Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales (in theaters and on VOD now) is a film of fantastic, sumptuous visuals, but ever since it premiered to glowing reviews at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, one image has stood out. It’s the stop-you-in-your-tracks shot, used on the movie’s poster, of Salma Hayak eating a heart that’s the size of a carry-on suitcase.
Based on a 17th century collection of fairy tales called Pentamerone by Italian poet Giambattista Basile (a noted influence on the Brothers Grimm), the movie begins with the plight of a childless queen, played by Hayak, whose husband (John C. Reilly) is convinced by a soothsayer to carve out the heart of a sea monster. The heart promises to induce a pregnancy — after the queen has eaten it. And Hayek, 49, an Oscar-nominated actress never averse to risk, relished the opportunity to play the role, even if she lacked the appetite for the film’s big moment.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you become involved in this project?
SALMA HAYEK: It was a fairy tale of its own because I was a big fan of the director, this great Italian director Matteo Garrone, but I’d never met him. I never thought he knew me, because he’s known for working with non-professional actors. All my Italian friends who are actors, they dream of working with him but he rarely calls.
But he called you?
One day I was driving around in L.A. and I got this “No Caller ID” call on my phone, which I never answer when I see that. But for some reason, this one I answered. And there’s this guy says, “Hi, this is Matteo Garrone, is this Salma Hayak?” And I said, “Huh? What? Yes.” He said he was preparing a new film and he wanted me to be in it. I’m used to having to fight for the good roles with the good directors, and most of the time I don’t get them. And now here was one of my hero directors and he’s calling me on my personal phone.
What did he tell you about the film?
He said it was three dark fairy tales intertwined together. But it was in the 1700s and that was all I needed to hear. I watch anything that is a period piece. And all the BBC stuff, anything historical. And I’ve always had a sadness in my heart that I was never going to wear one of those amazing dresses because I was born too far away from where all those classics took place. You have to either be British or French or Russian to get into one of those dresses. And he said, “You play a queen.”
And a bad queen, too.
Well, she’s not a bad queen, I don’t think. She’s a sad, lonely woman and she feels that the only thing that can make her happy is a child. And she’s willing to do anything to have one and then anything not to lose him. I would say she’s obsessive more than bad. Also, it depends on who you talk to about her. I bet if you asked a Mexican mother or an Italian mother or a Jewish mother or a Spanish mother, they might not think she’s all that crazy [laughs].
Did being a mother yourself have an impact on playing the role?
Yes. I really wanted to be a mother and I didn’t have my daughter until I was 41. I sometimes thought I would never have a child, so those feelings were very alive within me. And then the fear of losing that child in any way. Oh, it’s profound. And so even though the film is supernatural and set in the 1700s, it’s also contemporary.
For sure. And Garrone plays around with making the mood feel contemporary at times.
He does. I remember a couple times we’d be setting up a scene with beautiful images and he’d say, “Stop, I think I’ve seen something like this before.” He’s so specific about, “Not this chair! Not that table!” And we’d take down all the lights and move the whole crew somewhere else. He never wanted to do anything that seemed too period-piece or too familiar.
And the dialogue has that quality, especially between the two boys in the film, one who plays your son and the other play’s the maid’s son. Their dialogue sounds like they’re speaking today.
Exactly. They are real-life twins, Christian and Jonah Lees. They’re so wonderful.
So the scene with the heart. It already seems like something of a classic.
When I read it, I have to admit, I thought it was really too grotesque. And when I arrived, I saw the set and it was really Rococo. So then I said to him, “Um, how do I eat this?” And he said, “I want you to eat the heart looking fearful but hopeful.” And I did that. Then the next take he said, “I want you to eat the heart with anxiety and desperation.” I did that. Then the next one, he said, “You are fragile and you touch the heart with tenderness, it’s like you’re kissing the baby.”
How many times did you do it?
Nine takes like this! He had to cut twice because I was gagging. But I never knew there were so many ways to eat a heart.
What was the heart actually made out of? Was it beef?
It was a combination of many different products. But what made all the most disgusting is that they wouldn’t tell me what it actually was.
Did you ask?
Of course I did. This is the Italians for you [laughs]. They asked me if I was allergic to anything and I told them. And then I asked, “What’s in the heart?” and they said [in a stern Italian accent], “Nothing that you are allergic to!” And I said, “I know but what is it?” And they said, “We told you! All things that you are not allergic to.”
What did it taste like?
It was sweet. Everything was covered in that super sweet movie blood, so it made my teeth hurt. Garrone wanted the inside to be biologically exact to a heart in textures and shapes. So these poor people had to build it so that I would feel the arteries as they mushed apart. There was one piece that my daughter determined was a marshmallow. But I was still curious. I mean, maybe there were brains in there. I said to them, “Guys, am I eating worms?” And they said, “No, no, no, no, no, no…that part has passed.”
Oh, that’s funny.
I was swallowing that stuff. But then Valentina, my daughter, gave me a tip. She said, “In this part you can seem like you are eating but then you can go off camera and spit it out.” So that helped.
But speaking of eating, you’re also in Sausage Party, in which you play a taco shell.
[Laughs] I’m embarrassed. Just when you say the title, I’m blushing. I play a very, very naughty taco. She’s a bad girl. It was mortifying but it was liberating. I never though I’d ever say some of the things I say in this movie. And I’m embarrassed to admit I improvised a lot of it. But what can I say? That’s how I like them. Weird and out of the box.