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The velocity of
Salma

The velocity of
Salma

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Fresh from her fierce on-screen turn as bisexual painter Frida Kahlo, Salma Hayek talks about kissing Ashley Judd, seducing Saffron Burrows, and sharing intimate secrets with Frida's real-life lesbian love

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 Skarsgard).

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 mio. 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 Mama Tambien, he and Gael Garcia 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 Mama director] Alfonso Cuaron 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.

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Anne Stockwell