LOS ANGELES — The culture clash drama “Beatriz at Dinner” wasn’t written about Donald Trump, but Salma Hayek understands why you might think it was.
In the film, Hayek plays a Mexican healer who finds herself at an intimate dinner party with her wealthy clients and their wealthier friends — including a ruthless real estate developer played by John Lithgow. They clash over the environment, hunting, immigration, money, greed — first politely, and then not so.
“Remember, this script was written before Trump,” Hayek said recently. “But the genius of (screenwriter) Mike White is that in his astute observation of humanity, he borders on fortune teller.”
When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, amid the Women’s March and the Inauguration, no headline could resist the Trump-ian comparison, either in direct reference to Lithgow’s Doug Strutt, a bullish capitalist who mistakes Beatriz for the help and then doubles down on the insults, or just the general tone of unease and divide at this dinner table. It’s now playing in limited release.
Although Donald Trump wasn’t president when the script was conceived, he was emerging on the national stage. White wrote it in the summer of 2015.
“It was an amalgamation of things that were frustrating (White). It was around the time when the dentist killed that lion in Africa and the same time that Donald Trump decided to run and said those awful things about Mexicans,” said director Miguel Arteta. “It was born from the idea of being at a dinner party where somebody was going to say, ‘I’m going to go kill a rare animal.’ How would I handle that?”
That Trump went from candidate to commander in chief by the time the film was finished and happens to embody some of the qualities of the main antagonist is, Arteta thinks, “a sign of the times,” although he and White did want to make sure to give all characters a fair voice.
“(Lithgow’s) character really believes in what he’s doing,” Arteta said. “The tragedy in life is everyone has good reasons for what they do, even the people who are abusing power.”
Arteta, who is from Puerto Rico, wanted to represent the feeling of being an outsider, or an immigrant, embodied in Beatriz. He and Hayek had been trying to work together for years, which is something White (who has collaborated with Arteta on “Chuck & Buck,” ”The Good Girl” and “Enlightened”) knew when he came up with the idea. They went straight to Hayek with it.
“Salma’s personality is so perfect for portraying what it’s like to be an immigrant. She has a huge heart, she’s extremely intelligent and hardworking and she is not afraid to tell the truth. Her personality really matched Beatriz,” Arteta said. “We are hardworking, smart and compassionate people as a whole. And she has all of that in droves.”
Hayek was excited about her character and how unconcerned she is with the class divide (while everyone else at the dinner table ranges from falsely ingratiating to downright rude).
“She’s really trying to look at them and figure out who they are. And they’re not interested in seeing her,” said Hayek. “I think that many immigrants will feel very close to this. You come from a country and you try to communicate, to participate, to understand, to absorb and many times you feel like they do not want you there.”
It’s a performance that has been earning Hayek raves, and even some early Oscar buzz. Arteta just hopes that audiences see “how wonderful Salma is.”
“It’s a sign of our very bad times that she doesn’t get more leading roles,” he added. “She’s a wonderful actress.”
The film can be an uncomfortable squirm-fest at times, as the wine keeps flowing and conversations get more tense and urgent. But that crisis feeling is intentional.
“We don’t want to offer solutions — to pontificate or not make you feel not so bad,” Arteta said.” We wanted to make a movie that says, ‘Don’t you sometimes feel hopeless and frustrated with all the evidence of how we are destroying our children’s future?’ and just leave it at that. And you can say, ‘Yeah I feel that way too.'”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr