SALMA HAYEK, THE FORCE BEHIND 'FRIDA'

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LOS ANGELES - What savvy actress wouldn't want to play Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist and American pop icon whose 47 years on this earth would be unbelievable if they weren't true?

She survived a bus accident at 18 in which she was impaled on a metal rod - and nearly bankrupted her family during her convalescence. She began to paint as an outlet for her pain, which led her to a passionate and stormy relationship with fellow artist Diego Rivera; they married, divorced, then married again. They were both marital infidels, but Kahlo's dalliances were sometimes with women who had hopped from Rivera's bed to hers. Her lovers included Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary who sought refuge, unsuccessfully, in Mexico.

It would seem that such rich material, bolstered by public interest that has grown over the past 15 years to outstrip anything she knew in life, would have attracted legions of hopeful stars. And it has.

Madonna began talking about her desire to play Kahlo in 1990. Laura San Giacomo, only a couple of years removed from "sex, lies, and videotape," was signed in 1992 to play Kahlo, only to have the project stalled by protests from Latinos that Kahlo should be played by one of their own.As recently as 2000, Jennifer Lopez was signed to star in a Frida biopic by Francis Ford Coppola.

But it is Salma Hayek whose efforts will bring "Frida" to theaters on Friday. She co-produced the movie and appears in nearly every scene. And though this is the first time Hayek is being asked to carry a film, one could say she was born for the role. Both she and Kahlo were born in Mexico of artistic bent and unconventional nature: As a teen, Kahlo dressed in men's clothing; Hayek smoked cigars. Kahlo kept exotic animals, including monkeys; Hayek had a pair of them too.

Though Kahlo's handicaps were far more dramatic, Hayek overcame dyslexia. Hayek smokes cigarettes, too, much to the disapproval of her boyfriend, actor Edward Norton. But she got that directly from Kahlo: "One of the benefits of being a star is you get to learn how to smoke for work. "I used to be nauseous, and Julie [Taymor, the film's director] used to say, `it looks terrible. It really looks like you don't know how.' So I would practice and practice, until I got hooked."

Nor was she hooked immediately when, at 14, she first saw Kahlo's paintings, many of which are unflinching, graphic portraits of her pain. "I thought they were very weird, very strange. I didn't like them. . . . Well, I didn't judge whether I liked it or not, but I was disturbed by them. I went home, but I couldn't get them out of my head. I would go back and say, `Show me those pictures again.' And then I started asking questions. It's been a long love affair."

Hayek's own life in art began on a local stage in a theater production of "Aladdin," in which she created such a stir that fights would break out in the audience over protecting her honor. Soon she was starring in a Mexican soap opera, and within months had become one of the nation's most popular stars. Her fans had doubts when she chucked that adulation for life as another no-name Hollywood aspirant.

Kahlo probably would have understood. "This woman shut all these voices out and listened to her own," Hayek says. "And she had the courage to be who she was." That courage bursts from almost all her paintings, which are so dominated by self-portraits that some critics disdain them as narcissistic, in the vein of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. Hayek doesn't see it that way.

"I don't think these women gave you what they thought was going to make you think they were good and strong and extraordinary. There was an honesty to it. . . . She paid a lot of attention to herself, but narcissism comes from an insecurity, not for a hunger for discovery of yourself," Hayek says.

It is not hard to imagine how Kahlo, who spent so much time alone while recuperating, developed such an inward focus. Though her family supported her financially through her ordeal, there was less support emotionally, particularly from her mother, whom the movie portrays as dour and unavailable.

Hayek says her own mother, an opera singer who married a Lebanese man highly placed in Mexico's state-owned petrochemical industry, wasn't like that. But she does admit to wishing as a child that her mother "would stop singing and come play with me."

"I have a good relationship with my mother. Her mother was a complicated woman. Her father had been married before, and had, I think, two daughters from this marriage. When [Kahlo's parents] got married, this woman sent the girls away to boarding school and they never saw him again. She had problems with one of Frida's older sisters and she had to leave the house! Such a dominant figure, you know?"

Kahlo emerged from that dominance with a fierce independence at a young age. Hayek, 36, says her strength has been slower in coming. "There have been times in my life when I am weaker in that respect than others. I think I am better now," she says. "I think it's a good sign of maturity when you come to your own acceptance in your own terms."

So what will her terms be as she moves forward, now that she's played her role of a lifetime, now that she's directed ("The Maldonado Miracle," for Showtime) as well as produced?

"I want to do it all. I wish I didn't have to produce, but in order to have it all, you have to produce. Production is just a bunch of problems, very little creativity. I really, really like directing."

So why not just act and direct? "Because in order to direct, in order to create a movie for yourself that you want to act in, you have to find it, you have to develop it. you have to sell it," she says. "I only like the finding-it part."