`They've got a problem with foreign accents'

Salma Hayek, co-star of `Wild, Wild West', talks to Beverley D'Silva

Salma Hayek. Know the name? Think of the red-hot Latin-American chica in From Dusk Till Dawn, who danced on a table-top with a python (the snake was marginally better covered than she was). The sexual allure of Ms Hayek has never been in question. And yet, image nothwithstanding, Ms Hayek is a street-fighter.

This warm, vivacious woman from the little town of Coatzacoalcos in Mexico twists men round her little finger. Harvey Weinstein is not oblivious to her charms: this year he expanded her two-picture deal with Miramax to a 10-picture one. And Will Smith fought to have her play femme fatale Rita Escobar in the $100m Wild Wild West. "Part of the reason I've been successful is that I feel people," Smith told Premiere magazine. "I can tell if it's going to work, and I had that with Salma. You can get blinded by her beauty, but she's hilarious." At first, the film's director, Barry Sonnenfeld, who enjoyed huge box-office success with Smith in Men in Black, was not so sure. He liked Hayek's comic talent - "she's like Lucille Ball".

Hayek, who is an extremely sharp raconteur, sighs heavily. "Hollywood has a big problem with `foreign' accents. Americans, they think: she's brown, who's going to want to see her through the whole film? But they've made a big mistake with Mexican actresses - and I'm in the lead to prove them wrong." The last Mexican actress to make it big in Hollywood was Dolores del Rio, and she died 16 years ago. Among other Latinas, Rosie Perez seems to have disappeared. And Jennifer Lopez, who is often mistaken for a Latina, is from Puerto Rico via Brooklyn.

Wild, Wild West moves Hayek up towards a real power base in Hollywood. It has been a long, hard struggle, she says. She had already enjoyed fame, as a star of Mexican television soaps, when she left her country for Los Angeles in 1991, aged 22. "I arrived with two suitcases and no money and started out from the bottom again. I accepted bit parts, but that was OK - it was decent work. I couldn't speak English well, so I took classes in voice and Shakespeare, and movement. I wanted to improve myself."

Director Robert Rodriguez spotted her on a TV chat show, "complaining, as usual, about how there were no good parts for brown girls in Hollywood". He was charmed,and cast her in Desperado and then From Dusk Till Dawn. Her first lead was in the romantic comedy Fools Rush In, with Mathew Perry of Friends. "I was very excited. It was my first big part, and it was not about being Mexican. I got to fix that film a lot." Unfortunately, it was beyond repair, as the box office showed.

And yet, Hayek has had a productive two years. In the autumn, she appears as a New York society club hostess in Studio 54, followed by Dogma, Kevin Smith's eagerly awaited religious satire. "A lot of people won't like the film and I'll be crucified. But Kevin is a genius and he's made an extraordinary movie."

Her career as a producer has flourished, too. She has seven projects in the works through her company Ventanarosa (Pink Window), and a small production credit - as well as a small, highly decorative role - in El Coronel No Tiene Quien Le Escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel) from the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which ran in competition at Cannes. "Salma will be an important producer," says Barry Sonnenfeld. "She is very ambitious - and not in a sneaky way."

Hayek is ready to embrace the power, and gutsy about grabbing it: "If Hollywood won't give me the parts I want, I'm at the place where I can supply them for myself." Such a place may be provided by Frida, the forthcoming biopic of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who died in 1954. The part went from Laura San Giacomo to Madonna, and finally into Hayek's grateful hands.

Hayek is obsessed by Kahlo, who always painted herself with one thick dark eyebrow.

"I identify with many things about Frida. She lived life as an art-form. She was a feminist yet she had all the qualities," she grins, "of a good traditional Mexican woman. Frida loved to take care of her people around her and would bring her husband [the artist Diego Rivera] his meals when he was painting. Frida was a fighter. She makes me think of my country. Frida was exactly like Mexico. Her body was all broken. But her soul was indestructible."

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