"It's exciting and shocking," says Hayek, who jump-started her film career with "Desperado" in 1995. "I did some action movies, but as the damsel in distress. Here and there, I got to be a little tough."
Yet at 54, Hayek is hitting movie screens as the lethal spouse in "The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard" (in theaters now), outfiring and outswearing her action-pro co-stars Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson.
Not to be outdone on the Marvel front, either, the Mexican actress is spotlighted in the first "Eternals" trailer as Ajak, a superhero character originally written as male in comic books.
"I hit my 50s and suddenly it's all happening," says Hayek. "Like everything in my life, it makes no sense."
And yet it does, as the dynamic, 5-foot-2 star was a force of nature in her smaller role as Sonia, the quirkily devoted wife of Jackson's hitman Darius in 2017's "The Hitman's Bodyguard." When Hughes re-teamed Jackson and Reynolds, who plays Darius' bickering bodyguard, for a world-saving sequel to stop billionaire villain Aristotle Papadopoulos (Antonio Banderas), it made perfect sense to pump up Hayek's fan-favorite role with greater firepower.
"Salma hadn't played front and center in action films in a while," says Hughes. "But if anyone's going to kick anyone's (butt) around in this film, it was going to be Salma. And she just got right into it."
Watch the first trailer: Chloé Zhao's 'Eternals' with Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Gemma Chan
Any doubters should note that Reynolds has talked incessantly during "Hitman's" media tour about how Hayek actually slapped him during their opening scene. It happened. "Ryan whines a lot about this," says Hayek. "He told me it was OK to hit him. He underestimated my little hand."
Hayek, a cardio-loathing, yoga and meditation enthusiast, was game to handle hand-to-hand combat ("I’m agile, flexible and I learn the routine"). She wielded weapons and jumped into the film's over-the-top nightclub shootout scene, donning a blond-wig disguise and bodysuit.
"They needed to oil or baby powder me to get into that bodysuit. The oil was disgusting, it felt like I was wearing a condom over my entire body," says Hayek, who still inflicted dexterous physical damage upon her foes. "That suit stretched. It was like super-comfortable yoga clothes. So I could do whatever I needed."
Her most complicated, fully choreographed fight scene in the film's yacht climax had to be cut for time.
"I was kicking some (butt), fighting with like four or five guys, taking them all on," says Hayek. "That was my best action. But that's OK, you cannot fit everything in a movie."
She's content with the screen punches she did land and maintains her peak "Hitman" action was holding her own in the improvisation stakes with Reynolds and Jackson.
"It's a thing," says Hayek. "I was very proud."
The pride went to new levels with Hayek's lead role in "Nomadland" director Chloé Zhao's upcoming "Eternals" (Nov. 5), whose immortal humanoids will pick up in the Earth-saving department where the Avengers left off.
The super-role was a leap of faith, with Hayek the first to join a cast that now includes Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan and Richard Madden. She signed her contract for the top-secret project without even being allowed to read the script.
"It was really stressful," says Hayek. "It's like marrying a guy you've never met."
She can't say much about the role but concedes that wearing Ajak's impressive gold headpiece, which required voluminous hair extensions, could be a real drag.
"It's aaahhhh nightmare," says Hayek, getting fully animated. "You have to drive to these locations and the headpiece doesn’t fit in the car. So you have to do yoga to get out and into the car. And everybody guards the headpiece like it's like a special jewel. People are walking after you. It's not easy to put it on. You do get a headache."
"But it was worth it," she adds with contentment. Even wearing a typically constricting Marvel superhero suit was a cosmic journey that ended in victory.
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"I was terrified because I'm claustrophobic. and it's a full-on thing," says Hayek of the outfit. "I didn't tell anybody, but I was worried, what if I cannot take this all day? I was always sweating thinking, 'God, am I going to be able to pull this off?' "
When the $200 million movie completed filming, Hayek admits to being overwhelmed with emotion.
"Something strange happened. I teared up a little bit. But it was not about my dreams to be a superhero," Hayek says. "It was because it means so much to so many people that, to think that for a Mexican girl – a Mexican woman in her 50s – was able to be a superhero. I felt a lot of pride to have my superhero outfit on. It meant something."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Salma Hayek: Wearing the 'Eternals' gold headpiece was 'a nightmare'