SALMA HAYEK on 'ASK THE DUST' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
March 1, 2006
Set in Depression-era Los Angeles, the period drama Ask the Dust tells the story of a writer (Colin Farrell) who, despite the social taboos of the time, finds his life's muse in a Mexican beauty (Salma Hayek) and becomes involved with her. The film is written and directed by Robert Towne, and based on the novel by John Fante.
In this interview, Salma talks about working with Farrell and Towne, shooting nude scenes in freezing water, and forming an unusually strong emotional attachment to her character Camilla. (In fact, she gets teary-eyed by simply recounting Camilla's story for this Q&A.)
MEDIA: Robert approached you for this role some time ago, yes?
SALMA: He gave me this script eight years ago, and I did not understand the character. And I thought she was an awful human being, and racist...I just did not have the vision to see the subtleties of the character. And then eight years later, I read...that script and I thought, "Oh my God, what a fantastic opportunity. What a great character."
How did your character of Camilla in the movie differ from the Camilla in the book?
I did not read the book on purpose, because Robert developed the character...I think it's different than in the book, and there is more of it in the movie than there is in the book. My character was more developed in the script, so I talked to Robert. I said, "I'm not going to read [the book]. I'm going to read it when the movie's over." And then I became so close to this character that when we finished the film, Colin gave me, as a wrap present, a first edition of the book. So I started to read it on the plane, and I was sobbing. And then I put it away. I got home like a week or two later. I couldn't read the book because I missed her so much. I put the book away and I said, "I'll wait and I'll read it when I'm not so close to this character."
Do you become this attached to all your roles?
What made Camilla so special to you?
I think what happened was that my inspiration for this character was...I thought of all the women in the history of the earth that inspired a man--that in some way touched the life of a man. And maybe the man didn't notice until they were not together anymore. I thought of all the women that inspire great artists. Even if it was just someone's first girlfriend, and later on in life, you still remember that first kiss, [and] that person makes you who you are as a man later, and they will never know it. And I thought of Camilla. [pauses to wipe her eyes] I thought of this woman who thought [she] did everything wrong in her life, and she never accomplished anything, and she dies thinking that. And yet she inspired this fabulous book. So I would keep thinking of her. And I wish I could go back and tell her, but I can't, you know? [laughs] Because it's almost like after she's dead is when it really got even worse to me. She had such a great spirit, but there were so little expectations--because that's all she could afford to expect in life--that she almost dies happy. There's a lot about the character. It doesn't always happen, but there are some characters you really create a relationship with, almost as if they were your friend. And you never get into their heads again or think like them. They're gone.
What was your experience of working with Colin Farrell like?
I was a little bit worried about working with Colin. I was like, "I'm going to have to set him straight!" [But he was] never a problem. Always on time, always showed up--but always showed up passionate about the job, passionate about work, eager in the rehearsals. That is very usual. [laughs] I shouldn't be saying this, but that is very unusual. This guy was so thirsty for the process. I think he didn't have a lot of training, so for him to have the opportunity to have a rehearsal...He loved it. He was so there. And that was my favorite thing. He was always participating in the process seriously. Very respectful of the work.
Robert has described you both as "volatile actors." What do you think he meant by that?
Well, it was a very, very good combination. We worked really well together because we are both very creative, but we really trusted each other and we were very respectful of each other. So I think probably what Robert is referring to is that we rehearsed a lot, which was a new thing for me. We rehearsed for months. And every time we would rehearse, he'd take new things and rewrite and do things. And we had a lot of freedom to play around, to improvise, so when we got to the set, we were very well in tune. So sometimes I would surprise him and throw something at him that was never rehearsed and never planned. And he would brilliantly just catch it and throw it back at me in a way I never expected...It was so exciting to work with an actor like that.
Did you do anything special to prepare for the nude scenes?
I gained weight for that!
They had a good hamburger place. I ate. I thought the character should be 1930s, but Mexican...I thought she should be a little bit "meaty"...I actually put a lot of weight on, and I actually haven't been able to lose all of it. [laughs] But you know what? Once I got naked with all that weight on, I said, "It's okay." So I sort of stayed up since then.
How physically grueling was your scene in the ocean?
Oh, Robert didn't tell you? It was freezing! Freezing, unbearable, cold. And I got a little bit of hypothermia. They were really careful. We had to take special drinks that would keep our body heated. I mean, we had to prepare physically to do the scene because it was so cold.
Was that scene filmed in an actual ocean?
No. Because the actual ocean...Not only it would have been just as cold, but like a week before we arrived, somebody got eaten by a shark there! Exactly where we were going to shoot! So they had to, really fast, find this place. And I thought it was going to be warm, but it wasn't. So they had to prepare us physically to go in the water. There was a point [where we had to] stop because the doctor had to check both of us. And of course, the Irish guy was fine, but the Mexican girl had hypothermia! So they had to pull me out immediately and that was it.
Were you as comfortable and relaxed as you seemed in that scene?
I was not comfortable and I was not relaxed at all...I act comfortable, but I was not. And as a matter of fact, I was really nervous, because this is not the one scene that I wanted to do, you know. And it was cold...So at one point, Colin came, started making jokes, and [I said], "I'm not in the mood right now! I'm really upset about this!" I'm barking. And out he comes, butt-naked from the trailer, jumping and doing ballet dance. And I started laughing. It was the most ridiculous thing. Everybody started laughing. And he did it to relax me, because I was really tense. And I have to say that when we were doing the scene, he not once looked down. I sometimes talk to guys that...I am dressed, and they talk to me like this. [does the "wandering eyes" thing] And Colin, for all his reputation...I was like expecting, "What's he going to do? Is he going to try to get too funny here?" Never. Never took his eyes off mine. Completely supportive. I was very surprised by Colin Farrell. I mean, with all the stories you hear... [laughs]
Did we break eye contact with you?
[laughs] Not after I mentioned it!
Was the love scene in the bedroom more taxing than the ocean stuff?
Oh no, it was much warmer. [laughs] It was easier to do the love scene, because he's covering you, so not everybody's looking at your body. There are certain tricks you can do within a contained environment. And it's an actor that I was very comfortable with and I trusted. I don't want to disappoint, but you know, because he's always on top of me, he's covering me most of the time. So you can really have like a tender moment where you're not freezing, worried that the whole team is looking at you...So at least with Colin, I had some sort of trust. He was very protective.
Do you have an upcoming project that you are particularly passionate about?
There is something I am writing, and I don't know how long it's going to take.
What are you writing?
[coyly] I'm writing...a movie that I want to direct. [laughs] It's about classical music.
Having done them all, how do you feel about producing, writing, acting, and directing?
Producing is hell, writing is frustrating, acting is really satisfying, directing is heaven.