Salma Hayek on playing a superhero at 54, rising above sexism in Hollywood and cherishing family

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Salma Hayek is trending again. This time, her owl (yes, her pet owl) Kering (named after husband François-Henri Pinault's luxury behemoth that owns Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta, amongst others) spat up a hairball on Harry Styles. Hayek's narration of the incident has since spawned countless clickbait articles and memes, including a hilarious New York Magazine piece that delves into the karmic connection between Hayek and her pet. Hayek laughs, deep and full-throated, when I bring this up. "I also have horses and alpacas. I have little rabbits and chickens. The chickens are very funny, but not very smart," she say's with an eyebrow raise, that impeccable comic timing coming into play. "If you're in a bad mood, just watch them, listen to their silly noises, the way they walk. I have a very old horse, 38 years old...maybe it's the oldest horse in the world, I don't know. I love animals, all of them." 

This isn't the first time that Hayek has spoken about the animal kingdom she reigns over at her sprawling ranch. When we speak, she's in London, Zooming from a sunlit corner of the home she shares with her husband and their teenage daughter, Valentina. The last time I interacted with the actor was on a balmy May night in Arles, in a cemetery of all places, for the curious staging of Alessandro Michele's cruise 2019 show for Gucci.

 Salma Hayek in a printed silk dress by RoksandaJackie Nickerson

Of course, memories of fashion shows and in-person interactions of that kind are distant. As writers, we have resigned our selves to quarantine-style interviews where we discreetly note our subject's settings through pixelated imagery—in this case, Hayek, wearing statement earrings and a voluminous sleeved Saloni dress in her favourite pink, has her hair parted in waves, is seated on an oversized armchair plumped up with a dog-illustrated (or is it a fox? I squint) cushion, in a tastefully done up room with grey walls and plants—to illustrate our stories with as much nuance as an in-person meeting.

The year that was

Hayek recovered from an early and serious bout of COVID-19 that she is only just talking about, and the effects of which she says have still not completely vanished. "My doctor begged me to go to the hospital because it was so bad," Hayek told Variety about her seven weeks in isolation. She says that even today, so many months later, she isn't feeling all that great, though it's difficult to tell. On Zoom, her preternaturally attractive face radiates a glow, and her conversation is animated even through this waist-up box.

She's on a manic promotional schedule, thanks to three releases in 2021: the comic caper sequel Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard (which released in June) with Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L Jackson, in which she reprises her role as Sonia Kincaid; a Marvel film, The Eternals (October), directed by Oscar-winning Chloé Zhao, comprising a stellar cast including Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan and Kit Harington is up next; and then, in a very meta moment, comes The House Of Gucci (November 2021) with Lady Gaga, Adam Driver and Al Pacino. She's also just shot her very first Vogue India cover and is in the process of getting her dream film (which she scripted) green-lit, among other production ventures.

 Salma Hayek in a mini dress by KomaJackie Nickerson

She won't tell me more about the story she's written, except that she hopes to direct it too. "Again, like Frida (2002), it's ahead of its time," she says referring to the Frida Kahlo biopic that not only earned her an Oscar nomination but also had her fight the producers Harvey Weinstein (Hayek wrote a scathing op-ed on Weinstein's ill-treatment of her in 2017) and Miramax on every aspect, including the film's release.

"It's always hard to sell things that are different or new. For them, Frida was new. It was a period piece but it was different. In this industry, they always say they want something different but they don't want to do anything different to get the thing that's different," she laughs, with that eyebrow raised again. Has it changed with the streaming platforms? "Sometimes. They take more risks," she concedes. "But how many original films have you seen coming from America that made you go, 'Oh, that's different? She pauses. "Actually, there was an Indian film I really liked, with Priyanka Chopra [Jonas], The White Tiger. Now that was different."

