Chloé Zhao will never forget one particular night shoot while filming “Eternals,” Marvel’s upcoming movie about a group of immortals living on Earth whose leader is Ajak, played by Salma Hayek. It was a cold and drizzly evening on location in an English forest in the fall of 2019, and the Oscar-winning director told the cast, which includes Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjiani, that they could return to their trailers while some technical issues were being resolved and it was unclear when the cameras would start rolling again.
But Hayek remained on set, sitting on an apple box while listening to Nils Frahm’s song “Says” on her earphones. “I think she saw that I was overwhelmed, so she asked me to take a moment with her,” Zhao recalls. “She got me to sit by her and rest my head on her lap, and she put her earphones over my ears. It was some kind of calming musical soundscape. We just sat there quietly while the hectic scene went on around us. It was the five minutes I really needed in that moment. I remember thinking, this is what Ajak would do with her healing power if she sees one of her Eternals in trouble.”
Hayek knows about healing. She spent the better part of the past year recovering from a near fatal case of COVID-19, a fact she chose to keep quiet until now. During an interview over Zoom, she reveals that she battled the virus in the early days of the pandemic.
“My doctor begged me to go to the hospital because it was so bad,” says Hayek, 54, from the London manse that she shares with her husband, Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault, and their 13-year-old daughter, Valentina. “I said, ‘No, thank you. I’d rather die at home.’”
Hayek spent about seven weeks isolated in a room of the house. At one point, she was put on oxygen. She still hasn’t fully regained the energy she once had.
However, she returned to work in April to shoot Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci,” in which she plays a clairvoyant who was convicted of helping Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) orchestrate the 1995 killing of her ex-husband Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), an heir to the Gucci fashion empire. “It was not a lot of time,” Hayek says. “It was easy. It was the perfect job to just get back into it. I had started doing Zooms at one point, but I could only do so many because I would get so tired.”
She’s back on the big screen next month starring opposite Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson as Sonia Kincaid in Patrick Hughes’ action comedy “Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard,” a sequel to 2017’s “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.” Sonia appeared on-screen for only about two minutes in the first film, but Hughes tells Variety that her character was significantly expanded for the follow-up after “everyone kept telling me they wanted to see and know more about Sonia.”
The Lionsgate film wrapped in 2019, but its original August 2020 release was delayed by the pandemic. “Salma is just a creative ball of energy, and she brings so much to the table,” Hughes says. “When we were in preproduction in London, I’d go over to her place once a week, and we’d work on the dialogue. She’s always bringing endless ideas.”
Reynolds agrees. “Salma is a writer,” he says. “She comes to set with a writer’s mind and outlook. She’s constantly improving, rewriting and reminding us all what the scene is actually about. She comes to play and build.”
“In ‘Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard,’ I’m slapped in the face twice by Salma and once by Samuel L. Jackson,” Reynolds says. “For the record, it was Salma who didn’t pull the punches. Not even once. I can still feel the sharp sting of her tiny hand working its way into my soft Hollywood cheekbones. May God have mercy on her soul.”
Fight and stunt sequences were what first got Hayek noticed in Hollywood with her breakout role in Robert Rodriguez’s 1995 neo-Western action film “Desperado.” From there, Hayek, already a huge telenovela star in Mexico when she moved to Los Angeles in the late ’80s, thought she would have a career steeped in action and comedy. But that didn’t happen. “They wouldn’t even give me the auditions. We tried really hard. I said I know I can do drama, but what about romantic comedies and action comedies?” she recalls. “For them, it was like, ‘Oh, no, she’s just like a sexy Mexican.’”
