I’m trying to discern what Salma Hayek’s secret might be. The actress and producer is 52, but she’s just as beautiful as she was when she first appeared onscreen in Desperado 24 years ago—the same high cheekbones, the same lambent brown eyes, the same perfect skin and lustrous hair. Standing five-foot-two, she looks like a Disney princess painted by Frida Kahlo.
“I haven’t done an-y-thing,” she says when we meet at a West London restaurant, enunciating the syllables with flair. “I don’t know how to explain it.” Does she, I ask desperately, drink a lot of water? Hayek shrugs. “Sometimes I drink a lot, some days I don’t.” As if to prove this, she orders a bottle of San Pellegrino and barely touches it.
It is this same sense of ease that guides everything Hayek turns her hand to. She has been at the top of her professional game for decades, appearing in movies that garner box office success and critical praise. Behind the scenes she is a dedicated social activist who works on a wide variety of issues, including women’s rights and domestic violence. On top of that, she’s married to billionaire fashion mogul François-Henri Pinault and is courted by designers as a muse in her own right.
Joseph Altuzarra, who designed Hayek’s gown for the 2018 Met gala, says she “has an incredible confidence and power.” And, he continues, she is never afraid to take a risk. At the fittings she had input “on the shape, the materials, and the color,” and when she talked to the designer about her dogs—Hayek is said to have close to 30 pets—“we ended up embroidering one of them into the dress.” Her outfit was one of the event’s most talked-about ensembles.
Given the influence she wields, Hayek could be unbearable, but she is charming company because she makes it seem as if success is chasing her, not the other way around. At a time when she could be resting on her laurels, Hayek is choosing projects, like this month’s thriller The Hummingbird Project, that are as challenging as they are compelling. In Hummingbird Hayek plays a trading tycoon who finds herself in competition with a former employee (Alexander Skarsgard) and his cousin (Jesse Eisenberg) as they battle to control a technology that could make its owner a fortune.
Hayek’s character is determined to win at all costs, and the actress admits that it’s the kind of role that doesn’t come around often. “They’re rare,” she says. “And if you’re Mexican they’re practically nonexistent.” In fact, the movie’s director, Kim Nguyen, says the part was originally written for a man, “but then I thought, That’s so clichéd.” He says Hayek imbued the character with her own personality. “Salma has this power that she owns,” he says. “She stares you in the eye and she means business.”
Nguyen might be speaking of Hayek’s work in the film, but she’s equally fearless offscreen. In a 2017 article she wrote for the New York Times, just as sexual assault allegations involving film producer Harvey Weinstein were starting to surface, Hayek claimed that while she was working with Weinstein on 2002’s Frida, he had threatened to kill her and demanded she perform a nude sex scene with a female co-star, refusing to proceed with the film unless she did so. He was, she wrote, “a monster.”
“Emotionally, I was shocked by how much [writing that piece] affected me,” Hayek says now. “Because I’m strong, and I thought I was done with that whole story. It really haunted me.”
Was her husband supportive of her writing the article? “Yes, absolutely,” she says. “He was upset that I didn’t tell him before [about the alleged harassment]. So were Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, who’s a very good friend of mine. She was furious.” And why hadn’t Hayek told them? “Because he did the best movies, and I didn’t want to jade their experience professionally,” she says. “I was being protective of my friends. But I didn’t know he was doing it to so many women. I had no idea.”
Hayek and I are meeting in Notting Hill, near where she lives, although she also has homes in Paris and Los Angeles; she is keen to point out, “I pay my taxes in America.” Today she’s dressed down, in a slouchy black sweatshirt with “LA” emblazoned on the front. Coincidentally, I have the same top, and I start to tell her I bought it at the Fred Segal outpost at LAX when she reaches out and wraps her hand around my wrist.
“No!” she says. “That’s where I bought it too! That is so strange, not only to have the same sweatshirt but to have bought it in the same place.” This is how she talks: an effervescence of exclamation marks, punctuated by moments of familiarity and tactility. She is a celebrity, but she seems to find excitement in a place so many celebrities fail to look: outside herself.
Caryl M. Stern, president and CEO of UNICEF USA, says that this openness is a key part of what makes Hayek, with whom she has traveled the world on philanthropic missions, special. When Stern first met Hayek (who was honored last year with the group’s Danny Kaye Humanitarian Award), to discuss becoming one of the charity’s ambassadors, it was shortly after the actress had given birth to her daughter Valentina, who is now 11. Stern went to Hayek’s Manhattan hotel expecting an entourage, but “she had the baby in her arms, and there was nobody there but us… In five minutes I forgot she was this big celebrity. I only saw who she is.”
You can see this undiluted authenticity for yourself on Hayek’s Instagram account, which she manages alone. By her own admission, she doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing and often has to rely on the self-timer function or a passing waiter because her daughter and stepchildren refuse to take her photo.
