An animated film inspired by a Lebanese poet may not be considered everyone’s usual summer fare. But that’s precisely why Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet—based on his 1923 book of philosophical essays—lends itself to audiences eager for a colorful antidote to CG and special effects-heavy offerings, according to producer Salma Hayek. “I think it’s an experience for families that’s entertaining, uplifting, and inspirational all at once,” she says. “We parents need content to take our children to that is actually going to push them to go somewhere new, where they are actually using their minds.”
The film tells the story of an independent little girl named Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis) who strikes up a friendship with Mustafa (Liam Neeson), a poet imprisoned for his radical ideas. In addition to co-producing and spearheading the film, Hayek voiced the role of Almitra’s mother, Kamila. Actors John Krasinski, Frank Langella, and Alfred Molina round out the cast of the film, which was helmed by Lion King co-director Roger Allers.
Hayek’s first exposure to Gibran—whose work continues to be a fixture on best-seller lists more than 80 years after his death—was through her late Lebanese grandfather, a man whose influence she considers integral to the making of The Prophet. “My grandfather used to have this book [The Prophet] always close by on the bedside table and as a child, I would look at the cover. Kahlil made a drawing of a man for the cover that I just found haunting,” says the Mexico-born actress.
Hayek rediscovered the book years later as a college student, an experience that “was very meaningful to me, because I felt like my grandfather was teaching me about life even though he was gone.”
Though The Prophet may not immediately conjure comparisons to Hayek’s other work as producer—projects like 2002’s Frida and the hit TV series Ugly Betty—the 48-year-old says there are similarities. “Number one is my fascination for visual art and visual language. When Ugly Betty came out, nothing looked like it on television,” she says. “And Frida was a way for me to break the clichés of how I felt people perceived Mexicans. It was a way to show a different face of Mexico, just as I’ve tried to do for the Arab world through this movie. [Kahlil Gibran] was a writer, artist, and painter that was way ahead of his time and wrote a book that has united religions, creeds, countries, and generations. It talks about the simple things of life that bond us together. And to think, this came from a man from the Middle East—in the times we are living in, that’s important.”
For the record, though, Hayek’s string of successes didn’t make the process of making The Prophet any easier. The film took four years to make (“Frida was eight years, so I’m cutting my production time in half,” jokes Hayek. “The next one will be two years!”), and was produced independently of the Hollywood studio system.
“It’s very strange that an industry that’s supposed to be founded by imagination is so resistant to originality,” says Hayek. “Anything that is outside the typical box is becoming more and more impossible to make.”
The challenges female filmmakers face are tougher, she notes, citing the disproportionate number of features made by and for women. “This is a problem that women will have to confront above all other problems,” she explains. “The majority of movies are thought up by men. So projects that come with a different perspective are always harder to make.”
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and will open in limited release in New York and Los Angeles on Aug. 7 before expanding nationwide on Aug. 21.