Living the dream

In many ways, Hayek's entire career has been predicated on being individual. A successful soap star in Mexico, she moved to the US to try her hand at Hollywood, garnering roles as extras before her big break, opposite Antonio Banderas in Desperado (1995). But this didn't come before countless rejections, often due to her Mexican roots. "I didn't want to be just a soap star. And it comes with a lot of perks, being a star," she says, matter-of-factly. "I sacrificed [the perks of stardom] to have the dream. Even if I didn't make big movies, it was important to me to be a part of something that I loved, which is the movies, even if it was on a smaller scale."

And she's made movies. Over 60 of them. Frida, which she also produced. Bandidas (2006) with her best friend, Penélope Cruz. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) with George Clooney. Fools Rush In (1997) with Matthew Perry. Wild Wild West (1999) with Will Smith, as well as cameos in hit television productions like Ugly Betty and 30 Rock-all tiny affirmations for an actress who started her career in a language other than English, show casing her range as an actor that goes beyond being just a bombshell. "I dream hard and there is a sense of purpose or destiny. I'm good at following my intuition. There are also numbers, and numbers don't lie. I thought the industry was being stupid," she says with a shrug. "The reason I didn't get a lot of parts is that I was Latina, but I know there are 60 million Latinas [in the US] so I understood they were missing out on a huge market. I thought it was very narrow-minded, but eventually, somebody's going to do the math. It took a while, but they got there."

She takes a pause and continues. "It was a combination of the things, you know, that you feel inside you and the things you know in your head. Make the things that should work against you work for you. As a woman, this is a virtue that we have to learn." It wasn't just roles that she lost out on. Designers at that time declined to dress Hayek, then an unknown: "I'm Mexican. I'm also very short, which doesn't help with the weight and doesn't help with the design," she says candidly. "But you know, I was ingenious. I took chances. I met someone at Hugo Boss, who was the only connection I had, so I wore man suits for a while. Another time, I had on a very simple black dress and I knew all the other girls were going to have fabulous dresses, beautiful jewellery. And can I tell you something? Instead of giving me a complex and saying that I don't have the best dress or they don't know who I am...I was like, I am fabulous. I painted some butterfly tattoos on myself and I felt happy about myself." She was happy then, and seems happy now, with the world's leading labels pretty much in her backyard, metaphorically speaking. "What did I tell you? I make everything work for me, I married the owner of a fashion company. Now they have to make me the clothes. Karma for them," she laughs, that big laugh again, falling back against the armchair.

 Salma Hayek wearing Giambattista ValliJackie Nickerson

This is Hayek in form. Over the hour and a half of our chat, these bon mots, always delivered expressively with a laugh, a dynamic hand gesture, a lean forward to the camera-in a tone that's warm and confiding, like a friend advising the other, only serves to foster the commonly held belief that with Hayek, what you see is what you get. "If I am not frank, if I try to lie to you, you will know immediately. I am not good at lying. I am a good actress, but not a good bullshitter," she tells me.

Real deal

Being real extends to her on-screen life as well. In Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard, she had her character, Sonia, be rewritten as a hormonal 50-plus woman struggling to get pregnant. They thought I could look younger because it is an action-comedy, so they wanted me to play a 40-year-old. How do guys get to do action in their seventies?" So Hayek pushed back. “My proposition was that one of her conflicts is that she's menopausal and no longer able to have children. They were like "'That's not funny.' I said everything in the world is funny, you need the humour to endure it.”

That she approaches every obstacle with an eyebrow raise is clear. And in an industry that venerates youth, this move is ballsy. Talking about it so freely is what makes Hayek not just an anomaly but an immensely admirable one. "Why should we let them give us an expiration date? I think there is a lot of sexism when it comes to age. They give us a lot of deadlines that they don't have, such as [the idea that] after a certain age, you lose your beauty or nobody will want to marry you. It's incredibly unfair. I wanted to make this character, who is strong, fierce, beautiful, sexy and ready for adventure because women my age, in their mid-fifties, can still be that."

