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The political throughline of new movie ‘Savages’ appealed to actress Salma Hayek, who has witnessed the complexities of the North American drug war. “I am Mexican. I’ve known different aspects of Elena’s story,” shares Hayek. “It’s part of life in my country. What I hope the movie will do is make people aware of the level of the drug trade problem between Mexico and the United States. It’s not just a Mexican problem. It’s a problem we share: America and Mexico are partners in this trade. One country’s selling and one country’s buying, and it’s slipping through the hands of both governments.”
During rehearsals, Oliver Stone tested Hayek’s mettle. Indeed, any concerns the actress wouldn’t be “tough enough” were quickly allayed. The director, typically spare with the takes he requires, tasked Hayek with countlessly repeating a pivotal sequence in which Elena verbally eviscerates Lado and Alex. Elena, bewildered, frustrated and furious over a breakdown in her U.S. operation, castigates her men in a fever pitch of mixed English and Spanish insults and threats. Hayek delivered a bravura performance, as Stone knew she would, and by the end of the sequence, Hayek intrinsically understood Elena’s rage and confusion.
Hayek acknowledges that she’s grateful for the experience to work with the filmmaker: “I was elated to have been involved with Savages, as I’ve wanted to work with Oliver my entire acting career. I was extremely happy to work with him, but I was also a bit sad after the experience ended. Now that I’ve had one of my biggest dreams met, I can never have that dream back again.”
As Elena’s man up north, Lado runs the Southern California side of the Baja Cartel’s operation. He’s growing increasingly disgruntled by his demanding boss, and he’s using his brutal tactics to begin branching out on his own. To play the part of a psychopath who shoots detractors in the kneecaps, executes loyal henchmen and relentlessly whips a fellow employee to extract a false confession, Benicio Del Toro had to go to a very dark place. He reflects: “When you hear the accounts of the real people who have been involved in those situations or have been victims in the drug war, when you hear the stories of the people on both sides, it brings seriousness to the story, which helped keep everybody focused.”
Just like his fellow performers, the Academy Award winner chose to take part in ‘Savages’ because of the film’s legendary director. Del Toro reflects: “Oliver’s like a coach who coaches to win. He’s watching and listening to every play; he’s got that replay on in his brain. He knows the scenes inside and out. He will poke at you. He will make you mad, and then he’ll poke at you again. Then your blood will really be pumping, and then he will smile at you. And then you do the scene, and you don’t know what you did. But when you see it, and it works, you understand why you want to work with Oliver Stone.”
Naturally, Del Toro and Hayek share several scenes together, and they are powerful ones. Even though Del Toro is approximately one foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than Hayek, she definitely was his commander in chief. “I met Salma years ago, and I knew she was tough and had it in her to be the queenpin,” Stone says. “I loved getting Benicio to kowtow to her because his character is not scared of anyone but her. He had a lot of input into his character. Lado is a monster, but Benicio made him a human monster.”
Hayek admits that she enjoyed bossing around Del Toro. She laughs: “It was so much fun to be the jefe— to have these really tough guys work for me and take my orders. To have strong machos like Benicio Del Toro and Demián Bichir work for me, it’s like a female fantasy.”
Del Toro returns: “It was great working with Salma Hayek. Plus, she’s got Julio César Chávez in her blood, and it complements her beauty.”
Several additional well-regarded actors joined the ‘Savages’ ensemble in supporting roles, including Emile Hirsch as accounting whiz Spin and Academy Award nominee Demián Bichir as Alex, the Cartel’s urbane lawyer and chief negotiator. Bichir, who has a history with Del Toro and Hayek, shared most of his scenes with them. He played Fidel Castro opposite Del Toro’s Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Che’, and he starred opposite Hayek in the television movie In the Time of the Butterflies, which she also produced.
Bichir discusses what attracted him to the project: “I’ve always believed that human beings have good and bad things about us. We can be amazingly wonderful or terrible. We all have that in our genes, and it’s hard to get rid of it; there’s a savage in every single human being. Some of us develop that a little more, a little deeper or tougher, and other people prefer to stay away from that side. Often, we don’t care about our neighbors in our own buildings, and we hardly say hi to each other in the elevator. We can live in our own bubbles, and that’s exactly what makes us savages.”
Of his experience on set with his fellow actors, Bichir offers: “I love playing tennis, and when you play with a great player, your game always improves. That’s how I feel about working with Benicio. He is just a fantastic, powerful actor. The great thing about Lado and Alex is the fact that they are so different. Alex is elegant, well-dressed, and Lado is primitive and rough. Most of my work with Salma involved talking to her via a laptop screen, except for one intense scene when she feels double-crossed. I hadn’t seen her for years, and she looks fantastic. She has so much grace and confidence and is a better actress than ever.”
Image Courtesy of Savages