Salma Hayek is concerned.
The Oscar-nominated producer-actress extraordinaire is worried about America, she told The Daily Beast in Toronto, where this week she premiered her Iranian Revolution drama Septembers of Shiraz at the Toronto Film Festival.
“This is very scary,” she said, assessing the 2016 presidential race and the antics of GOP frontrunner Donald Trump. “America is in trouble. We have to take this very seriously. This is not a reality show. America is not a reality show. This is not a popularity contest. This is not Miss America or Miss Universe.”
Hayek stars for Australian director Wayne Blair (The Sapphires) in Septembers of Shiraz, a melodramatic adaptation of Dalia Sofer’s acclaimed 2007 novel about a wealthy couple in 1979 Tehran targeted when Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic fundamentalist forces take over the country.
Mexico-born Hayek adopted an Iranian-inflected English accent to play Farnez Amin, a strong-willed wife and mother who wages her own battles at home and in the hostile world outside when her businessman-husband Isaac (Oscar-winner Adrien Brody) is wrongfully arrested, tortured, and beaten by revolutionary forces.
Hayek’s co-star Brody commits a physical performance to the role of Isaac Amin, a successful jeweler whose Jewish faith is not as big a problem to his torture-happy captors as is his lavish, spendy lifestyle and suspected ties to the deposed Shah of Iran. (Scottish actor Gerard Butler is also a producer on the film.)
But the real sparks fly in scenes Hayek shares with Tehran-born Shohreh Agdashloo, who plays the Amins’s longtime Muslim housekeeper Habibeh. As Isaac suffers violent aggressions at the hands of his abusive interrogator (Alon Aboutboul) in a dark, dank prison cell, Farnez and Habibeh heatedly negotiate the larger cultural rift tearing their country apart from within the walls of home.
That, Hayek says, might be a solution to solving the world’s crises.
“What’s fantastic to watch in this film is that when these women are in this situation, what’s right and what’s wrong, and have to question everything they ever knew—even though they come from opposite sides, they listen to each other,” said Hayek. “They have empathy for each other. The men resort to violence. The women are generous.”
In spite of their clashing backgrounds and belief systems, the proudly wealthy Westernized housewife and her devout working-class servant open one another’s eyes in a way that leads to real mutual understanding.
“They put each other in each other’s place, and they think about the other person,” said Hayek. “They actually take a moment to consider, ‘Have I done something wrong, too?’ And although they are different, they are able to coexist in a good level of harmony even amid the suspiciousness, even in the confusion, even in their resentments. This is fascinating to me.”
Particularly after forming her own production company to steer her projects as a producer and actor, Hayek’s played a range of powerful female figures, from art icon Frida Kahlo to last year’s Yakuza-slaying action heroine in Everly. Off-screen, Hayek’s humanitarian work has taken her across the globe as an advocate for women’s rights.
She signed on to lead Septembers of Shiraz after seeing parallels between her character and the women she’s met in her off-screen work. “I think it moved me because I think of those women who are unsung heroes in times of crisis when there’s devastation and it’s so easy to lose your humanity,” she said. “It’s the women who keep the humanity in their communities and in their families. It’s the women who, even though they are destroyed inside, somehow find the strength to keep hope, to keep the spirits up in their families.”
“I’ve seen that,” she continued. “They keep going, but they try to bring the spirit up. They go to war without weapons, and without anybody asking their opinion, and they endure it. I think we are equipped naturally to have the instinct to preserve life more than men, because we are designed to create it.”
Part social drama, part historical cautionary tale, Septembers of Shiraz is designed to warn audiences around the globe that the past can repeat itself—and might just be heading in that direction again. Which brings us back to the ratings-catnip race to the White House.
“We’re talking about a president who has to deal with a world that has a lot of very strong international conflicts—and they’re going to have to interact with it,” Hayek declared, her hands waving, animated, in the air. What else makes Hayek uneasy about the world these days?
“We could spend three weeks doing a special on all the things that concern me about the world! It’s everywhere you look—it’s chaos,” she says. “In different ways, every way you look is chaos. There are so many things that concern me about the world. But you know what, I’m proud that it concerns me. Because there are a lot of people who are not concerned.”
Not enough people see their community as global and not just national, she said.
“I feel like the interest of the majority of America about the world is quite small,” she said. “They don’t understand that we are in a world crisis, economically, politically, socially, and we need to take a look at that, too. We can’t be just occupied… it’s become a show business, politics in America. It’s a bit embarrassing, the way it’s treated.”
“The way information is given to the public, in such an uninformed way… the way that people just take it, already manipulated into a good speech, really concerns me,” said Hayek. “And honestly, the press doesn’t make enough effort to point it out and give more information. They are much more concerned about discussing the speculation. They give just enough information for manipulation. So, who’s going to win? The best prepared for the job, or the one who has the best skill at manipulating information?”