Robert De Niro gained 50-plus pounds for ”Raging Bull.” Dustin Hoffman deprived himself of sleep for ”Marathon Man.” But in order to play the tortured Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, Salma Hayek made the ultimate sacrifice — she apparently stopped tweezing her eyebrows. The resulting unibrow (which goes nicely with the thin, barely detectable mustache she also reportedly grew for the role) makes this one of the hairiest parts the actress has ever undertaken.

But not just because of the extra facial foliage: Kahlo, who became famous in the U.S. after her death at age 47 in 1954, also endured a tumultuous marriage to womanizing fellow painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), suffered severe drug and alcohol problems, and underwent agonizing spinal surgeries after a near-fatal bus crash. All of which makes her one of the meatiest Hispanic roles to come along in decades.

”I actually tried to be in [a version of the story] that New Line was making years ago,” Hayek recalls. ”I tried really hard, but some secretary on the phone said, ‘You can stop calling, it ain’t gonna happen. You’re too young,”’ says the 33-year-old star. ”I was so pissed I said, ‘You know what, it’s not going to get done until I’m old enough to do it.”’ Even then it almost didn’t get done. Hayek’s movie (she’s producing, as well as starring) was nearly derailed by a competing biopic that was to star Jennifer Lopez — until Lopez dropped out last year. If nothing else, this version of Kahlo’s life (produced by Miramax) promises to be visually arresting. ”I didn’t want it to be just a biopic and I didn’t want it to be just a melodrama,” explains Julie Taymor, the director who turned ”The Lion King” into high art on Broadway and made ”Titus” trippy on the big screen. ”I thought it was important to show how the events of her life fed her as an artist and came out in these unbelievable images and hallucinations.”

THE LOWDOWN Booze, bisexuality, bus accidents. It’s the sort of role that could lift Hayek to a whole new level — provided it gets seen outside art houses.

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