Life is idyllic in Southern California until the Mexican Baja Cartel led by the merciless Elena (Salma Hayek) moves in and demands that a pair of Laguna Beach entrepreneurs, Ben (Aaron Johnson), and his closest friend, Chon (Taylor Kitsch), partner with them. Ben and Chon run a lucrative, homegrown industry, raising some of the best weed ever developed and providing a mind-blowing product that everyone wants. But Elena underestimates the ironclad power of their friendship and the one-of-a-kind love they share with the extraordinary beauty Ophelia (Blake Lively), and finds herself caught up in a high stakes, savage battle of will that rivals anything she has ever encountered.
At the press day for Savages, MoviesOnline talked to Salma Hayek and Blake Lively about making the Oliver Stone thriller. They told us how their characters evolved from the book to the screen, what it was like collaborating with Stone who welcomed their input into their characters and gave them the freedom to design their look, how they each faced off with Benicio del Toro’s character, and why so many big moments in the film were not on the page. Salma also revealed how being a mother personally helped her tap into the inhumanity of her character, and Blake explained why she found it exciting to play a role so completely different from the type of characters she’s used to playing.
Q: We’re used to seeing drug cartel lords being these cold hearted, muy macho kind of men, but with your character, she’s got a lot of layers. How much of that came from the book or Oliver Stone and how much of that was what you inserted?
Salma Hayek: Her character is much smaller in the book. It was Oliver who started the whole process. He was incredibly generous because we really did work as a team, all of us. He really welcomes your input into the character. Actually, he would not like you if you didn’t have something to give. He expects…
Blake Lively: He wants you to fight with him.
Salma Hayek: Yeah. He wants you to fight, but he wants you to bring something to the plate, so we worked really well together designing the character, but it originated from him. He made that character a little bit more interesting than in the book. I think he did that with all of the characters.
Blake Lively: But he also gave you the freedom to do it, because I remember when I was rehearsing with the boys, he was getting images with Salma at home trying on different wigs, saying “What about this look? What about this?”
Salma Hayek: Oh yeah, I did my own look.
Blake Lively: It was all vastly different.
Salma Hayek: He was like “Why that?” “No, because…” He questioned everything and every choice, but in the end, he really gave me a lot of freedom to do the design, the look.
Q: Blake, your character ends up in this dark and intense world, how did you prepare for that?
Blake Lively: I feel like all I’ve done is played really sexually charged drug addicts lately. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I gotta go to Disneyland more and get more excitement because …
Salma Hayek: This is so far away from you.
Blake Lively: I know. I love that. I love that it’s so different from everything that I’ve ever known or seen and so I love that challenge. I love exploring worlds that are so unknown to me and having somebody like Oliver made it such a great experience because he gave us so many opportunities. He gave us all the knowledge and information we needed. He brought people in – DEA agents. I met a little girl who had been kidnapped by the Mexican drug cartel. We met people in all areas of the marijuana field. Then, we also sat with each other, each character, and just rehearsed this movie. There are so many unexpected, complex relationships that occur in this film. I’m in love with two men, but then there’s also a love story between our characters and the need for a mother and her need for a daughter. And so, we all sat down with each other and there was such unity in that.
Salma Hayek: And for a friend also.
Blake Lively: And for a friend too. This environment was really great like that. I didn’t even have a scene with John Travolta but we sat down and spoke for an hour because we’re a movie that’s coming out with all of these summer movies and we don’t have a cape in this movie so we’re at a big disadvantage with that. We knew that we were this black sheep, and we were excited to do this movie that was not only challenging for us as actors but it really challenges the audience, and that was really exciting.
Q: Salma, did being a mom personally help you bring tenderness to your performance at the end?
Salma Hayek: You ask if being a mother helped me find some of the humanity of the character. In reality, that’s what we would think, but being a mother can make you find actually the toughness, the inhumanity of the character, because a mother is willing and capable of doing anything for her children. You can justify it if you do something for your children, especially as a Mexican mother. I don’t know about some other nationalities, but the Mexican mothers are like that. They will do anything for their children. And, this is where this character turns. Everything I justified. I was okay with doing anything, it doesn’t matter, because I did it for my children. If I hadn’t taken over, they would have given it to my other child and he was weak. They would have killed him. I had already lost the twins and my husband so… Am I talking too much? No. But the point is, yes, it helps you find the vulnerability, but it also helps you find the fearlessness.
Q: Salma, how did you go about instilling fear in your character and also exuding power? Did you take bits and pieces from a fictional character or a real person to inspire you to create your character?
