The velocity of Salma

By Anne Stockwell

Originally published on Advocate.com November 26 2002 1:00 AM ET

Appearances being
what they are, you might mistake Salma Hayek for your
basic gorgeous wind-up movie star. You would soon regret
that. The arresting 36-year-old Mexican actor-producer
is a passionate filmmaker with equal parts brains and
cojones. Want convincing? Go see Frida,
which opened in theaters across America in November.
Having waged and won an epic battle to produce the
film, Hayek throws herself into her performance as Frida
Kahlo, the defiant bisexual Mexican artist beloved of gay
women and of enduring spirits everywhere.

“Salma is
one of the most phenomenal women I know,” says
director Julie Taymor, who collaborated with Hayek to
bring Kahlo’s almost unbelievably colorful
world to life. “She deserves so many kudos for her
bravery in this movie, not just for baring her soul
and her body in an unusual way but also for hanging on
to [the project].”

Hayek also hung
on to the project’s true meaning. While some critics
have faulted Frida for softening its
heroine’s harder edges, lesbian and gay
audiences have been cheering the movie’s frank
depiction of her love for women. According to Taymor, the
film’s most popular scene is the sexy tango
between Hayek and Ashley Judd as Kahlo’s friend
(some sources say lover), photographer Tina Modotti.

Frida also offers a truly lesbian legend:
83-year-old singer Chavela Vargas, who was a lover of
Kahlo’s in real life. Vargas plays Death,
singing in a man’s suit in a barroom with a
bottle of mescal. Gloriously androgynous, her voice pure
gravel, Vargas jolts the film from reenactment into
the dimension where Kahlo truly lived.

Because of her
many ills, history tends to remember Kahlo as a victim.
Actually, she was a hell-raiser, as is Hayek. Like Kahlo,
Hayek is of mixed heritage; she’s the daughter
of a Lebanese-born businessman and a Mexican opera
singer. Like Kahlo, Hayek defied family expectations to
seek her remarkable destiny. Discovered after dropping out
of university in Mexico City, Hayek almost overnight
became Mexico’s most popular television star
thanks to her leading role in the telenovela (soap
opera) Teresa.

But Hayek chose
to leave the security of Spanish-language TV and head for
Hollywood. She spent years paying her dues in U.S. movies,
steaming up the scenery in such boy bonanzas as
Desperado, Fled, and Wild, Wild West
and playing fetchingly opposite Matthew Perry in the 1997
romantic comedy Fools Rush In.

All along,
though, Hayek showed a distinct preference for the quirky
(say, Kevin Smith’s Dogma) and even the queer.
In the 1998 indie feature The Velocity of Gary,
Hayek played a woman jockeying for position with the
other man in her bisexual lover’s life. In
2000’s much-admired Time Code, an
ambitious digital project by Mike Figgis, Hayek played
the duplicitous mistress of a studio executive (Jeanne
Tripplehorn), stepping out on the side with a drug-addled
director (Stellan Skarsgård).

On a warm day at
an elegant Los Angeles hotel, I’m conducted upstairs
and ushered into a room where Salma Hayek sits alone
at a table by the wall. On this press junket weekend,
we have 45 minutes and not a minute more. A clock
ticks. We begin.

I went to Frida expecting to see just a hint that she was
bisexual. A kiss, a meaningful look between two
women. I was pleasantly surprised.

I’m so happy you say that because I think
we did very little. I was very concerned that we did
not do enough. It was a tricky thing because we had to
focus on the love story between her and Diego.

I’m surprised you’re saying this.
I know that Frida had very meaningful
relationships with women—meaningful
relationships with women. It’s not that she had
only sexual affairs with women. Especially toward the end of
her life, she fell in love with a couple of women.

Who were they?

Ay. Dios mío. I’m not going to remember
the names. I’m terrible with names. I can tell
you, like, some anecdotes. For example, when Frida had
the accident, one of the reasons she didn’t go back
to school—and this is told to me by Martha
Zamora, a historian who specializes in Frida Kahlo and
has written a couple of books on her—because she was
caught having an affair with the librarian, who was a
woman. And it was a big scandal. She was so young, you
know.

She had a boyfriend then, right?
Yes, which was Alejandro Gomez Arias, and Alejandro
went, “Frida, I can’t believe you did
this to me. Why did you do it?” She was never
apologetic. She said, “Well, that’s just who I
am. I love you, I love you to death, I
will love you for 10 lives. But that’s who I
am.”

Why is Frida Kahlo a lesbian hero?
For the same reason that she is a hero to a lot of smart
women: because she had the courage to be unique. She
had the courage to be who she was and to not apologize
for it. She never tried to please anybody’s
fantasy of who she should be. Not society, not religion, not
her family, not her friends. Not with her art. They
didn’t like her art—she didn’t
change it. She was herself, at any price. And she was
bold about it.

Her images can be hard to look at.
She would take her art and just throw it at your
face to see what you would do with it. Either take it
or leave it. And most people left it. And you know
what? She didn’t care. She didn’t care.
The one conventional thing in her life that she did
was marriage, and that was the most unconventional
marriage ever.

Frida was less than crazy about America. She called it
“Gringolandia” and wrote about the
perils of seeking fame here. Do you like Gringolandia
any better than she did?

[Laughs warily] I like America. Some
things I like. Politically, where America is today, I
am not very happy. I have a different philosophy. But
this country has been very good to me, and I’m very
grateful for it.

What do Americans underestimate about Mexico?
I think Americans see the rest of the world as the world
is portrayed in Disneyland’s Small World
ride—a bunch of people dressed one way, one
language—and they don’t have a lot of
curiosity to go any deeper than that. I think what
happened after September 11 changed that. They started
to wonder, Well, why don’t they like us?
We’re not liked?
They didn’t
even know.

What are Americans going to find out about Mexico once
they’ve gotten curious?

I think the rest of the world will find out
about Mexico that at [Frida Kahlo’s] time in
history—and this is one of the reasons why it was so
important for me to tell this story—Mexico was the
nucleus of sophisticated minds that were kicked out of
their countries because they were threatening. And
they found a refuge in this place. It was very
bohemian. Frida lived [during] one of the best times in
Mexico. So everywhere else she went, even though she
appreciated and learned from those experiences and
liked a lot of them, she missed that. She missed the
depth and the texture and the warmth of this country that
she adored so deeply.

Diego Luna plays your boyfriend in Frida. This past
summer, in Y Tu Mamá También, he
and Gael García Bernal were lying on twin diving
boards masturbating and chanting your name.

I’ve known Diego since he was a little
boy. I know Gael. I know his mother. You see,
they’re all my friends; [Y Tu Mamá
director] Alfonso Cuarón is my best friend. So
they told me they were going to do that. [Shrugs
and smiles
] I said, “I’m
honored.”

So how was it playing a love scene with Diego in Frida?
Strange!

On-screen you always wore Frida’s unibrow, but not
really her mustache. Did you feel the mustache was
going too far?
She didn’t have that big of a mustache when she
was younger. You can’t see it, and in the
paintings she exaggerated it. Toward the end, when she
got older [leans over conspiratorially], her mustache
grew. And she kept exaggerating in the paintings, but the
mustache grew.

She exaggerated the mustache?
I think the eyebrow and the mustache—this is a
personal interpretation—are symbolic to Frida
of her freedom. The eyebrow, in a couple of paintings,
she made a bird out of it, a symbol of freedom. She
didn’t try to pluck them to be like everyone else. It
is the freedom of one’s acceptance for who one
is. And I think the mustache was her acceptance for
her male part. And how she celebrates it! She celebrates
that part of herself.

How did Chavela Vargas get involved in this movie?
I love Chavela. I love Chavela with all my heart.
She is an extraordinary woman.

I’ve heard about her for years. I could not
believe I was seeing her.
See, I have always been a fan of Chavela. I think her
voice is so full of sentiment and has so many colors
in it, and is so real and so raw. And it was weird,
because one day Julie [Taymor] calls me up, at a very
early stage. We didn’t have the script. Julie had
just come on board. And she said to me, “We
have to have this woman in the movie. There is a woman
called Chavela Vargas.” I go, “You’re
kidding me.” “And she has the most
extraordinary voice—” I go, “Julie! I
love Chavela! Chavela was Frida’s
lover!” And she couldn’t believe it, and said,
“We have to have her, we have to have
her!” And so we contacted her, because I had
some friends that knew her.

