"This was a story that was important for me to tell," says actress Salma Hayek of her seven-year quest to capture on film the remarkable life of her countrywoman, the 20th-century Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. "It was not just making the movie," adds Hayek, "it was about making the right movie." Hayek's tenacity and dedication to the project -- and her passionate, nuanced performance in the visually stunning film -- is likely to lead her right to an Academy Award nomination.
But Frida, which Hayek coproduced, was important not just because it offered the 36-year-old actress the role of a lifetime; making the film was a point of national pride for Hayek, who grew up in Coatzacoalcos, in Veracruz, Mexico.
"I think it's a story that shows Mexico in a light that it has never been seen in before," says the actress. "At this particular period of time that Frida lived and was there, Mexico was the nucleus for a lot of sophisticated minds. And I really wanted to show this part of my country and this extraordinary woman who inspired me because of her courage to be unique always in everything she did."
Hayek, whose Mexican mother (an opera singer) and Lebanese father (a successful oil executive in Mexico), raised her opulently -- she enjoyed exotic vacations in the U.S. and a stint at a Stateside Catholic boarding school -- pursued acting despite her parents' wishes that she educate herself for a career in international relations. After becoming a successful television actress in Mexico, in 1991 Hayek moved to Los Angeles to break into American movies. A few minor roles on TV and in small films led to her breakthrough performance in Robert Rodriguez's Desperado (1995) and the Mexican production Callejon de los Milagros, for which she was nominated for an Ariel (Mexico's equivalent of the Academy Award). Her new prominence brought her parts in From Dusk Till Dawn, Fools Rush In, Dogma and Wild, Wild West.
But Hayek's interest in the film biography of Frida Kahlo began long before she was a bankable artist in the U.S.; when in the early '90s the actress heard that director Luis Valdez (La Bamba) had a Frida project in development, she sent a reel of her film work and called his office until she got an answer from him. Valdez ultimately pronounced the actress too young for the role (she was not yet 30), but his film never made it to production. Nevertheless Hayek never lost sight of Frida and was intimately involved in choosing Julie Taymor, the director who would ultimately bring Kahlo's story to life onscreen.
Taymor, whose previous work includes Titus and Broadway's The Lion King, has crafted a film that sparkles with illustrative lighting and painterly special effects, framing the artist's life within her 25-year love affair with the rotund Mexican painter, Communist revolutionary and incorrigible womanizer Diego Rivera (played by Alfred Molina). Also in the cast are Hayek's close friends Ashley Judd (as photographer Tina Modotti), Antonio Banderas (as muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros), Mia Maestro (as Frida's sister, Cristina) and boyfriend Edward Norton (in a cameo performance as Nelson Rockefeller); Geoffrey Rush plays Leon Trotsky, with whom Frida had a brief romantic liaison.
"I did a lot of experiments and played with many scripts...a lot of obstacles came my way," says Hayek. "You just focus on making the best that you can make it. And the thing was not to get distracted. I had the support of a lot of wonderful people who are close friends of mine. So, you make a movie with a lot of patience, a lot of dedication and a lot of friends."
Hayek scrupulously studied Kahlo, whose critical injuries from a trolley accident as a young woman remained an enduring source of pain and desolation throughout her short life (she was 47 when she died). And while Hayek's is a more refined beauty (Kahlo bore a slight mustache and a unibrow), the actress, who is 5-foot-2, does resemble the diminutive painter, who was known for her traditional Indian garments, jewelry and hairstyles.
"I went and searched for every single person who was alive who spent time with her and asked them if I could have sessions with them, and they very kindly gave me their time and shared a lot of wonderful stories," Hayek relates. "Some of them, because Frida was very generous, had some of her possessions, and so I asked on two occasions for permission to try the things on. And I put this one outfit on -- the first outfit that Diego gave to her -- it had special significance. And I was very excited. I put it on and I started crying like a child. Very strange...first of all, because it fit. And that was very, very exciting."
As Frida and Diego, Hayek and Molina conjure an arresting chemistry onscreen that propels the film from beginning to end.
"I started stalking Alfred Molina about five years ago," confesses Hayek. "I thought always he was this amazing actor who was a chameleon, who had this extraordinary energy. And I always thought he would be the right Diego...he was always the one and only."
While their union was built on a kind of spiritual loyalty, fidelity was not a virtue for the tumultuous pair, and the film represents their indiscretions artfully without compromising the characters' integral sensuality (Frida took both male and female lovers; Diego was thrice married and had numerous affairs with women, including Frida's own sister).
"I think when you take in a character you have to embrace it for everything that there is," says Hayek about depicting Kahlo's bisexual nature. "I feel more comfortable doing nudity in something that is absolutely organic to the story that you're telling and extremely important to portray that person correctly than just dressing in sexy clothes in a movie where they want to capture a certain audience and exploit this aspect of your personality."
In preparation for the role, Hayek felt compelled to study painting and found that she was not without talent. But it's her small collection of Kahlo's artwork that really inspired the actress. "I own a couple of things from her and Diego," she reveals. "I lease my car, I have a small house, all the clothes are borrowed, jewelry is borrowed, but I have some Fridas and Diegos."
Hayek will next be seen in Desperado director Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico, with Antonio Banderas and Johnny Depp. She has also just finished production on her directorial debut, The Maldonado Miracle, starring Peter Fonda, Mare Winningham and Ruben Blades, which will be broadcast on Showtime.
And while the actress professes modesty about her initial perception of the film's prospects ("I never thought this movie was a big movie"), Frida is only small inasmuch as its subject is an obscure one to much of the general public, an unfortunate fact that Hayek is correcting, and which is all but assured to magnify the actress's talents come Oscar time.