Salma Hayek: Actually I took a collection of different characters I have met throughout my life. I will not say names – some of them absolutely fascinating and that I adored. There was somebody that I got to be friends with that was a very, very strong and very powerful woman in Mexico. She’s passed away now. She comes from a different generation and when I was home, I got to spend some time with her. There have been a couple of different ones and there have been some iconic ones. I’m not going to name them, but it’s smart and it’s original because I took a collection of traits and created Elena. Oliver said “Why do you want to wear the same hair, the same necklace?” I tried to explain to him that these women know they’re going to be an icon and they create a character. And, this is also why at some point I do something – I don’t want to say what – that I’m so angry at myself that I take away part of my character. These women design themselves. They don’t want to be versatile. No. They want you to always remember them. It’s a very stupid thing, but I would say I have to design her in a way that somebody could dress up as her for Halloween. That it’s so identifiable that if you do this and this and this, you can actually impersonate her. I have noticed that the people I have met like that would do that, and so that’s what was behind it.
Q: Both of you face off with Benicio del Toro’s character at separate points in the movie. Salma, you slap him in the face, and Blake, you spit in his face. How many times did you have to do that before Oliver was satisfied with the take?
Blake Lively: A lot of this movie just happened, even when Salma was saying the thing she didn’t say about removing her character, that was something that when she was talking about the scene, she said “This is what I have to do here! I’m just going to do this.” And so, many key moments, like when I spit in Benicio’s face, that was something that we were talking about. Benicio and I were talking about this character after a take or two and he goes, “You know what, if you feel so angry at me, spit in my face.” I was like “I can’t do that!” He said, “No, hock a loogie in my face!” I was like “This is the greatest day ever!”
Salma Hayek: That sounds like Benicio talking.
Blake Lively: I was like “Okay, he’s asking for it. I’ll spit in his face.” So many of these big moments in the film were something that wasn’t on the page, they just happened there. We were lucky to be in that sort of environment where we could create, where it wasn’t all hammered out because we rehearsed so much. Yet it didn’t make it manufactured. It just gave us the freedom to let the story tell itself and that was lucky.
Salma Hayek: You know, it’s funny. I slapped him a lot. It was the strangest thing because I was nervous and he’s talking to me “Now hit me!! Hit me!! C’mon! Do it hard!” and I’m like “Are you sure?” “Yeah.” “Are you sure?” “Yeah!” And then, one time I did it and he goes “Okay!”
Blake Lively: I mean, we all felt it standing around.
Salma Hayek: But what was really uncomfortable about it besides that was this was the day my husband came to visit the set and he was like “What are you doing?! How many times are you going to slap him?” He was so worried for Benicio because he was red. I said “I’m going to stop. My hand hurts.” But I did hit him and the strangest thing was that every other scene he wouldn’t let me do again. I did like one take and it was very frustrating. But this scene, where I slapped poor Benicio, we did it twenty times.
Q: Blake, this is such a great departure for you in your career, were you nervous at all going into some of the more intimate or graphic scenes?
Blake Lively: This movie was terrifying in so many ways because this character… It’s so graphic and so violent and she experiences such an arc that it’s challenging as an actor, and it’s also challenging as a person. I’ve got a family. I’ve got nieces and nephews and a young audience from my show. And so, that plays into it too and you have a responsibility to your personal life too. It was a really strange situation to be in making this movie. But the most important thing all along was telling the truth, telling the heart of the story, and I think that she’s very much a modern young girl. She comes from new money, living in Laguna Beach. Her mom is off with her eight different husbands, and it’s a shame that you guys missed that in the movie because it’s beautiful stuff with Uma Thurman. I think it really told a lot more of how a girl could end up this way. She’s the modern girl. Divorces are so much more common now than they were. Love is very untraditional and these are three people who don’t have a family and are creating a family within each other. That’s what I was really drawn to in this story is all of the love between my character with the boys, between the boys and each other, and between my character and Salma’s and it’s complexities and its tensions. But it was definitely challenging because you’re on a set with forty people and the boys are standing there naked. That’s always a little awkward.
Q: As a fashionista, what did you think of the hippie free love style?
Blake Lively: I loved the clothes. That’s always one of my favorite parts is designing a character. The hardest part for me is that when I play a character that’s so different from myself, I love to hide behind them. It’s actually a really good secret if you don’t look like her and you don’t talk like her, then you can disappear. But when you look like you and you talk like you, and you’re from Southern California, and you wear clothes that you went shopping for at Top Shop and said “Oh, I think this would be a good idea,” and you bought one for yourself, then it gets to be a little messy, like I don’t want people to think this is me. It was a really weird personal challenge too shooting this.
Salma Hayek: Can I add one thing?
Blake Lively: Yes, please.
Salma Hayek: She also designed the tattoo which was part of the wardrobe in a way. She found the artist and worked with him for hours and hours.
Blake Lively: It took a long time. He’s one of my favorite artists: Sage Vaughn. In the book, my character has a dolphin tattoo with a sea nymph and I said “What was the significance? Is it because she lives in Laguna Beach?” We got that from everything else. Let’s make this mean something. This artist, Sage Vaughn, that I love, he creates this beautiful, pure, colorful nature – butterflies or birds on barbed wire, on picket fences, on these man-made structures, and I just thought it was such a perfect example of this girl, this pure, free, hopeful girl that has really been broken and torn by her life and society. I think if you’re going to get a tattoo, it should be significant, especially when it’s all the way up your arms and your body, so I thought that would be more significant for her.
