The Mummy’s Patricia Velasquez Looks Back at the Universal Monsters Classic

Exclusive: Patricia Velásquez remembers The Mummy, the gold paint that made her sick, and what it’s like to duel Rachel Weisz to the death.

Patricia Velasquez as Anck-Su-Namun in The Mummy
Photo: Universal Pictures

Patricia Velásquez long ago made peace with the fact that she and Egypt will be eternally linked. It’s an amusing quirk of fate for the Venezuelan actor since she grew up not in the sun-soaked deserts of North Africa, but rather the lush greenery of Latin America and France. She is a woman of proud Indigenous Wayuu descent and of a multicultural childhood that took her all over the world. Just never that part of it. Nonetheless, because of a movie she did a quarter-century ago—because of The Mummy—when friends, family, and even strangers think of the Land of the Pharaohs, they think of Patricia Velásquez. They think of Anck-Su-Namun.

“Can you believe I still have not been to Egypt?” Velásquez muses when we catch up with her over Zoom ahead of The Mummy’s 25th anniversary. “But somehow I seem to be connected to it a lot. Friends of mine go and do video chats or FaceTime. They call me because it seems like people, when they are around the Pyramids, they think of The Mummy a lot.” Just the other week, in fact, one fan sent Velásquez several papyri he picked up in Luxor, including an elaborately decorated piece that reveals a painting of “Ankh”—the ancient Egyptian symbol for the key of life.

It’s an appropriate emblem for the actress and the movie she participated in. For despite all the time that’s passed, The Mummy has enjoyed a preternaturally long afterlife befitting its eponymous character. A bonafide classic today, parents who were children in 1999 now introduce their own kids to the Stephen Sommers-directed hybrid of action, horror, and romance. And Velásquez would know; her own teenage daughter’s friends recently discovered she played the key role in igniting the millennia-spanning adventure. In other words, folks are still summoning The Mummy and Anck-Su-Namun’s legacy back to life. 

While technically onscreen for only a handful of minutes, there’s a reason that character has left such a lifelong impression on folks—and why Velásquez was invited back for a much larger role in The Mummy Returns. Appearing exclusively during the first film’s prologue, Anck-Su-Namun is ominously introduced as “Pharaoh’s Mistress.” She’s a woman so prized and objectified by Seti I (Aharon Ipalé) that he’s made her body a golden idol by having it painted in the color of his treasury. Bathed head-to-toe in brilliant body art, Velásquez enters the film as pharaoh’s possession, yet quickly (and spectacularly) exits it as his assassin, aiding her true love, the High Priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) in skewering the old king.

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“My body is no longer his temple,” Ank-Su-Namun hisses in a bygone tongue before taking her own life.

It’s a sequence that today remains as iconic as much else in the movie—from the undead Imhotep’s sandy countenance in a scene set 3500 years later to the chemistry between the heroes of the piece, Rick O’Connell and Evie Carnahan (Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz). Yet how that classic movie moment came into Velásquez’s life, and the impact it’s had thereafter, is an epic in its own right.

Meeting The Mummy

The unlikely alchemy which brought Velásquez to the film still feels like a bit of sorcery in its own right. While in 1998 Velásquez had developed a successful modeling career which had carried her around the world and to the U.S., she nevertheless remained an unknown quantity in Hollywood.

“The way this movie came about was such an extraordinary lesson from the universe about why it’s important to be kind to everyone,” Velásquez reflects today. “We just never know the repercussions of encountering people in life. I was in LA, and my agent sent me to do general castings with different people. One of these meetings was the casting director of Universal. Her name is Joanna Colbert, and it was just a general casting meeting. I walk into the office, and we had a really wonderful conversation. That was it. And then the day after I’ve been offered this movie called The Mummy. I could not believe it.”

Having grown up partially in Mexico, Velásquez’s point of reference for the term “mummy” at that time was of a more Mesoamerican variety—one she associated with spiritualism and peace. She thus had no preconceived notions about Boris Karloff or spooky, moldering bandages when receiving Sommers’ screenplay for The Mummy. Not that she could quite ascertain what the movie’s tone was from the page either. In the shooting script, Anck-Su-Namen’s entrance simply describes her as an “olive-skinned goddess.”

Based on that, Velásquez had little idea what to expect when she quickly found herself stepping off a London-bound plane and walking into Shepperton Studios—the legendary soundstages where iconic films like Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Strangelove were lensed. Soon The Mummy’s legend would be etched onto that list, too, which became clearer when Velásquez at last walked onto Sommers’ set: a cavernous recreation of the height of the ancient Egyptian empire during the New Kingdom.

