Salma Hayek is getting some of the best reviews of her career for her turn in Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner. As Beatriz, the Mexican actress plays a masseuse and holistic healer living in California who finds herself invited to a dinner at the home of a wealthy Orange County family. Their affluent friends, especially Doug Strutt (played by John Lithgow), make for the kind of awkward dinner that great films are made from. Ready-made for the Trump era, the film strikes a chord by pitting this empathetic Mexican immigrant against a rich animal hunter business man, who no doubt will remind many of a certain brash and polarizing political figure.
Reuniting with his Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl writer, Mike White, Arteta has given the Frida star the showcase role she deserves. The reviews agree. Variety called her performance “luminous,” Vanity Fair went further: “It’s a terrific role for Hayek, both earthy and ethereal. She registers pain and frustration so simply, but so acutely, often just with small shifts in expression,” while The Hollywood Reporter anointed it as “the best performance of Hayek’s career.”
Following the film’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Arteta, White, Lithgow, as well as fellow cast members Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass and Connie Britton joined Hayek on stage to talk about the resonant politics of the piece, its alternate ending, and why the role feels so close to Hayek’s heart. Check out some highlights from the Q&A (with mild spoilers) below.
On What Kind of Discussions the Team Had Before Making the Film
Hayek: There were no discussions. I still cannot believe my luck. I was just in awe. I’ve been wanting to work with him for a while. Miguel and I had another project that never got done. And by the way, we’re not doing it. It was kind of like that but not as good. I’m also a super fan of Mike. I was kind of a stalker. He just came up with this idea, and I said nothing. I said, “Great…” But I thought, this is gonna be like that other one with Miguel, it’s just not gonna happen, you know? He had this idea that it was almost too good to be true. We had a really good discussion about it two weeks before my birthday, and then on my birthday I got the script and it said “Happy Birthday!” He wrote it in like two weeks. Two weeks! He didn’t even tell me that much. He said, “You’re a masseuse, you own a goat. And it’s gonna take place at dinner.” And I said, “Okay!”
“He said, ‘You’re a masseuse, you own a goat. And it’s gonna take place at dinner.’ And I said, ‘Okay!'”
On That Oceanside Ending
Hayek: You know, I think these guys were spying on me, getting me drunk and getting me to talk about these things at dinners and parties. You know, [Miguel and I] have a lot in common. We look completely different, you know? But in some ways he could be my twin brother and I think the message that I think he’s saying he kind of stole it from my soul. Because they didn’t know this about me: I’m a diver. This is my great passion. I’ve been diving for forty years! Since I was ten. This is a very personal confession: this is when I’m the happiest. When I come out of a dive I’m a completely different person. I’m relaxed, I barely consume oxygen because I really feel at home. And I have a problem because I’m one of those people who is attracted to the end of the ocean and I have to be very careful. I’ve gone very very deep. I’m aware. This is a sickness, almost. Some people are just attracted to that force. So for me it was so easy: there’s the ocean and she just thinks “I’m safe in the water.” It has to do also with her growing up in the water. Miguel and I talked a lot about oh, is she desperate. And no: she just looks at the water and feels safe.
On the Bloodier Alternate Climax That Could’ve Been
White: Yeah, originally, she does kill him [Doug Strutt, John Lithgow]. But I felt that people would be saying that, oh people who are disenfranchised or feel disempowered, then violence is the only way to… you know? It started to be not quite what I was trying to say. But I actually feel like this version is more like how I feel these days. Where I just wanna swim away as everyone is still partying in the edge of the plantation or whatever.
“Mike White is an anthropologist studying the affluent of Orange County.”
Hayek: I’m very happy with this ending because there is that killer instinct in all of us. And the movie is about the way we decide to see life. And whom we choose to be. She’s somebody with incredible empathy but she has that part that we all have. We think about it. We fantasize about it. The healing process and the triumph is in not [doing] it. Not to be like that. And I think it marks the difference between them. Maybe somebody else decides to take it as a sport and then it’s okay. And maybe some of us decide not to do it ever ever. And so I like that Beatriz—we show that she thinks about it, I think there’s a beautiful thing here that connects us, but the difference is in the choices we make. But I love the way you see it in the movie.
On Creating a Believable World of Rich Californians
Lithgow: Well, in all the obvious ways I am the villain of the piece. But whenever I play the villain, I think of him as the hero. I found Doug Strutt a very satisfied, happy person. It doesn’t even occur to him that he’s the quite obvious adjectives that you could throw at him. It was really interesting talking to Miguel about the character over the telephone before it all began. He just loved the fact that Doug Strutt would be a joyful person. He would talk about hunting animals as something that was truly magnificent thing to do. In fact, I think if Beatriz had not been at that party, everyone [would have] completely accepted every word he said about hunting or the thrilling thing he was doing or his business strategies. It was a completely acceptable world. What I loved about the script is that you never see those six wealthy people at a dinner party with a woman like Beatriz. You never see that conversation. You never see those expressions when they’re communicating the way they always communicate. I thought that was a fantastic dynamic. And that made the role easy to play, fun to play. That the fact that Beatriz somehow amused him, the way a mouse amuses a cat. And how that subtly changes over the course of the script is what I think makes the script very haunting. On top of the fact that Mike writes language for these people which is just so incredibly authentic. I mean, an anthropologist studying the affluent of Orange County.
Landecker: I think one thing we tried to do is not stereotype them. Because it could be like, they’re evil rich people and she’s a Goddess—which she is, obviously. I mean, I can’t even look at Salma Hayek! But I think he was just wanted to make sure that you could find a connection and humanity. I think Connie does such a good job, too. She holds that space of being a rich housewife but she’s not at all two-dimensional. I definitely took a cue from that. And also, finding the attractiveness in this man. That we are drawn to this. To someone who is that clear and confident.
Britton: I think the only thing I’d add to that, because I think you articulated it so perfectly, is that within this group of six actually each one was so specific and you couldn’t possibly just say “these are just six people from Orange County.” Even the level of wealth for each one was so specific and different. I think that’s what I appreciate about it so much. Because I think if they’d just been stereotypical characters, then there wouldn’t have been a story tell. Because then Salma’s character wouldn’t be so beautifully heartbreaking and honest and real.
“Languages really manifest things that are more profound [about] a culture than just communication skills.”
On Beatriz’s Bilingualism
Salma: Well, I speak both languages. In real life as in the film. There’s a lot of talk about languages. And they really manifest things that are more profound [about] a culture than just communication skills. They really sometimes show patterns and the way they look at the world. It’s actually an interesting question because as you speak different languages your personality changes a little bit. And adopts some of the way of feeling that comes from the origin of the language, from the people who speak that language. I’m very grateful that I got to live Beatriz in both languages, because there’s something a little bit different about her when she’s speaking in English, in this adopted land that she’s made a home with the people that speak English. And then there’s another Beatriz when she speaks Spanish that it’s also combined with a sense of nostalgia that happens to all of us who leave [our] home country and reinvent yourself somewhere else. There is a special vibration to us when we connect to our place of origin. A nostalgia not just of the place but of, in Beatriz’s case, of the girl that stays behind, that dies. Because when we move somewhere, that person you were in that place, kind of dies. I had such a great opportunity to play that. Miguel and I talked about it many times. We created our own special bond also in Spanish and we kind of isolated ourselves not just when we were playing the Spanish part but our vision of the film. It’s a subtle thing.