had married wealthy men and then disappeared behind the fortress wall; Grace Kelly gave up her career to become the princess of Monaco, and Prince Rainier had a fraction of Pinault’s money. But Hayek, 55, was never going to do that. “I love what I do,” she says when I ask what motivates her to work. Plus, she says, she pays for her own expenses in her marriage: “Sometimes I struggle because I have a lot of expenses, but I like that sensation. It keeps me real,” she says solemnly. (Mind you, Hayek’s “real” is the bank balance of a Hollywood star.)
This month alone, she stars in two films: the latest Marvel megamovie, Eternals, and House of Gucci, the biopic of the Gucci family. I’ve only been allowed to see Eternals, and it’s undeniably pleasing to see a female superhero older than 21 – and a deaf one, a gay one, an Asian one and a black one – among the seemingly endless Eternals heroes. That casting “feels like a miracle”, she laughs. “It has to start somewhere, and I’m glad it starts with me!” But good intentions can’t disguise that the script is a load of hooey (the Guardian gave the film two stars). I ask Hayek if she agreed to star in it because it was directed by Chloé Zhao, who won an Oscar last year for Nomadland, given she has long been a vocal supporter of female directors. “Yes, absolutely. I was in awe of her every second I was with her,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I am working with a Chinese female director,’ and there’s a satisfaction in that that’s bigger than the film: it’s watching another woman be so brave, be so clever, be so inspiring.”
Eternals is Hayek’s first superhero movie – “And I found it fascinating!” I ask why she thinks superhero movies are so popular now, but instead of making the usual economic arguments (eg they’re easier to sell to Chinese audiences than American dramas), she makes a very Hayek one: “I have a strange theory about it. It’s out there, so get ready: I think that because we only use from 3% to 10% of our brain, we know there’s a lot more to a human being that we have not discovered. So I think the superhero story makes us wonder if there’s more that we can do. That’s what they do to me anyway.”
By her usual charismatic standards, Hayek is a little flat today because of the jetlag. But she warms up on subjects she cares about, so we talk a bit about Frida, her true labour of love, which she spent eight years getting made. But this, alas, leads to a subject she’s a little less fond of: Harvey Weinstein, who produced it. In 2017, Hayek wrote a blistering piece for the New York Times, detailing how he sexually harassed her for years, and how she kept saying no:
“No to me taking a shower with him. No to letting him watch me take a shower. No to letting him give me a massage. No to letting a naked friend of his give me a massage. No to letting him give me oral sex. No to my getting naked with another woman. No no no no no … And with every refusal came Harvey’s Machiavellian rage.”
Hayek, understandably, isn’t super-excited about rehashing this particular part of her history: “It’s so boring and old!” she groans. But when I tell her that Weinstein bullied me, got me banned from restaurants and parties and even wrote an article about me because he didn’t like things I’d written, she perks right up.
“Now I want to interview you! Now, this is an interesting conversation because, if you really look at my piece, you’ll see that I really focused on the bullying [rather than the sexual harassment], and I do think women got it worse [from him].” Weinstein “is not the only man to reassure himself by knowing he can destroy women,” she says.
I ask if she normalised his bullying as a way to cope with it.
“To a degree. And I did feel all right [when he bullied me]. OK, I would shake [afterwards] and it did depress me, but there was a cartoon aspect about the whole thing. When he would call me up [during the making of Frida] and scream, ‘Why do you have a [monobrow] and moustache? I didn’t hire you to look ugly!’ I was like, ‘But didn’t you ever look at a picture of Frida Kahlo?’ If a man was playing Cyrano de Bergerac, he wouldn’t say, ‘What’s with the nose?’”
I start to ask about her claim in the article that she thinks the reason Weinstein never assaulted her was that she was friends with Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and George Clooney, but she interrupts me. “Also I was very strong,” she says pointedly.
This sounds a little like she’s suggesting some of Weinstein’s victims could be seen as weak, which seems unlikely from a woman who has done so much activism on behalf of women. So I ask if she just means she said no.
“I didn’t just say no. I’m a force to be recognised,” she stresses again. “He never saw me weak. It’s not that I’m not afraid, but you’re not going to see it. I can be almost intimidating in my calm strength, you know?”