 Salma Hayek in a kaftan dress by DundasJackie Nickerson

And the fifth decade of her life has been exactly that. The fact that she's playing a superhero at 54 is not a situation that even Hayek, with her big dreams, could have predicted. “When they called me, I thought they were going to say, ‘Okay you are gonna be in a Marvel movie. You play the grandma!’ Then I find out I am a superhero, and Chloé [the director] tells me that I'm the leader. And I ask, "'Is it because I'm older?' But no, there's no age. Ajak is not human, so that was really cool," she says. The Eternals, she says, was an experience like none other. First, there was the fact that she was sworn to secrecy. "You want to call your mother, father, friends from school in Mexico. You want to tell your husband and daughter immediately, I'm gonna be in a Marvel movie. You want to tell your stepchildren. I was on the set of Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard, and Sam Jackson and Ryan Reynolds were talking superheroes, you know, Marvel talk, and I couldn't say anything! I couldn't be one of the guys in the conversation!". Then there was the cast ("I became friends with everyone. It was so nice to have such a diverse cast. It was a different dynamic. The American actors are great, but they don't have the custom of going out to dinner. They like to go to bed early, to be at the gym at six in the morning. When you're Mexican or Indian, you hang out, you finish your meal, you keep talking, and you keep talking. I felt at home.") and finally there was the director. Hayek says that working with Zhao, who this year became the first woman of colour to win an Oscar for filmmaking, was a highlight. ("I've only worked with three female directors. There's not many out there. I really enjoyed watching her process, her cleverness, how clear her vision was and how relentless she was to fight for it. In a way, I feel safer [with a female director]. I've not always felt safe in the hands of male directors. There are certain scenes and certain aspects of playing a woman that I feel they understand better. But maybe I've just been very lucky.")

Home is where the heart is

She's also been lucky in love, she says, and that's why this decade has been her most fulfilling. "I've spent 15 years with my husband and it's still really good. Still making each other laugh, still understanding each other well. I'm really proud of my marriage and of my children. That's not very common, for the love to survive, to thrive. In your thirties, in your twenties, it is always difficult to find true love. You have more choices. It's easier to love somebody younger. To have it in your fifties is an amazing gift."

In the next decade, she hopes to be a step-grandmother. But for now she's navigating Valentina's teenage years and the constant divide between a tech-forward generation and their often digitally phobic parents. "She gives me a lot of advice, she's very opinionated," says Hayek. Valentina also did her makeup a few days prior, she tells me, rolling her eyes affectionately, an elaborate, multi-step routine. "I do it in a different way, of course. I apply and run, but they have their tutorials, you know," she puts her hands up in surrender.

Though, you'd be hard-pressed to tell, given her most recent Instagram photos, Hayek is a few pounds heavier, for her role in The House Of Gucci. She's decided that this is a time that she's not going to give in to the pressure to look a certain way. “At some point, I have to give myself a break. What I can get away with now is expectations. I told you before that you have to use what works against you and make it work for you. It [the weight] is not going away. That was stressful, because I couldn't get into my clothes." She leans forward, conspiratorially. “So you know what I did? I went shopping and bought a new size. I think I can get away with having extra weight and people forgiving it more because of my age. I take that privilege. And it's less stressful when you get into clothes and say, this is the new me for now.”

Read the interview in Vogue India’s August 2021 issue, on stands on August 7. Subscribe here

Salma Hayek on the cover of Vogue India, August 2021Jackie Nickerson

Photographed by Jackie Nickerson. Styled by Priyanka Kapadia and Annabelle Harron

On Salma: Plissé organdy one-shoulder dress, Gucci. Earring, Boucheron. Ring, Annoushka

Hair: Samantha Hillerby. Makeup: Nikki Wolff

Manicurist: Kate Williamson. Assistant stylists: Naheed Driver and Farrah O’Connor. Set designer: David Konix. Production: Farago Projects. Visuals and bookings editor: Jay Modi. Art director: Snigdha Kulkarni

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