[Interview] Salma Hayek and Brian Tyree Henry Discuss ‘ETERNALS’ Personal Importance

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director Chloé Zhao’s ETERNALS is a superhero film unlike any other for many reasons. For two of its stars – Salma Hayek, who plays the Eternals’ leader Ajak, and Brian Tyree Henry, who plays the group’s builder Phastos – it represents a long journey to see folks who look like them represented on screen as powerful super-immortals. In the film, their centuries-old team is tasked with choosing between saving humanity and rescuing the world or deciding to obey orders from their omnipotent Celestial leader, Arishem.

Hayek revealed, at the film’s virtual press conference, that she had almost given up her dream of playing a superhero, especially a leader of an all-powerful group of super-humans.

“I dream big and if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten here at all. In my big dreams, I wanted to be a superhero. I wanted to work with the best directors in the world, and have big blockbuster movies, and also movies that are art, that are made from a very deep place with great directors. You cannot ask for more. But it didn’t happen for me. You fight for it in your 20s, in your 30s, and in your 40s. You go, “Oh, screw them. They don’t get it. They missed out. I would’ve been a great superhero and they didn’t see it. I’m gonna do something else. Let’s have a baby.” And you give up, because now, you know.”

She’s grateful for Zhao and everyone at Marvel for seeing her superhero qualities despite the fact that she says she doesn’t look like the stereotypical archetypal model.

“It’s very humbling when in the middle of your 50s, a brilliant director gives you the opportunity to do both. To do something that comes from a deep place that it’s also a big blockbuster. I was wrong. Everything is possible. It’s such a humbling sensation. I mean, I’m short with big boobs. It’s not the normal superhero. I’m not muscley. I don’t have Botox. I’m doing well, but…  I’m Mexican, Lebanese [and] Arab.”

Hayek has loved seeing the impact her casting is already making and is humbled by the legacy she was finally allowed to lead.

“I nearly cried because I saw this Latino family – the mother with the three little girls all dressed like Ajak – I wanted to cry. It was all so moving, you know? That they can see themselves in this. Thank you to Marvel and thank you to Chloé. Everything is possible.”

Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

For Henry, his role as inventor and innovator Phastos, who’s struggling with his faith in humanity, came along at the right time for him personally.

“The thing that really attracted me to this part was that I just think about all the images of black men out there and how we are portrayed. And what I love the most about Phastos is that, one, he’s an ancestor. All of us are ancestors technically. Phastos predates everything and had to do probably go through all these things, which could actually make someone lose faith in humanity very quickly.

I remember when I was coming to this project that I, Brian, had kind of lost faith in humanity just looking at all the things that we’ve been through. And just what the images of black men were and how we were being portrayed and how the power was taken from us – like, the lack of power or feeling powerful. What I really love the most about Phastos is that through all of that, him being eternal, him never being able to die, he still chose love. He still decided to have a family even though he may have to watch them perish. He still tried to find a way to bring heart and love to everything he did, even though his genius was used against him. It really resonated a lot with how I felt, how my place in society was, how we can be kings and queens, and at the same time, they’ll take our pedestal and take our superpowers from us like that.”

He continued,

“What I love the most about ETERNALS is that Chloé and Nate [Moore, producer] really just re-instilled that power back in me again. I remember the first time that they were like, ‘So, we want you to be a superhero.’ I was like, ‘Cool. How much weight do I have to lose?’ And Chloé  was like, ‘What are you talking about? We want you exactly as you are.’

Again, to be a black man, to have someone look at you and say, ‘We want you exactly the way you are,’ is unlike anything that I’ve ever felt. It just triggered me to being an 11-year-old kid who’s watching these superhero movies, and not ever seeing anyone like me reflected. How I would take these posters and put them in my locker and just hope that one day there would be somebody representing me and the way that I am.”

The affable actor gives much of the credit to Zhao.

“I truly believe that that moment started when I sat down with Chloé. It’s unlike any feeling I’ve ever experienced.  To work with this beautiful palette of people and make a family ‘cause this is what families look like – this is what they are. If not, this is what they should be. This is who we are. I think that that is the one thing that I hope everyone takes away from this movie, is that the heart of humanity is still worth saving, and we can still bind and mend and do everything we need to through love. That’s what Chloé showed.”

ETERNALS opens in theaters on November 5.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.