“And, funnily enough, I have almost 8.6 million followers,” she says, seemingly astonished. “Doing it on my own! I don’t even know how to do…” She starts grasping for the right word. Filter, I suggest? “No.” She shifts rapidly from side to side in her chair. Boomerang? She nods. “I remember my first Boomerang. I did it, but it was without my head, and I got so frustrated I just posted it. I said, ‘Sorry, guys. I tried but I really can’t get it.’ ”
She shrugs off the social media snafu. Hayek seems unaffected in the way she deals with her fame. This in spite of the fact that since 2009 she has been married to luxury fashion magnate François-Henri Pinault, who is the chairman and CEO of Kering, the parent company of such brands as Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and whose net worth is estimated at $17.3 billion. The couple have one daughter together (Valentina) and Hayek is stepmother to Pinault’s children Augustin, Mathilde, and François.
Pinault, she says, is “the best husband in the world. I get to be who I am with him, and I don’t feel that somebody tries to limit me.” How did they meet? “I’m not going to tell you,” she says with a grin. “It’s such a romantic, amazing story, but it is mine. I don’t want to vulgarize it by making it into a story to make myself interesting.” (Rumor has it they were set up by friends in 2006.)
Whatever it was, Hayek thinks it was worth waiting for. She met Pinault when she was 39 years old, but she says she’s grateful she was “a late bloomer” in her personal life, because by then she knew herself properly. The same goes for becoming a mother at 41. “I think I’m a better mother because I had her later,” she says. “But I do get tired. I’m not going to lie.”
Valentina, Hayek says, is “very creative, very smart, very funny, and very willful.” She sounds like Hayek herself, who at 12 was expelled from a Catholic boarding school in New Orleans for playing pranks on the nuns, like setting back the clocks. “I was ingenious,” Hayek says. “I always had a sense of humor, but there was a naïveté in the naughtiness.”
Hayek was born in Mexico, to an opera singer mother and a father of Lebanese descent who was an entrepreneur in the oil industry. At school she struggled with dyslexia but was so bright she graduated from high school at 15; by the next year she was studying international relations and political science at Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericana. But halfway through her program she decided she wanted to drop out to be an actress. Her parents were appalled, but her father thought it was a passing phase. “He let me do it, but not because he thought I was going to stick to it,” Hayek says. “And then I stuck to it, and nobody is more proud of my career than my father.”
She was so beautiful that casting agents often stopped her in the street and asked her to audition, and at 23 she starred in Teresa, a telenovela that made her a star. The lure of film took Hayek to Hollywood in 1991. She gave up her role on Teresa, and everyone thought she was crazy. “I was famous in Mexico, and they were laughing at me, asking, ‘Why is she doing that,’ ” she says.
In Los Angeles, she says, for years she couldn’t land a job. It wasn’t until 1995 that she was cast in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado. After that the parts came flooding in: She danced with a snake in From Dusk Till Dawn, starred alongside Will Smith in Wild Wild West, and showed off her comic chops in Kevin Smith’s Dogma. Behind the camera, she set up her production company, Ventanarosa, in 1999, and found huge success (and two Golden Globes) for the TV series Ugly Betty.
But it was arguably as the producer and star of Frida, the 2002 biopic of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, that Hayek truly made her mark. It was a passion project more than a decade in the making. In the end the film, directed by Julie Taymor, earned two Academy Awards and a Best Actress nomination for Hayek. But it also brought her into the orbit of Harvey Weinstein.
After her New York Times article was published in 2017, Hayek says Weinstein’s initial response was to discredit her and the actress Lupita Nyong’o, who had also accused the producer of harassment. “There is a theory that woman of color are easier to discredit,” Hayek says. She lets the thought drift. When I ask if she has experienced other overt incidents of racism in the industry, Hayek rolls her eyes. “Millions,” she says.
Hayek says Hollywood has cleaned itself up in recent years because the major players are “scared shitless. They are terrified to say the wrong thing now, but you can still notice it.” In what ways does she notice it? Hayek looks straight at me.
“A lot of people are very shocked that I married who I married. And some people are even intimidated now by me,” she says. “But it’s another way of showing racism. They can’t believe this Mexican ended up in the life that she has, and they’re uncomfortable around me.”
She brushes the thought away with an elegant flip of the hand. For a woman of Hayek’s accomplishments, such trivial jealousies are not to be taken seriously. Besides, she has made a living from being a ferociously adept observer of human behavior. Where other people might take offense, Hayek understands what underlies the impulse and is able to laugh it off.
After more than an hour in her company, I can’t help feeling it’s not that Hayek is lucky to be married to a billionaire but the other way around. “I’m very hard to put in a box,” Hayek says. “It’s hard to understand who I am for them. And maybe it’s the wrong thing, but to study human behavior is what attracts me to acting most. And I find I don’t judge it—I just observe it.”
This story appears in the April 2019 issue of Town & Country. Subscribe Now