That’s wild.
We had a wonderful evening, this dinner at a
friend of mine’s house. And she sang to me the
song she used to sing to Frida. [Leans over,
laughing
] And I asked her, “What kind of
underwear did she wear? Did she wear
underwear?” And I asked her all this sort of
questions.

So did Frida wear underwear?
[Laughs] She did, yeah. Not always.

So in a way, you really met Frida.
Chavela would look at me and say, “You are
Frida. You have the same kind of spirit.” And
we became very good friends, Chavela and I.

This is not the first time you’ve made a film
dealing with the gay experience. In The
Velocity of Gary
you dressed up as Diana Ross
and did your own version of a drag queen.

Yeah, I’ve been a drag queen. That was so
much fun.

Tell me how you decided to produce that movie.
The only reason I became a producer in the movie is
because they ran into so many problems, and I jumped
in and solved them, from getting the money to, like,
locations and technical problems and disputes between
people to getting more money to getting the
distribution.

That movie was about alternative families, gay families—
I don’t want to say that’s a gay family. I
don’t think it’s a gay family.
It’s people who don’t have a family and go and
find a family on the street for different reasons.
Because my character was not gay, but they were a
family.

Let’s talk about Time Code. This film was a
technical first. Four threads of one story, shot
by four digital cameras, each following the actors
without cuts. Audiences saw all four cameras streaming
at the same time and “assembled” the
story in their own minds.

That was an amazing experience. I just directed
my first film [The Maldonado Miracle, for
Showtime], and I can tell you that that experience was
very helpful.

Why?
Because I had to direct myself in the segment and have
an eye in and out and actually work with the
cameraman. Mike [Figgis, Time Code’s
writer and director] was doing the camera somewhere else.
There were problems that would come up, and you had to
improvise. So you had to think as a director, and an
actor, and an editor. Because we were not going to
edit this movie.

Jeanne Tripplehorn, who played your jealous lover, came
into this at the last moment, didn’t she?
Yeah. I was supposed to do it with a guy, and then the
guy had some problems, and we didn’t have a
guy, and the day we were going to start
shooting—that day—I was like, “I have
no guy.” And then Mike says, “No, I have
your guy. It’s Jeanne.” I go, “Oh, OK,
great.”

So no hesitations.
No hesitations. I have no hangovers over that.

No hangovers? I like that.
No, no, no. I have a lot of gay friends. One of my
mentors was a gay woman.

Is this someone whose name you care to tell me, or not?
I don’t know how she feels about that.
She’s in Mexico. I learned a lot from her and
her girlfriend.

Your mentor as an actor?
Yes, she discovered me, pretty much. And she was a
producer, and she let me participate and taught me.
She would then consult me, and I would become a part
of it, not just as an actress but behind the cameras too.
And we have a very strong friendship ever since. It’s
a long, long time ago.

That explains some of the respect that I see in your work.
For the gay community. Oh, yes. I’m a big
advocate for the gay community.

My sense is that Mexico—perhaps because of Catholicism—
Well, this is one of the reasons I left
Catholicism. I think they are not fair to women in
general. How come a woman cannot be a priest? And
because I disapprove of their lack of acceptance of gay
people as equals.

In the larger Mexican society, is dislike of gay people a
big problem?
Yes, it’s a big problem.

More than here?
I would say so, yes.

Is it harder on men than it is on women in Mexico?
I think that most gay women won’t even ever, you
know, come out, because it is difficult on them.
It’s very, very bad.

Do you think that Frida would have been interested in the
civil rights struggle of gay people today? In America?

Oh, yes. In America—in Mexico too. Most
definitely. [Pauses, draws on her cigarette,
surveys me
] You’re talking to the right
person.

I am?
I am very angry about the way gay people are treated
around the world.

Why do you think it is? Why do people dislike and fear
gay people?
I think religion has had a lot to do with it. I think
that the gay people have a lot of fault for it.

