A pointed message in a divisive time
A long pause follows. “Yes.”
Despite the heightening tension in the room, she tries to get back to her point.
“I always had inside me the desire to be a healer … ”
“Good for you,” he cuts her off again. “You’re working. You’re contributing.”
The dark comedy shines an unforgiving light on such topics as immigration and economic disparity — both issues that are at the forefront of political consciousness in today’s deeply polarized America. It opens Friday in Los Angeles in limited release.
“It’s a story about what it’s like to feel outside of society and about how divided our society is,” said Arteta in a phone interview. “But it’s set in the really relatable and casual environment of a dinner party, something we can all relate to.”
Hayek, whose stunning beauty is semi-successfully muted as Beatriz beneath a frumpy monochromatic outfit and fringe of baby bangs, signed on for the role before the script was even written.
“I have always wanted to work with Miguel and Mike,” she said of the director and screenwriter who had collaborated on such films as “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl.” “They approached me with just an idea of what they wanted to do. I don’t care what they would’ve given me, I would’ve done it.”
She spent half a day talking about the film but was told nothing more than the role in mind was for a masseuse at a dinner party.
“I didn’t even understand how the masseuse was going to fit into the dinner,” she said. “But I would’ve done anything.”
Two weeks later, all her questions were answered.
“It was my birthday and I got an email from Mike that said ‘Happy Birthday’ and the script. He wrote it in two weeks and it’s exactly the script that you see on the screen. And then I fell in love immediately with the character.”
That character is Beatriz, a holistic healer from Mexico who finds herself stranded at her employer’s Newport Beach home just before a very well-to-do dinner party.
“She does not come in with a chip on her shoulder, she’s not somebody that has a complex of inferiority, she’s at dinner with these people that are rich and powerful and sophisticated, but she doesn’t look up to them,” Hayek said by phone in a separate interview. “She’s just happy to be there, even if it’s by accident. And she makes an effort to understand who they are and doesn’t judge immediately and doesn’t react immediately. And I think that this is something that is really needed today.”
Beatriz’s well-meaning employer, Kathy (Connie Britton), insists she stay for the party, not anticipating that the deeply empathetic Beatriz will butt heads with Strutt, a billionaire real-estate mogul whose attitudes and behavior may remind some of our president.
“[White] wrote the script before all this happened, and I never was thinking ‘I’m playing opposite Donald Trump,’ ” Hayek admitted. “It would’ve been unethical to play it from my perspective and not really respect the character.”
Though the film is of the moment, its larger theme is what it feels like to be an outsider in society and the sense of powerlessness that immigrants and others feel.
“Everyone has felt like an outsider at some point and has felt not really seen or underestimated,” said Hayek, whose family is from Mexico. “Also, most of us have felt the horrible sensation of impotence in front of somebody who is very powerful and very entitled and who is completely unconscious about anything or anyone that doesn’t serve their interests.”
One of the major sources of tension between Beatriz and Strutt concerns the real estate developer’s ruthlessness in business. Beatriz, whose hometown in Mexico was overtaken by a luxury hotel development (and was active in protests to save it), still feels resentment about the lack of compassion of business executives and feels deeply nostalgic about the country of her youth.
“My character is very nostalgic about the place of her youth,” said Hayek. “I think all immigrants are going to feel very identified with this. But I think this goes beyond immigrants because I think in reality, it’s not a place of her youth that she’s longing for, her nostalgia is for a place inside of her that we all share where we long for our innocence before we realized how messed up the world was. And who we were then because it’s a place of purity.
“We all have a yearning to go to a time that was simpler when we cared about each other more and that almost seems like an impossible place,” said Hayek.
Hayek embodies Beatriz’s longing for a return to simpler times with a tragic wistfulness, a deep departure from the bombshells she’s most famous for portraying in earlier films like “From Dusk Til Dawn” and “Wild Wild West.” Increasingly in recent years she’s spoken out about political issues, including immigration and women’s rights.
“Salma is incredibly bright and caring and she’s not afraid to tell the truth,” said Arteta. “She was perfect for Beatriz. I know she’s very well known for her glamour and her beauty, but it was her intelligence and her empathy and her courage and her hard-working ethic that really drew us to her. And so I thought she was the perfect person, her interior qualities are perfect for this.”
While the film’s star and director are deeply familiar with the American immigrant experience, they felt it important to portray both sides of the conversation with balance.
“It’s not a movie about a liberal being correct and a conservative being incorrect, not at all,” said Arteta. “It’s a fair and balanced movie, really. The tragedy in life is that we all have good reasons for what we do. People who abuse this world, they don’t wake up every morning saying, ‘I’m just going to screw this world to kingdom come.’ They have good reasons for why they do this in their minds.”
“I think it’s important, the film, because it starts a conversation that shows both sides with respect,” Hayek said. “Because both arguments are intelligent arguments and they make sense. And there’s even a moment where you see that we are more similar than we think. What determines who you are is the choices you make.”
“We didn’t want to pre-digest it for people, we wanted to leave it so that you have to think about it when you leave the theater,” Arteta added. “We didn’t want to give any solutions. I definitely don’t want to pretend that I know what the solutions to our time is, I think that would be really pretentious. I really wanted to reflect what it feels [like] to be frustrated by the state of our culture.”
JOHN LITHGOW and Salma Hayek hug, a distinct difference from the class-warfare sparring of their characters in “Beatriz at Dinner.”