Throughout her career — which spans acting, producing and directing and includes an Oscar nomination for her role as Frida Kahlo in the 2002 film “Frida” — Hayek has proven that she never should have been dismissed so easily. Her production company, Ventanarosa, which signed a two-year first-look deal with HBO Max last June, has 15 projects in development, including “A Boob’s Life,” a television series about a 40-year-old woman whose breasts talk to her; an HBO series adaptation of the New York Times bestseller “Valentine,” about a Mexican teen who is beaten and raped by a white oil worker in 1970s Texas; and a seven-part scripted series for Fox Latin America about the fate of Eva Perón’s corpse, which was hidden for 19 years after her husband, Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón, was overthrown in 1955 and his plans to build a mausoleum were abandoned.
Hayek hopes within the next year to direct a yet-to-be-announced film based on a script she wrote 17 years ago. “It’s a very personal project, and this is the right time,” she says, declining to divulge any details. “It couldn’t have gotten made two years ago or even last year. It’s very ambitious. It’s not a small film. I don’t give up. I’ll get it made.”
The following conversation has been excerpted and condensed from a longer interview and edited for length and clarity.
What did you think when Patrick told you that he wanted you to be one of the stars of the “Hitman’s Bodyguard” sequel?
Quite frankly, I was shocked. I’ve been in many movies where we get the call: “Oh, my God, you’re one of the most liked characters in the film.” So many times. But for the first time, there was a director that said, “I’m gonna listen to the audience.” But I didn’t trust him. At the beginning, I said, “Oh, he’s just exaggerating. He’s just being nice.” But then when we started talking about it, he told me the storyline, and then I realized, “Oh, my God, this guy is not only for real, but he also wants me involved in the process. Then I said, “Let’s make it really interesting and talk about menopause in a funny way.” Imagine if you have a character that’s already crazy and then add those hormones.
Could you ever have imagined starring in an action movie as a woman facing menopause?
No, never. But I did think I would do action and comedy. I remember there were two big comedies I auditioned for the lead. Afterwards, the directors told me that I was the best audition and that I was better than who they cast and that they regretted it. But at the time, they knew the studios wouldn’t have gone for a Mexican as the lead.
When you think about that now, is there a satisfaction in seeing how far you’ve come, or is there a bitter- sweetness to it?
I got a lot of satisfaction with them coming to me and telling me because I thought it was very courageous of them. And I thought it changed something. It changed something in them. It made [me think that] maybe the next generation or the next girl that comes in was going to get a better shot because of it. But nobody really looked into my value. If you are a woman and you are in a movie that is very successful and they say you are their favorite character, they will still give all credits of the box office to the guy. They don’t count who you’re bringing into the theaters.
In my case, I was already a very big star in my country. I was bringing the Latino market into the theaters. I know some of the studios knew that. But they didn’t want to accept the value of the Latino market at the time. Even when I did “Frida,” it was an art-house film that had a successful box office. But they ignored it. I still didn’t get the leads. Yes, I thought I was going be an action star. That’s how I started. But at some point at a certain age, I was sure it was never going to happen because it didn’t when it made sense. Now that it doesn’t make any sense, it’s all happening.
And talk about being an action star — you’re playing a superhero next in Marvel’s “Eternals.”
It never crossed my mind to be in a Marvel movie. I guess that I thought that boat had sailed, and it was an absolute shock. All of a sudden, I got a call: “They want to talk to you about a new franchise.” And I was like, “What?” And I said OK, but they don’t tell you any information until you’re on the call. It’s kind of hard to be an action hero if you’re Mexican. It’s really hard to be an action hero if you’re a Mexican and a woman. But to be an action hero, being Mexican, a woman, and my age, it felt like they were punking me. And then the worst part is that I was one of the first people they cast. I had to keep my mouth shut for so many months. I couldn’t tell a soul. And I couldn’t wait for the day that I could say it.
The cast and characters of “Eternals” are so diverse. Do you think Hollywood is finally making strides when it comes to being more inclusive?