How is that?
Because they are afraid to be who they are and be judged
for it. And there are a lot of gay people who
don’t come out. So you lose your strength
because you’re seen as a smaller minority than you
actually are. And because it’s small, people
feel threatened as if it was an abnormality. It is
judged as an abnormality when it has existed from the
beginning of time.

As you say, religion has a lot to do with it.
I think that God doesn’t make any differences,
you know, I think we are all loved by God the same.
And he has accepted gay people; otherwise he
wouldn’t have created gay people. It’s a part
of creation. I think the biggest problem besides those
two—and it is bigger than those two—is the
ignorance. It’s a tremendous ignorance. It is a lot
easier to judge than to learn. And so people take the
position of adopting somebody else’s judgment
on something that is completely unknown to them.

People love to quote bogus scientific statistics about homosexuality.
They think it’s like a choice of a perverse
preference. They don’t understand that
scientifically there is an explanation for it, that
it’s absolutely normal. So they are threatened
by the difference, that they find it different than
them. And probably because they also question, some of
them, “What if?”

Well, almost everybody has a little “What if?”
I think the people that are afraid of it are the ones
that have the “What if?” Like, I am not
afraid of it.

So for you, no “What if?”
No. I know I’m not gay. It’s clear to me.
If I was, I wouldn’t hide it, because I find
nothing, absolutely nothing wrong or abnormal about
it. I have a lot of gay friends. Because in a way this works
for you.

What do you mean? Homophobia works for us?
Yes, this works for gay people. Because these people
that are not so accepted are people who really make an
effort to develop themselves. To be smarter. To do
great things. So they’re always very smart
[corrects herself, smiles]. Not always. I
have found a lot of extremely smart and interesting
people that I have learned a lot from because they push
themselves to be the best they can be. Probably because they
have this other thing. And you know, it happened to me
in a different way, here.

Here in America?
Because since I don’t get the parts that
everybody can get, it’s been such a wonderful
blessing because it has made me push myself to learn how
to produce, to learn how to find interesting stories, to
learn how to direct. Had I not had that, I would have
been comfortable just playing—being the
actress.

Do you ever feel frustrated working in English?
Ah, no, I feel frustrated at people that focus on my
accent. And I don’t get parts sometimes because
of this.

I imagine you sometimes get passed over for challenging
parts because you’re beautiful.

Yeah [laughs], but I’m not going
to complain about being beautiful.

In Frida you have a sexy scene with Saffron
Burrows. I want to know if it was fun to be 5 foot
2 and seduce a six-foot-tall woman.
Oh, you know, Saffron is a very close friend of mine.
She is an activist. [Laughs] She’s
always yelling about something.

OK, who’s the best kisser? Jeanne Tripplehorn,
Ashley Judd, or Saffron Burrows?
I didn’t kiss Saffron in the movie.

Then I guess it’s got to be down to Jeanne and Ashley.
Oh! My God! They’re both great kissers. They both
have great mouths. [Pauses] Jeanne said
something to me that is very funny. We did this movie
many times. Like, 15 times. The whole movie. We kissed every
day. And after the second time we kissed—the first
time, it was a little shy, you know, and then, you
know, it got—every day was a very passionate
kiss. And she looked at me and she said, “You know
what, Salma? This has helped me realize, now I know
I’m not gay. Because I kiss you, and I can
appreciate the kiss and your mouth, and I don’t get
butterflies in my stomach.”

It’s all about the butterflies, isn’t it?
That doesn’t take away from appreciating someone
else’s style of kissing. But it does something
different to you. When your organism responds to the
smell of one kind of sex or the other [gives me a
richly dirty look
]—you know.

In real life, when Frida was cremated, her body actually
sat up on the way to the flames. This happened for
explainable medical reasons, but it became part of
her legend. But you didn’t shoot that.
Yeah [exhaling smoke]. Julie wanted to shoot it.
But I think the image that is there is a lot more
interesting. It’s more poetic without trying to
be shocking. We’re trying to make it more profound
and more artistic instead of creating a spectacle out
of her death. ’Cause I think it’s more
respectful.

Having made the movie you worked so hard to make, are you
sad to say goodbye to Frida now?
I will never say goodbye to Frida. She was living with
me long before I decided to be an actress. She will
stay in my heart until the day I die. And probably
we’ll have tea after I die.