No one is more surprised by her new-found action hero status than Salma Hayek – but she says it’s not before time.
The Oscar-nominated actress is front and centre in two of the year’s biggest action movies, reprising her role as foul-mouthed con artist Sonia in The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard and as Ajak, leader of a powerful group of ancient beings called Eternals in Marvel’s superhero blockbuster of the same name.
Traditionally three factors might have prevented her from finally landing the kick-ass roles she has been chasing her whole career – her Mexican background, the fact that she’s a woman and her age (an incredibly well preserved 54) – but happily, Hayek says that Hollywood seems to be finally coming to its senses.
JUSTICE FROM ABOVE
“It’s like divine intervention or something,” she says over Zoom call from London. “I feel like there has been some justice finally in ways that are unexpected. It’s not just justice for the new generation but I even get to experience it.
“I was told that even if I had a career, which I was told over and over was impossible, it would expire by the time I was in my thirties. And here I am in my fifties in the best moment of my career.”
When Hayek first arrived in Hollywood in the early ‘90s, she struggled to make an impact beyond the “sexy Mexican” roles in films such as Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn. She yearned for opportunities to showcase her full suite of acting skills – and where her ethnicity simply wasn’t an issue – but found it difficult to land lead roles, even after impressing in smaller ones.
“There were occasions where they said ‘you were the most liked character in the film’ and you would think that the studio would call me back for something but they never did,” she says.
Now the studio does call back. Hayek’s character, Sonia, in the 2017 action-comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard, made only a fleeting appearance as the wife of Samuel L. Jackson’s titular hit man (Ryan Reynolds played the bodyguard). But she made such an impression on audiences that Aussie director Patrick Hughes beefed up the role so that the sequel puts Hayek on an equal footing with her two wisecracking co-leads as they team up to stop a megalomaniac launching a cyber-terror attack on Europe.
“I think she was probably in high demand because she’s a woman with no filters and no conscience,” says Hayek with a laugh. “She just says a lot of things that maybe people would think about saying but never dare.”
Hayek also says she worked hard to make sure that her gun-toting, round-kicking action woman played by her own rules, rather than trying to fit into the established order of the usually male-dominated genre, and hopes that will also resonate with a female audience.
“She’s very much a woman and I think that women will really identify with this need of romance and the man you love making you feel special and making sure that you keep him on that track no matter how many years you are together and feeling appreciated and loved and celebrated as a partner,” she says. “So, it’s incredible that not only do I get to do the action at 54, but also that I am heard. Because a lot of these were my propositions, that I get to have a little bit of a say in, and to do action, we don’t have to become like the men. We can still be women and kick some ass.”
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
Hayek says her acting partners Reynolds and Jackson were the “ultimate professionals” in the heavily improvised scenes, with director Hughes the most likely to crack up in the middle of take. But playing the fabulously filthy-mouthed Sonia was a challenge for Hayek, particularly opposite Jackson, arguably the finest and most prolific swearer in Hollywood history.
“I was just trying to hold my own and be able to live up to the legend and do my best at it,” she says. “I think there is an extra joy in cursing in a foreign language because you don’t have all the prejudice that you grow up with. You never had your parents say, don’t say this word because they didn’t know how to say it. So, I think there is a little bit more freedom than if you grew up being told ‘this is a bad word’.”
But she admits that she threw herself so enthusiastically into the profanity-filled scenes that things occasionally got a little awkward when she returned to the home she shares with billionaire husband of 11 years, Francois-Henri Pinault, and their 13-year-old daughter Valentina.
“This was difficult,” she admits. “I think aspects of Sonia – the cursing being one of them – she was just so delicious to play that they lingered after the work. To my surprise, after the movie was wrapped, a couple of times she would just possess me and my daughter would go ‘Muuuuuum’ and I would just have to say ‘it was not me, it was Sonia’.”
Hayek says she was convinced to join the MCU as Ajak – who was written as a man in the comics – in Eternals without having even read a script partly because of who had been put in charge. The fact that Kevin Feige and Marvel had made the seemingly left-field choice of director Chloe Zhao, who was coming off the back of this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner Nomadland, was enough for Hayek to take her place in the star-studded, diverse cast that also includes Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry and Game of Thrones alumni Richard Madden and Kit Harington.
“I feel so privileged that I was able to watch her work,” Hayek says of Zhao stepping up to the eagerly anticipated, Covid-delayed project with 40 times the budget of the rave-reviewed art house hit Nomadland. “She was completely in command. And if anybody thought ‘well, she’s only done very tiny movies – how is she going to do a big one?’ – it felt like she was doing it her entire life.
“And it was such an empowering and inspiring thing to go to work and watch her in action and learn from it. And then of course to have a legend like Angelina – she’s such a good actress – that made it very exciting because all of a sudden it’s not only great to do a Marvel movie, but you are feeling like you might be doing the most interesting one because she’s so special.”
The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard screens in cinemas from tomorrow. Eternals is released in November.