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“It wasn’t until I walked into the set that I realized that I was in a big film, and it was a shock,” Velásquez says. It was also in the same breath she met the mastermind behind this majestic sweep. “Stephen had a lot of energy, and it was a contagious energy and very exciting and very respectful. He was very busy and just welcomed me into the project and said, ‘I’m so happy you’re here, we’re going to be working together.’ … And then I went to get ready.” The easy part was over.

Paint It Gold

In The Mummy, the intricacy of Anck-Su-Namun’s appearance is also the crux of the film’s plot. As described in the script: “It takes us a moment to realize that the skin-tight dress she’s wearing isn’t a dress at all, but rather her entire naked body PAINTED in the ancient Egyptian manner. She’s a stunning sight to behold.”  Unfortunately that also means when Seti I spots a smudge on her shoulder (the same area Imhotep was passionately caressing moments earlier), Pharaoh knows someone has dared touch his prized art piece.

Actually transforming Velásquez’s body into that artwork, however, proved just as taxing as Pharaoh’s appraising gaze. As the actress tells us, once the paint went on during a long day’s work, it stayed on.

“It took almost 10 hours to get that makeup on,” Velásquez recalls with a hint of lingering weariness. “I have four people drawing on my body, and then they had a special chair so I could sit and the paint would not smear, and special shoes. And then I had anywhere between two to four hours of retouching every day. It was tough.”

If one is in the make-up chair for 10 hours a day, the next question becomes how many hours did that leave to shoot? But there’s the catch: the film could save time if the makeup just stayed in place. For weeks.

“I [didn’t take it off] for about 10 days,” Velásquez says. “The first day it was only to try the makeup and then they left it on. So when I went to shoot, I had it on and they would just retouch. It would smear overnight, but not as much. It was pretty tight.” The actor even bemusedly recalls going to a nice London restaurant and being stared at by patrons across the room. “I know what it’s like to walk around with big tattoos on your body.”

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Yet the makeup stayed, and by the end of her 10-day shoot, they had the scene. Velásquez also might’ve had a fever. Looking back, she likens the experience a bit to what happened to Shirley Eaton’s character in Goldfinger. “I remember there was a Bond Girl that died from body painting,” Velásquez says. “They left a hole in the back so my skin could breathe, but even then I still got sick. Thank God not as bad!”

Despite the challenges though, Velásquez is proud of what they accomplished: “It was an idea we were able to execute, and I had modeled for so many years that I was used to that kind of work. Once you forget about it, it just really helps you with the character, even more than in The Mummy 2. There I had the bodysuit, but there was nothing like actually having the paint.”

Talk Like an Egyptian

The time onscreen offered by the original The Mummy was small yet pivotal. It was also colored by smart decisions, such as having Vosloo and Velásquez speak in ancient Egyptian—or at least an approximation of it since we can only speculate about how that dead language used its vowels. Both actors worked heavily with a UCLA linguist who taught them the lines phonetically; a process that might have come easier to Velásquez than it would most since all her life she’s been picking up languages, including Spanish, English, French, and Italian. To this day, she still recalls the lines she learned for The Mummy via the muscle memory in her throat.

Perhaps the other great strength of the movie (at least as an entertainment) is to know when to bend that loose authenticity.

“I do remember one time… when they told us that ‘no’ was ‘eee-ah,” Velásquez explains while enunciating the sound. “But then I started screaming eee-ah [in one shot], and then again in another take. I’m screaming EEE-AH on this really big set, and at this point I’m screaming so much I’m starting to lose my voice. So finally Stephen calls me to the side and he says, ‘Why are you screaming ‘eee-ah?’ And I say, ‘Stephen, you said you wanted this to be as authentic as possible. Eee-ah is ‘no.’ And he said, ‘Oh no! No, no, no, no. Just say no.’ And at this point I had no voice left.”

Patricia Velásquez on Mummy Returns Set
Patricia Velásquez on the set of The Mummy Returns. Photo: Courtesy of Patrica Velásquez

A Return for The Mummy Returns

The striking thing about Sommers’ The Mummy is, like the 1932 Boris Karloff film it remade, the movie is technically a love story. It’s a supernatural yarn about a man who loved a woman so much, he betrayed the gods and his station to steal her back from death. Despite its Egyptian pedigree, it’s a slightly spookier and Hollywoodized version of the Orpheus myth from ancient Greece. This sweeping romantic quality also gave Velásquez, and subsequently the movie audience, something to wrap their arms around.

