The actress spent eight years developing the 2002 biopic of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (released in theaters 20 years ago today).
“I'm very proud because I practically did it by myself against all odds when I was not very famous,” Hayek told us in a 2017 Role Recall interview (watch above, with Frida beginning at 4:50). “[It was] a movie that nobody wanted to do.”
The Mexican-born actress was lobbying to play Kahlo for even longer, dating back to the early 1990s — well before her breakout role in 1995’s Desperado — a time when white performers Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange were being approached for a possible biopic, Madonna announced plans to star as her, and Laura San Giacomo was officially cast in a film from New Line Cinema (it was ultimately scrapped because of objections to whitewashing the artist).
Hayek eventually lobbied Dolores Olmedo Patino, administrator to the rights of Kahlo and husband Diego Rivera’s art, securing access to Kahlo’s paintings. She also personally approached Alfred Molina backstage at his 1998 Broadway play Art and asked him to play Rivera. Hayek also negotiated with Harvey Weinstein and Miramax to take over the film project’s rights from another studio, TriMark. (Like many Weinstein projects, there were highly sketchy incidents involved: Hayek wrote in a 2017 op-ed for The New York Times that the disgraced movie mogul attempted to thwart the film when she denied him sexual favors.)
As a producer on the film working closely with director Julie Taymor, Hayek had her hand in every creative decision.
“I had a very specific take on it visually, and how I wanted the structure and the movie to be. I didn't want it to be like a typical biopic,” she told us. “I wanted to have a different kind of artistic value visually, because she was an artist. And it was so hard to get it done because it was unusual, and she was unusual and nobody knew who she was.”
Hayek also had to learn how to paint. Though that came far more naturally than she expected.
“It was the weirdest thing, because I've never painted. I'm terrible at drawing,” she said. “And right before we started shooting, I think, 'Oh my god, I don't know how to hold a brush. I am going to bring somebody to teach me how to hold it and to fake it… so that it looks like I've been doing it for a long time.'
“So I brought somebody and she goes, ‘Pick up the brush and paint.’ I go, ‘What? I can't paint.’ And she goes, ‘Let's try to do her face.’ I said, ‘I can't paint, it's going to be a dog.’ ‘It doesn't matter.’ And I remember I started and she sat there quietly six, seven hours and I didn't realize that time passed. All of a sudden, I saw her face. And she said, ‘You can paint.’”
Hayek’s perseverance paid huge dividends. She earned the best reviews of her career for her gutsy, confident portrayal of Kahlo, and an Academy Award nomination to boot.