When did she learn to control her fear?
“I don’t know. Maybe animals. I have a lot of animals and I know that it’s very important they don’t smell the fear. But I don’t know.”
By the way, she says, Weinstein was “not the first or last one” who treated her like that. In Hollywood or in general?
“In general! We’re girls! … So you learn to be brave. It’s not easy, but you have to.”
Are there men who bullied or harassed her who are still working in Hollywood?
“I’m sure – it was systematic. But one of my strengths is I don’t hold a grudge,” she says, and then adds, “I also believe people can change … I’m not interested in shaming anyone. I just want it to stop.”
Hayek was born and raised in Mexico, and I ask what constituted a worse problem for her in Hollywood: the harassment or the racism.
“Well, it comes hand in hand. When they disrespect your background, they feel you’re weaker and they prey on weakness,” she says.
A few years ago, Hayek revealed in an interview with the Guardian that the director Ivan Reitman wouldn’t even let her audition for the lead of a film because the part “wasn’t written Latin”. Which movie was that?
“Ummm, the leading man was, um, Indiana Jones?”
“Yes! Harrison Ford! The woman was supposed to work in the fashion business and, ironically, [Reitman] thought it wouldn’t be believable for me. It was Six Days, Seven Nights and Anne Heche got the part. And then she came out! Just before the movie was released! And they thought I wouldn’t be believable [in a romance with Ford]!” she hoots.
Did she lose many parts because of her ethnicity?
“So many! I’m not going to name names, but there was one part written for me, for a Mexican, and it was played by not even a Latina,” she says.
And yet she was criticised for playing a Puerto Rican character on 30 Rock, I say.
“Ahhh, it’s complicated because they wrote that for me. Probably if I had not done that, [that character] would not have happened. As an actress, I want to play a Puerto Rican, I want to play a Colombian, I want to play a Martian! As an actress, that is what it’s supposed to be. On the other hand, it’s good to give people opportunities. But there has to be a balance, because if we restrain people too much, everyone is going to be afraid to do anything: ‘You need a name because you need to promote the thing: oh, it’s too complicated, let’s just get a white girl.’ So we need to be realistic and to strike a balance. I’m not black and white about this, or about anything.”
Hayek grew up in a wealthy family in Mexico, the daughter of an oil executive and an opera singer. She became hugely famous in her own country at the age of 23 when she starred in a telenovela and slowly broke into Hollywood when Rodriguez cast her in Desperado opposite Antonio Banderas. Soon after, she founded her own production company, through which she would make Ugly Betty and Frida, the film that really confirmed her as a star. From early on, she was an activist for helping women, including testifying to the US Senate to reauthorise the Violence Against Women Act and donating to women’s shelters. She also bought a ranch, which she uses as an animal sanctuary. For a long time, she assumed she would just live as a single woman with her animals, but then she met Pinault, through their mutual friend, the late designer L’Wren Scott. They have a 14-year-old daughter.
Trying not to channel Mrs Merton too much, I ask what first appealed to her about mega-billionaire Pinault.
“He’s like no one I ever met before,” she says, clearly relishing the subject. “He’s a fascinating man and it’s been 16 years and I’m still fascinated by him. I’d met amazing men, but I don’t know if anybody saw me as clearly as him. And I know who he is. Something about his soul, I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s pure.”
During lockdown, Hayek got dangerously ill with Covid, but refused to go to hospital, preferring to stay home. “It was terrifying. But it was also kind of lovely to be in the house with him, who is my rock,” she says.
She was 41 when their daughter, Valentina, was born and I ask what the upsides are to being an older mother.
“You appreciate it so much more because, by the time you get there, you’ve been through the fear of maybe it might never happen. Also you know what you want to do with your life, so you don’t have the pressure of: ‘What am I going to do with my life? And I’m a mother!’ When you marry young, it’s hard because maybe you don’t know who you are yet. I was a little bit wiser,” she says. And as she heads off for more fittings for her upcoming premieres, Murakami twinkling over her shoulder, who would disagree?
Eternals is in cinemas from 5 November. House of Gucci is released on 26 November.