Q: Salma, what do you think the fascination is with a woman who has such power and who is the head of something so ruthless as a cartel? Also, do you think that in the structure of cartels it is possible to have a woman like that?
Salma Hayek: In the research that I did, I actually talked to some people involved in the cartel that describe on two different occasions women that have gotten quite high in the cartel. As a matter of fact, they are incredibly efficient, much more than men. He described a situation where one of them, the husband went to jail and she took over and things went really well and somebody messed with her, betrayed her, and they took a loss, and she took it and she just continued, and the business continued to go really well. But the husband came out (of jail), and he said “Oh, no, no, no. That debt has to be taken care of because otherwise we don’t get respect.” He went and took care of that and then he got killed. He said they actually called her because the guy gets angry and thinks he has to do something and the women are not like that. They’re all about the business. They’re not about the vendetta. They’re not about who’s more macho. They’re about getting things done. And actually, that’s why they’re not as visible, and some of them have managed to get away and stay clean. I found that absolutely fascinating.
Q: Salma, you play the villain, but it’s a likeable villain. Was it more fun playing this type of shady character that you want to hate but you don’t?
Salma Hayek: I don’t care if you hate me or if you like me as long as somebody gives me a character that’s really a character to play. That’s what is fun. To be able to have a character, to have a director that can direct you into a character. I’m just so happy I got a good role. I don’t know if it’s because it’s bad or it’s good. I don’t care if it’s drama or comedy. They’re just so rare to come across. It doesn’t matter. It’s more fun to play a good character with a good director and good actors around you. That’s what makes it fun, and the more variety, the better. I loved this one.
Q: Blake, you’ve got Gossip Girl and you’re doing all these movies, how do you balance it and how many more Gossip Girl seasons do you have in you?
Blake Lively: We’re finishing our last season. We start in June. This was actually the hardest because normally we have about a two-month break from Gossip Girl every year and that’s when I do a movie, but this one started exactly when the Gossip Girl season started. For four months, I was flying back and forth between New York and L.A. I shot 7-day weeks and I was going from red eyes to set so that was a hard balance.
Salma Hayek: That was crazy.
Blake Lively: That wasn’t a balance. That was just a landslide.
Salma Hayek: Poor girl, but she was so professional, I have to say. It was shocking. She wouldn’t whine. I’m like my gosh, she’s like the perfect woman. She shows up and she still had a fight in her. She would come like this (looking exhausted) and then Oliver would say something and she’d go “But why?” And all of a sudden, she’d wake up and do such a good job with every take. It was moving to see not a day off.
Q: Salma, what was it like playing the mom of a 23-year-old? Was that kind of unusual?
Salma Hayek: Well, not really. I’m 45 so it would be very easy for me to have a 23-year-old girl, and you know, she’s so lovely. She’s really wonderful. I really did have a great bonding. I mean, the men in this movie are amazing, but the best thing about it, by far, were the girls. And she is so sweet and pure, this girl. It was very exciting for me because she’s also very talented and she started out like I started out. She comes from Mexico, from the novella. We know the same people. It reminded me of me. Of course, I didn’t come with an Oliver Stone movie. And, she speaks English. And I think she has a green card. So, she’s way ahead of the game. But it was so lovely to talk about. It brought me back home. It helped me a lot for all that part about Mexico, and she’s a singer and she used to play her mariachi music because she sings mariachi songs. It was just such a wonderful privilege to be able to work with her. It was no stretch. I could have a 23-year-old daughter.
Q: What was it like for you to have scenes with dialogue in both English and Spanish where you mix the language? Was that for commercial reasons or did you ask Oliver to add some Spanish to spice it up?
Salma Hayek: I have to tell you he would never use English if it’s just for the market. Not Oliver. If it was the right thing to do the whole movie in Spanish, he would do it in Spanish in a heartbeat and he would fight for it. Funny enough, the people that work on this side, the cartel people, everybody that we met, the people that work in the United States that are from Mexican descent, they speak in English. They do speak in English. As you see, when we’re in Mexico, I’m speaking in Spanish. But when I’m on the phone with the people here, it’s mostly in English. And even the kids who have grown up in the United States, those kids don’t want to speak Spanish. He was very, very careful about that and asked a lot of questions and did the research and asked us where we felt comfortable. It’s funny, when you live here long enough, and I see it even with myself, sometimes I start talking to Valentina in English and I say to myself “What am I doing?” and I switch. But I catch myself sometimes. The people that work here speak English because we met them and we interviewed with them. They spoke in English. However, when I start cursing, you cannot beat the beauty and the variety of the sounds and images that come from Spanish Mexican cursing, so I curse a little bit in English and then it comes in Spanish.
Blake Lively: But that scene was written in English because it made sense for it to be in English, and then, you throw Salma out there, and then a lot of curse words that I didn’t understand were thrown into the scene.
Salma Hayek: Yes, but with the encouragement of Oliver. Oliver likes it when you talk dirty.
Savages opens in theaters on July 6th.