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'Savages' Star Salma Hayek on Making Her Character Into an Icon, Slapping Benicio Del Toro

Salma Hayek Savages - P 2012
Universal

"I have to design her in such a way that somebody could dress up as her for Halloween," the actress explained about the look for her cartel-running character.

In Savages, Salma Hayek plays Elena “La Reina,” the ruthless -- and extremely fashionable -- leader of a Mexican cartel.

In Oliver Stone’s film, Elena goes after two small-time Laguna Beach marijuana dealers (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson), at first trying to bring them into her network of dealers and then kidnapping their shared girlfriend (Blake Lively) to get them to cooperate.

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Hayek based her intense character on people she has met, though she wouldn’t name names.

“There was somebody that I got to be friends with, who was a very, very, very strong, very powerful woman in Mexico. She has passed away now,” Hayek, who was born in Mexico, told reporters during a press conference for the film.

Hayek, who says she got to design her character's look on her own, chose to have Elena wear the same diamond necklace and hairstyle in every scene.

The Academy Award-nominated actress says Stone questioned why a millionaire like Elena would want to wear the same accessories every day.

"I tried to explain to him that these women know they are going to be an icon and they create a character," she says. "These women design themselves. They don’t want to be versatile. They want you to always remember them.

"I said, 'OK, I have to design her in such a way that somebody could dress up as her for Halloween,'" she adds. "It had to be so identifiable that you could actually impersonate her."

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Hayek's character might seem like a terrifying dictator on the outside, but her one soft spot is for her teenage daughter who lives in the U.S. Hayek, who became a mother in 2007 with the birth of her daughter, says that being a mother made her understand not the vulnerability but the "fearlessness."

"As a mother, for your children, you are willing and capable of doing anything," she says. "You can justify it. I don’t know about some other mothers, but Mexican mothers will do anything for their children."

Savages also stars Benicio Del Toro and Demian Bichir as two of Elena's U.S.-based henchman. In one particularly strong scene, Hayek's character gets into an argument with the two men, with the conversation ebbing and flowing from Spanish to English. Hayek's Elena ends up slapping Del Toro's character.

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"You know, it's funny, I slapped him a lot," she says. "It was the strangest thing because I was nervous, but Benicio was like, 'Hit me! Hit me! Come on, do it harder!'"

The two have some of the most intense and unavoidably gory scenes in the adaptation of Don Winslow's best-selling novel, but Hayek says the slap scene was one of the moments she got to act out many times.

"The strangest thing was that, with every other scene, Oliver wouldn’t let me do again. I did one take, which was very frustrating," she says. "But this scene where I slapped Benicio, we did it 20 times."

Savages opens in theaters July 6.

E-mail: Rebecca.Ford@thr.com; Twitter: @Beccamford

Universal Pictures