Stars like Salma Hayek come along maybe once in a generation.
The 5ft 2ins Latino dynamo is preceded into the room by Antonio Banderas, swashbuckling leading man and the star of Puss in Boots, a Shrek spin-off. There is a discernible murmur from the ladies present. Then Hayek undulates onto the stage and the murmur becomes a collective sharp intake of breath. Hayek is wearing what can only be described as a gravity-defying dress that emphasises a cavernous cleavage that compares with Monroe, Russell, Van Doren and Lollobrigida.
Ms Hayek – born Salma Valgarma Hayek Jiménez de Pinault in Coatzacoalcos – belongs to a lost age of femme fatales. Yet she’s not just a pretty face: the Oscar nomination she earned for playing surrealist artist Frida Kahlo proved that. She’s also funny. And spiky. Asked what her nickname was at school she momentarily forgets that the interview is being streamed to 250,000 school kids around the UK and answers “Bitch!”
She laughs and quickly adds: “This is going to haunt me for the rest of my life. I was the youngest person in my class and then puberty hit. I’d looked like a little boy and the boys would call me ‘la nadadora’. The word means ‘swimmer’ but it also means ‘the one who has nothing in the curves’.”
She glances down at the décolletage spilling out of her dress. “Thankfully, that nickname wouldn’t work today – at all!”
Banderas and Hayek have worked together before, the first time nearly 20 years ago in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado. Both were breakthrough performers on the cusp of big things. Now, all these years later, there’s an easy rapport. Banderas calls her “independent, free-spirited, a fighter... and sexy, of course”. The sex appeal has been a big part of her on-screen allure. Puss in Boots offered something different.
Bear in mind that in Once Upon a Time in Mexico Hayek and Banderas were suspended on a harness 30ft above ground at the mercy of Rodriguez. Hayek’s fury could be heard by all: “I am not a pinata! I am an actress!” she screamed.
“Every time I have worked with Antonio there were bruises, cuts, pain, herniated discs in my back – all kinds of things from the crazy stunts of Robert Rodriguez,” she recalls.
“It’s just a miracle I’m not dead. To have that sequence on the rooftops, I needed to be so athletic and balletic – at 45, to be able to have the animators do that and you just do the voice... that was so cool.”
After so much action, the recording studio must have been a doddle. Not so. Hayek narrowly avoided being flattened – “swallowed up” said director Chris Miller – by a collapsing wall. Given that she was playing a cat, maybe she used up one of her nine lives...
“You have nine lives here?” she sighs in disbelief. “In Mexico and Argentina, it’s seven. I’m upset about this. I think the English Conquistadors took some of the lives of the cats and just gave them away.”
So what happened? How did Hayek walk away?
“What was really strange – and maybe it’s down to peripheral vision or something, I don’t know – but I was talking into the microphone and suddenly my instincts told me to run. I didn’t know why.”
In Puss in Boots Hayek plays Kitty Softpaws, the slinky rival/love interest to Banderas’s frisky, Zorro-esque hero. After playing all those sirens – as well as the unibrowed Kahlo – it’s a welcome break. She reminisces about her childhood and jokily reveals that she was traumatised by the films she saw.
“They sent me to the shrink. First it was Bambi – severe depression at the age of six because the mother dies. Then, of course, there were all the princesses. Those ones messed me up because they make you think there’s gonna be a prince that’s gonna come and rescue you.
“But then came Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Here was redemption because something clicked in my brain. I understood that there was a place in the world where anything could happen, where the river could be made out of chocolate, you could chew some gum that was gonna make you fly and you could burp yourself back to earth.
“That is what made me wanna be an actress because I realised there was a place in the world called films where you had no limitations.”
So Gene Wilder changed her life? “Yeah, absolutely. Gene Wilder and Antonio Banderas. That’s it.”
Puss in Boots 3D (PG) is on release from today.