Salma Hayek: Making cartoon based on a Lebanese philosophy book 'a love letter to my heritage'

“I was told if you direct you’ll never work as an actress again in this town."

Salma Hayek remembers the first time she saw a copy of The Prophet, a book of poetry by Kahlil Gibran.

It was at her paternal grandfather’s house in Lebanon. “I’m sorry, I was his favourite. We were very close and I lost him when I was six. He used to have this book on his bedside table. Many years went by and, when I was 18, I found this book again and I read it. For me, it was my grandfather teaching me about life through the book, and I learnt so much about the man who meant so much to me.”

Hayek has returned to the book, time and again, each time taking new meaning from it. In her teens it was the tales of love, in her twenties and thirties, the sections on good and evil. Now, in her forties, it’s the chapter about children. Hayek has a seven-year old daughter with her husband, French billionaire businessman François Henri-Pinault.

The Prophet will have its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next month, following a rather spectacular preview at the Cannes Film Festival. The Oscar-nominated director of The Lion King, Roger Allers, wrote the screenplay and directed the segments that inter link the chapters. A who’s who of world animation – Joan C. Gratz, Bill Plympton, Joann Sfar and the Brizzi brothers – are also involved.

Hayek produced the film. She founded her company, Ventanarosa, in 1999 and has always used it to realise difficult projects such as her biopic of the artist Frida Kahlo. “If they tell me it’s impossible and a ridiculous idea then I want to do it. When I had to sell Frida, I would say to financiers, ‘It’s a biopic about Mexican communists and artists. And it’s a love story about a hairy cripple and a fat man.’ Now I’m saying, ‘I’m making this animation about a philosophy book, and by the way it has nine directors attached to it, they all have different styles, nothing looks the same, and it’s 2D. But don’t worry because the author is Lebanese.’”

Hayek also voices Kamila, the girl who discovers the works of Kahlil Gibran. She’s excited finally to make use of her Arabic roots: “As a Lebanese woman, I’ve been looking for a part where I could represent Arab women. In my long career, I’ve not been able to find one, which  made me really sad. This film is a love letter to my heritage.”

Salma is Arabic for “calm”, ironic given that the actress is usually cast as the whirlwind in any screen relationship. It’s also odd to hear her speak so  vociferously about being Arab. While her grandfather was Lebanese, her parents were born in Central America – her mother an opera singer and talent scout, her father a businessman, who once ran for mayor in the port city of Coatzacoalcos, where she was born. After studying international relations in Mexico City, she landed the title role in Mexican telenovela Teresa, when she was 23. It made her a star in her homeland. Hollywood came after she appeared opposite Antonio Banderas in the 1995 hit Desperado. Superstardom was assured when she appeared in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaborations Four Rooms and From Dusk Till Dawn.

While appearing in blockbusters such as Wild Wild West and The Faculty, her personal sensibilities were clear from the films that she chose to produce. In 1999 she adapted Gabriel García Márquez’s novel about Colombian peasants living under martial law, No One Writes to the Colonel. It was followed in 2001 by In the Time of the Butterflies, a TV movie based on Julia Alvarez’s novel about the Mirabal sisters, a group of Dominican revolutionary activists.

Her one stint as director came in 2003, when she directed The Maldonado Miracle for Showtime. While Hollywood is willing to accept actresses who become producers, directing is a different ball game, she says. “After I produced Butterflies, the head of Showtime called me and said, ‘I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I want to tell you that you’re not really a producer or an actress, you’re a director. I want you to direct a movie.’ I was so shocked and I said, ‘I don’t think I can.’ But after I did Frida, I was getting offered the same parts, so I went back to him and said, ‘Do you have the project?’ He said yes and I asked to rewrite it.”

She was warned by others not to direct. “I was told if you direct you’ll never get hired as an actress again in this town, because directors don’t want to hire an actress who is also a can director. It’s not the same for actors. We did the movie and I stopped working for some time. Then we got nominated for six Emmys, Best Director among them. But I didn’t go pick it up and I did zero publicity. I would have stopped working even more as an actress.”

The film was nominated for five Daytime Emmy awards and won one, for Outstanding Directing in a Children/Youth/Family Special. But it is true that the acting roles dried up – a change in direction that is also down to her daughter. “Now it has to fit in with my lifestyle. Can I bring my daughter? Is it the right environment for her?”

This is her busiest year as an actress for a long time. She is starring opposite Pierce Brosnan in the Cambridge-set romantic drama How to Make Love Like an Englishman. She’s also in Everly, an action thriller in which she plays a woman who faces assassins sent by her mob boss ex-boyfriend. She is most excited by working on Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone’s period drama The Tale of Tales. “We were shooting in Sicily and Tuscany, but it’s difficult because all the locations are so complicated. I had to climb up onto a rock with a cable attached to me in a 17th-century costume.  John C Reilly was in an old diving suit walking against the current, and I’m asking, ‘Is this safe?’”

‘Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’ premieres at the Toronto  Film Festival in September

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