I think that there are people in power who have wanted this change for a long time. But it takes a lot of elements for it to happen. For example, [Marvel vice president of film production] Victoria Alonso, I cannot love this woman more. She is extraordinary. She was very supportive to all the cast. And when you talk to her, you can see that this was something meaningful to her for a long time. Even [Marvel chief] Kevin Feige was very proud of it. But I was terrified. They tell you you’re going to be in this movie, but they can’t give you a script, and you have to sign the contract. You have to negotiate and sign the contract, and you cannot tell anyone.
So how much did you know about “Eternals” when you signed on?
I knew the name of my character. But don’t look for it in the comics. When I did look at the comics, I was a man.
When they finally announced you as Ajak, you wrote on Instagram, “It used to be the father of all eternals, but girls, this is OUR time!” “Our” was in all caps.
It was hard to believe, so when it happens to you it’s important that you pass it on and say, “Yes, it’s happening. It’s really, really happening.” My husband is very feminist, and he does a lot of studies on this. I remember a long time ago that he told me that women have a harder time asking for a promotion or for a raise. They really try to justify it. Men normally ask for it prematurely. It has to do with self-esteem and with systematic and constant sexism. It takes women a lot of courage to ask. They’re afraid they’re going to get fired. So if it’s going well for you, if you see the change, it’s good to say that it is happening for us. I know that it’s not happening for every woman, but it gave me courage when I saw it happening for other women, even if it was not happening to me. I’m in a great place now, but I have experienced suffering. I choose not to talk about it because I like to stay positive. When people see me, and not just girls, minorities or even short people — anybody — I want them to think even if things don’t look like they can happen, anything can happen. But I don’t want it to be based on you have to suffer a lot and then eventually it’s going to happen. I want it to be based on why not?
In 2017, you wrote an essay for The New York Times about being sexually harassed and bullied by Harvey Weinstein. For someone who doesn’t like to talk about her own suffering, writing about Harvey must have been …
Excruciating! That’s why it took me so long. It was so hard because I chose not to be a victim even though I was a victim. I had to convince myself that I’m a fighter and above all else, a survivor. When all this happened with the Harvey story, I didn’t know that it happened to so many women. I went into such a depression for months. It really took an army of women to make me see I was true survivor, and a true fighter.
When I wrote it, I didn’t even know if I was really going to show it to anyone. I kept saying, “Who wants to hear my story? Why am I giving myself self-importance?” They had been asking me for it from the beginning, but I put it down on paper just for me.
How did you get through that depression?
I think the support of my husband throughout the entire thing was very important. Although he was shocked that I didn’t tell him the details of what I had gone through, and he was upset that I didn’t tell him and that we were around [Weinstein], he was amazing. A lot of people were upset with me. Friends were upset with me that I didn’t tell them what really happened. Then I thought, I have to do it. Afterwards, a lot of people wrote to me. A lot from the industry said, “This happened to me.”
After Joe Biden was elected, you wrote on Twitter, “4 years ago we heard of a wall separating Mexico from America but what really happened is we built an invisible wall that separated Americans from Americans. Nobody is more qualified to tear it down and make America united again.” How do you think his administration is doing?
I’ve taken a break from politics. I just want to be grateful for life, and I’m excited this movie [“Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard”] is coming out after everything was on hold. I don’t want to be exasperated about it. I want to be creating things that inspire people to come together. That’s what I want to do. I want to enjoy my teenager, my amazing husband, my animals. I feel great now, so I don’t want to complain about things. I spent a long time complaining, and I don’t want to engage in things like, this should be this way or that way. I want to make people laugh.
Manori Ravindran contributed to this report.
Styling: Annabelle Harron/The Wall Group; Makeup: Sofia Tilbury/Charlotte Tilbury; Hair: Samantha Hillerby/Premier Hair and Makeup; Manicure: Kate Williamson/Caren Agency/ Essie; Look 1 (white): Blouse: Saint Laurent; Pants and Shoes: Gucci; Earrings: Boucheron; Look 2 (blue): Dress Saint Laurent; Earrings: Boucheron; Look 3 (red): Dress: Balenciaga