Salma Hayek talks dirty and plays a drug cartel leader in ‘Savages’
Salma runs the show in Oliver Stone’s ferocious new thriller, but she’s supported by Benicio del Toro, Sandra Echeverría, and Demián Bichir.
Based on the novel of the same name by Don Winslow, the new crime thriller (out July 6) centers on two successful Southern California weed-preneurs (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) who find themselves at war with the Mexican Baja Cartel. Caught in the middle is the beautiful Ophelia (Blake Lively), the boys’ shared playmate and confidante. And no cartel flick is complete without a dirty DEA agent — played to perfection by John Travolta.
The movie boasts a strong ensemble cast, but the most colorful character is by far Salma Hayek’s Elena, the merciless head of the Baja Cartel. The Mexican powerhouse recently sat down with us in L.A. to discuss, among other things, why she enjoyed slapping the ish out of Benicio del Toro, who plays her ruthless enforcer, Lado. In case you’re wondering, she also bosses around Demián Bichir.
How did you make sure that Elena instilled fear and exuded power at the same time?
Actually, I took a collection of different characters I have met throughout my life, some of them were absolutely fascinating and I adored them. I’m not going to name them, but it’s a smart observation because I took a collection of traits to create Elena. Oliver said, “Why do you want to wear the same hair, the same necklace?” And I tried to explain to him that these women know they’re going to be an icon, and they create a character. These women design themselves. They don’t want to be versatile. They want you to always remember them. It’s a very stupid thing, but I would say, “Okay, I have to design her in a way so that somebody can dress up as her for Halloween.” She has to be so identifiable that if you do this and that, you can actually impersonate her.
You slap Benicio’s face. How many times did it take for Oliver to tell you to stop?
You know, it’s funny. I slapped him a lot. I was nervous, and Benicio was like, “HIT ME! HIT ME! C’MON, DO IT HARD!” But what was really uncomfortable about it was that this was the day my husband came to visit the set, and he was like, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? HOW MANY TIMES ARE YOU GONNA SLAP HIM?” He was so worried for Benicio because he was red. I said, “I’m ready to stop because my hand hurts!” I think I slapped poor Benicio like twenty times in this one scene.
Do you think that in the current structure of the cartels it’s really possible to be a woman like Elena?
Well, in the research I did — because I actually talked to some people involved in the cartels — they described two different [real-life] occasions when women have gotten quite high in the cartel and are incredibly efficient — much more than men. He described a situation where one of them, the husband went to jail and she took over and things went really well. Then somebody betrayed her, she took the loss, and she just went on. The business continued to go really well, but then the husband got out of jail and said, “No, no, no, no, no. That debt has to be taken care of because otherwise, we don’t get respect.” So he went, took care of that, and got killed.
The women, they’re not about the vendetta, they’re not about who’s more macho. They’re about the business, getting things done, and actually, that’s why they’re not as visible. And some of them actually have managed to get away and stay clean. I’ve found that absolutely fascinating.
She will cut you.
Playing the mother of a 23-year-old girl [Sandra Echeverria], was that strange to you?
Well, not really. I’m 45, so it went very easy for me to have a 23 year-old girl. The men in the movie were amazing, but the best thing about it by far, were the girls. And she is so sweet and pure, this girl. She started out like I started out, she comes from Mexico, we know the same people; it reminded me of me. Of course I didn’t come with an Oliver Stone movie, and she speaks English! And she’s a singer, so she’s way ahead of the game. It was just a wonderful privilege to work with her.
Did being a mom bring any tenderness toward the performance?
Being a mother helped me find the humanity of the character. Actually, being a mother can make you find the toughest inhumanity in the character because for your children, you are willing and capable of doing anything, especially Mexican mothers. So with this character, I justified everything, because I did it for them. It helps you find the vulnerability, but it also helps you find the fearlessness.
You mix it up between Spanish and English in this movie. Did you suggest that to spice it up, or was it part of the script?
If it was the right thing to do the whole movie in Spanish, Oliver would do it in a heartbeat and he would fight for it. And he was very, very careful about that, he asked a lot of questions, did the research. The people that work for the cartels in the United States that are from Mexican descent, they speak in English. So, as you see, when we are in Mexico, I’m speaking in Spanish, but when I’m on the phone with people here, it’s mostly in English. However, when I start cursing, you cannot beat the beauty of the variety of the sounds and images that come from Mexican cursings. I cursed in Spanish with the encouragement of Oliver. He likes it when you talk dirty.