Salma Hayek plays a 17-century queen in Tale of Tales, the utterly gonzo, pitch-black fable directed by Matteo Garrone (in theaters now), but nothing comes easy to her. Unable to have a child, the desperate queen forces her king (John C. Reilly) to hunt down a monstrous sea creature so that she might eat its heart after, of course, it is cooked by a virgin—according to a hooded, mystic wizard, the formula for immaculate conception. This is just one nightmarish legend that Garrone, the acclaimed Italian director of 2008's Gomorrah, has somehow translated to the screen from a volume of fairy tales published in the 1630's by the Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile. (You can also see Toby Jones cooing at a giant, six-foot pet flea; Vincent Cassel wordlessly feasting upon a sea of prostitutes; and much else that is unfathomable.) I was meant to speak to Hayek Thursday, but news broke of Prince's death just minutes before our scheduled call. Understandably, Hayek took the news hard: the two were friends, and she even directed the music video for his 2005 single, "Te Amo Corazon." I caught up to her Friday afternoon.
I’m very sorry about Prince’s passing. How are you feeling today?
I’m sorry, too. I’m not doing great. At least today I can talk to you.
Have you had a Prince playlist going for the last 24 hours?
No, no. I cannot listen to the music right now. That’s too sad for me.
What was it like working with him on the music video?
It was very special. He was so, so supportive of me. He was always telling me that I should go back to directing, because I had done one little thing for television. And then one day, he said, “Okay, today’s the day. You have to do this song for me.” And I said, “Oh god, I don’t know. A music video! I don’t watch them, I cannot do this.” It’s not my thing, you know? And he’s known for being a control freak. So I said, “If I’m going to do this, you have to listen to what I say. What if we’re fighting ...” And he said, “No, we’re going to choose the thing and do the thing.” So I said, “Okay, let’s go have fun.” The girl that’s in the video is one of my best friends; my first A.D. was a friend of ours; the makeup artist was another friend. It was a bunch of friends who went to Morocco. There was no fight, it was very easy, he was really relaxed. He didn’t even realize it was work. A lovely, lovely memory.
How many costume changes did Prince bring to Morocco?
No, he was so easy. No, no, none of that! I know, sometimes you hear the stories. He did whatever I wanted! He was quite relaxed. He didn’t even have that much makeup on! [Laughs] We had a great time; we didn’t really feel like we were working.
I imagine that it was not so relaxed on the set of Tale of Tales. It was probably more about achieving Matteo’s crazy vision?
Yes, it was … [whispers] ** You thought you were crazy every day. I have 10,000 worries every single day of the shoot. You know, we’re talking about crazy geniuses just now. Geniuses have their own way of doing things. It didn’t happen in that video with Prince, but on the film it was scary because no one else can see what Matteo sees. That is the true sign of genius, of an original artist who has a unique vision.
Do you sometimes feel lost as an actress?
I love feeling lost in those hands. Because it pushes you to somewhere you’ve never been. Usually for them, they are not representing what they are seeing on the set physically. So the things that seem impossible, they go, “No, no.” It’s in their heads. It was dangerous, it was exhausting, it was challenging, and I loved eveyr minute of it.
How was it dangerous?
Pick a scene, and I’ll tell you the story.
Let’s start then with the scene that I’m sure everyone is asking you about, where you eat a sea monster’s heart. It looks very real.
Yes, the heart! They would not tell me what was in that huge heart. Matteo needed the heart to be biologically exact from the outside and the inside.
Exact to what? It’s a fictional creature.
It didn’t matter, it just needed to function the same way all hearts do. So inside it had to have all the different parts of a heart. Everything had to be realistic. My dresses were like 70 pounds; I had to wear the shoes from the period; and we didn’t have rubber bands! They had to tie the hair the way they did back in that time. Anyway, inside the heart all the arteries went where they were supposed to go. So you cut it in half, it would look like the heart of a cow, or whatever they based it on. But I had to bite into it, and it was made of all these different foods and textures. And on a film where anything can happen, it was quite scary to bite into something! They asked me what I was allergic to, but when I asked them, “What’s in it?”, they said, “You’re not allergic.” “What’s it made of?” “Many different things.” “What things?” “Different things.” They don’t give any answers.
Was that a strategy to keep you in the same headspace as your character?
No, I think it was just because we were working very fast. And they’re Italians. You know, Italians! They weren’t going to give me the recipe. [Laughs] But I remember biting into the heart and thinking it was warm. I asked, “What was that warm thing?” And they said, “It was pasta.” But there was meat, and I detected something that was like grains soaked in blood; my daughter Valentina said, “I think it’s a marshmallow soaked in blood.” All I can tell you was that my stomach hurt, my teeth hurt, I was gagging …
So it was like a marshmallow Bolognese?
It had meat, it had pasta, it had marshmallow, it had a taste of almond. God knows! But this is what’s interesting. In the beginning I was gagging, and Matteo said, “At this point, you’re ferociously eating it; you’re desperate, anxious for this to happen fast. But next take, you do it slowly, fragilely. Every bite is a hope for your baby.” Every take he would come up with something different. So he would keep your mind occupied with the important things.
So you were able to get through it.
Yes, and Valentina gave me the best directions. After three takes, she said, “Mommy, when you are eating from the side of the heart, we can see your mouth. When you’re eating from the back, we can’t. Spit it out! And then continue to bite.” And this is what saved me.
Is this what she does with her food?
No, because I’m watching like a hawk. [laughs]
She’s seven, Valentina?
Are you going to let her watch this film?
Nooo. [Laughs] When she’s older, maybe.
How do you describe this film to people? It’s hard to explain.
You may like it, you may not like it—I love it—but you will be mesmerized by the images. It’s a dark fairy tale. It could have been horror, but he did it somehow with elegance. He takes subjects that are important to contemporary women and puts them in the 1700s—even plastic surgery! In the movie, there are women who are no longer young who are afraid they won’t be loved anymore. At the same time, he takes these fears to a horrific place. All our fears: Losing our youth, not being able to have children, losing your children … Marrying the wrong guy. [Laughs]
There's another scene I wanted to ask you about, when you are being entertained in your court by a giant black bear hula hooping. Was that added later?
[Laughs] The bear was not abstract. We were all there in a room, with all of those people dressed up as my court. There’s not a lot of exits. By the way, I learned near the end that there was not a lot of insurance for the film, because Matteo put all the money onscreen.
Were you nervous?
Yes! In the scene, everybody laughs, everybody’s drunk. But we had a huge bear there! Now the bear’s doing this, now the bear’s doing that, now the bear’s coming a little bit too close! And also for me, one of the most horrifying experiences was when we had 100, 200 extras and it was night. All we had for lighting was fire. They’re carrying me on a little square [carriage], on just two sticks, and I’m carrying a real live baby. The two guys in the front, they get tired, they drop [the carriage]. The door opens, I have this week-old baby in my arms—and we are going down. I tell you, there are lots of other times I thought, “Why do I do my own stunts?” But if I hadn’t done my own stunts over the years, I would’ve killed that baby. I would've crushed him. But it just so happens that my mothering instincts—and the training from 30 years of action films—I did a somersault and rolled with the baby. His mother and father ran over, and I said, “I swear I didn’t drop him!” They said, “No, we saw what you did!” And the baby ... he was still asleep.