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Says Velásquez, “In the original story [of the first movie], she falls madly in love with Arnold and she wants to be with him. That’s it. She found her soulmate.” One might even read Anck-Su-Namun as a sympathetic character forced to play mistress to a tyrant and who breaks free of his lechery with a vengeance. That quality changed, somewhat, in the sequel, with Sommers’ second screenplay revealing Anck-Su-Namun had been reincarnated in the 1930s as Meela, a young woman who apparently like her ancient past life desired world domination—and that in said past life she was a wicked stepmother to Nefertiri (Weisz also playing double duty).

Still, Velásquez welcomes the contrast The Mummy Returns presented with its dueling love stories between herself and Vosloo’s characters, and those of Fraser and Weisz’s.

“They say that competition is the key to survival,” Velásquez considers. “They say even in relationships there has to be some sort of competition, healthy competition, and that’s what keeps it going. I do absolutely think there is some rivalry. These people were fighting for love; it’s either you or us. We know what’s at stake: either you’re going to make it or we’re going to make it. In my mind, there was never any doubt that we were going to make it in the second Mummy.”

She even admits disappointment with how that movie ends: at the last moment when Imhotep is on the precipice of literal Hell, Anck-Su-Namun runs away and attempts to save herself. Says the actor, “I still wonder sometimes why she made the choice that she made at the end. Maybe because I thought there would be another Mummy to fix it that gave me permission to make that mistake?”

Even so, the actor was thrilled by the far bigger role Sommers offered her in the sequel—something she never expected. While in the first film she spent two golden weeks at Shepperton, on The Mummy Returns she found herself out in the Moroccan desert where her castmates filmed the first movie.

“We had so many incredible memories from [both films] because the crew was the same,” Velásquez says. “So it was a big reunion. In Erfoud, it was the first time they had shot a film there, and then it became a town. And Ouarzazate, they shot Gladiator there after. They have a big studio and that’s where they do all these types of movies, but we were the first, basically.”

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Still, getting to join her co-stars in the desert this time also meant getting to enjoy the quirks of filming on location… including the weather.

“I remember one time Brendan was with someone, and I think Rachel was also there with somebody, maybe from her team, but I was by myself. And when these sandstorms started, we would all have to run into our trailers and just sit there for a long time. And this one time, this sandstorm just would not go away. And it’s not like we had cellphones and could be texting. We’re just there, and I kept thinking, ‘Well I don’t think the trailer is going to fly away. Worst that can happen is it falls to the side?’ Because this thing is moving like crazy.”

The bigger role also meant an opportunity to work with more of those co-stars on and off screen. Velásquez even developed something of a friendship with Weisz when they returned to Shepperton in London and got to spend a lot of time hanging out and prepping for their big scene together where, back in ancient times, Anck-Su-Namun and Nefertiri get into an epic duel with Japanese sais (for some reason).

“It was never really supposed to be us fighting,” she says. “That’s why they designed those masks that we have when we fight. But Rachel and I got into it. We became very competitive because we became good friends. [We were] so competitive that we ended up doing the fights ourselves. The only thing I didn’t do was the backflip.”

An Undying Legacy

Velásquez has certainly kept busy over the years. With a career that includes substantial roles in projects as varied as The Curse of Llorona, Arrested Development, and The L World, not to mention the upcoming drama about homelessness, No Name, No Address, Velásquez has achieved her dream of becoming a consistent and working actor. She also runs a foundation, the Wayùu Taya Foundation, which is dedicated to sending humanitarian aid to Venezuela.

However, she accepts and is proud of the fact she’ll forever be remembered for The Mummy.

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“None of us expected for the movie to be that huge, she says before later adding, “This was a movie that changed my life and kind of set the course of my acting career. Up until today, it doesn’t matter how many projects you’ve done, you will always be Anck-Su-Namun.”

One fan encounter, in particular, has stuck with her. While attending a comic con, she met a young woman she describes as gorgeous and who cosplayed as Anck-Su-Namun. Yet this girl had a confession for the actress: she suffered from crippling anxiety and when growing up couldn’t even be in the same room as her family when they watched The Mummy. Instead she’d sit at a distance and repeat verbatim the ancient Egyptian lines of dialogue Velásquez’s own throat muscles remember so well.

“Then when she started going to therapy [her therapist] asked how she calmed herself down,” Velásquez recounts. “And she said, ‘I recite the lines of Anck-Su-Namun.’ And he said, ‘Okay, if that’s what calms you down, I want you to do that for life. Just do it.’ And she still does. Imagine when someone says something like that to you.”

For the actress, it is a reminder, once again, that you don’t know the reverberations of what you do in life.

“It makes me feel blessed,” the star ultimately surmises about the whole Mummy experience, “to be part of something that symbolizes family and hope and unity. It shows on the holidays. This movie is on all the time, and I am part of that. It’s like the universe allowed me to participate in something that will always be with us, and I was there.”