Zoe Saldana’s space odyssey

Her most famous starring roles may be Sci-Fi creations that are, literally, out of this world, but Zoe Saldana thinks Hollywood’s characterization of women needs to be brought back down to earth.
Having grown up in a strong Latina family, with a single mother who taught her to be tough-minded and independent, Zoe Saldana has always been determined to succeed at every level. First as an accomplished dancer in New York, then as a leading actress in Hollywood. With her breakthrough performance in James Cameron’s Avatar, still the highest grossing film of all time, it seemed that Saldana had set the bar impossibly high for herself. But her recurring roles as Lieutenant Uhura in the Star Trek films and as Gamora in the billion-dollar Guardians of the Galaxy franchise have sent her on an extended mission when it comes to exploring the sci-fi universe. At 39, Saldana has been given a wide stage where her formidable personality can flourish, in films that project women into a more dynamic future.

“I love the fact that in science fiction movies the women get to be much stronger and tougher instead of being dependent on men,” Saldana says. “As a woman I feel it is important to play active and involved women. These kinds of characters help educate younger generations of women to be leaders and aspire to great things.”

Zoe Saldana returns to the driving seat in her role as Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Saldana returns to the driving seat in her role as Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Proud and purposeful, she believes women should not only strive to fill the power vacuum in Hollywood but also demonstrate that female characters can be formidable in every aspect of life. That’s why playing dynamic women in three separate sci-fi franchises—Avatar (she’s going to be returning as the blue-skinned Neytiri in three sequels), Star Trek, and Guardians of the Galaxy—has appealed to her feminist nature. “I’m more proud of the kinds of women I’m playing in these films,” Saldana explains. “It’s personally gratifying to get these roles after I spent many years fighting to get work and not being able to win roles, simply because I didn’t fit the traditional image of women.”

“I wasn’t interested in playing submissive women or being categorized in Hollywood to play a certain type. I wanted to play characters that not only I could be proud of but which would offer good role models for young women. If we only play female characters whose point in the story is just to fall in love with a man, that’s very limiting to women. We need to provide better images and better stories.”

Saldana has been married to Italian artist Marco Perego for the past four years and is mother to three-year-old twin boys Cy and Bowie, and a third son, Zen, who turns one this year. She’s not only comforted by the emotional support that Perego — who decided to take her last name after they wed — has given her, but also his desire to empower her as a woman.

“He’s always pushing me to take risks,” explains Saldana. “He tells me that I should never worry about the box-office potential of a film but to just do work that interests me. There are lots of sacrifices involved [with being an actress] and I’m very grateful that my husband enjoys being a very active father. He’s also a staunch feminist and that’s pretty rare in a man. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that I found my other half. Marco always leaves me stunned.”

Saldana first grew up in the New York borough of Queens, the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a father of Dominican ancestry. At the age of 10, however, tragedy struck when her beloved dad Aridio Saldaña was killed in a car crash, following which her mother Asalia took Zoe, her two sisters and half-brother to live in the Dominican Republic. It took some time before the family, especially Zoe’s mother, could recover. “When we lost my father, it was hard; it was very, very tragic. He was amazing, he was a really good guy… It was harder for my mom; it took her a couple of years to sort of get out of that spell. You would see it in her face that she just felt defeated. It was hard for my mother to raise us on her own, but she made a good decision to move us to the Dominican Republic and she somehow managed to give us a good childhood. She has given up so much for us, I feel I still owe her something.”

Watching her mother struggle to make her children’s lives as happy and harmonious as possible under trying circumstances also left an indelible impression on Zoe. “She prepared us very well to enter the world as independent women… and I think unconsciously she knew that life would be twice as hard for us as women. She was pretty strict with us because she knew she also had to replace our father… Our mother also taught us to stand up for ourselves and never get pushed around by anyone.”

Zoe Saldana as Neytiri in Avatar

Saldana as Neytiri in Avatar

Naturally athletic, Zoe trained in ballet and modern dance as a teenager in the Dominican Republic, up to the age of 17, when her mother decided to move back to their old Queens neighborhood in New York. By that time, Saldana had developed into a gifted dancer and soon began performing with several dance and theater companies. But in the back of her mind, Zoe was nursing an ambition to make her mark in movies.

A lifelong film addict who recalls devouring Luc Besson’s Nikita and Léon: The Professional as a child, Zoe saw acting as her true calling. After getting cast as a rebellious ballet dancer in the film Center Stage, she moved to L.A. and began knocking on the doors of casting directors and trying to attract the attention of the major studios. Apart from learning to survive in a city known for being a particularly cruel and alienating place for aspiring movie stars, Saldana had to deal with an initial case of culture shock that was part of her Hollywood journey.

“It’s night and day,” Saldana muses. “What I love about New York and New Yorkers is the abrasiveness and flat-out honesty of the people. New Yorkers are in-your-face. You know right away what someone is thinking. In Los Angeles, conversation is much more polite or totally centered around the film business. But New York is another world. I love the way people dress there. They are dressing to express themselves, whereas people in L.A. are dressing to impress other people. As a New Yorker, I consider myself part of a community that is very diverse but we’re all united in some way by being New Yorkers.”

Saldana worked regularly in her 20s, landing supporting roles in a variety of low-budget films as well as bigger studio fare including Pirates of the Caribbean, The Terminal, and Vantage Point. Avatar changed her world overnight, of course, and quickly led to other projects, most notably the action film Colombiana. Both films exploited her athletic ability and graceful way of moving that are hallmarks of her extensive dance training.

“I know that by having a classical ballet background, it gave me the ability to be more in sync with my body. That’s what gave me the ability to try to look as graceful as possible when I was shooting Avatar, and it helped me a lot doing Colombiana, too. I know that without that early training in movement I wouldn’t have been able to bring as much as I was able to bring to my characters in those movies.”

“A lot of what actors bring to the screen is related to the way they move and whether they can be graceful, or have a certain style to the way they walk or run, or are able to execute a fight scene. There’s a whole level of choreography at work, just as there is in ballet.”

Zoe Saldana as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek Into Darkness

Saldana as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek Into Darkness

She would subsequently bring the same skill set to bear in both Guardians of the Galaxy films. The sequel, released last spring, has earned nearly $900 million at the international box office and saw Saldana reprise her role as Gamora, the deadly, green-skinned being who once again teams up with fellow oddball space mercenaries Chris Pratt and Bradley Cooper (as the voice of Rocket). “I loved being back with everybody and feeling like I was part of that family again,” Saldana says. “It’s also a chance to explore your character more. The only part I didn’t look forward to was the five hours of green make-up every morning. But every day I was on set, I was so happy and lucky to be there.”

The success of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has not only given her lifelong financial security but has also allowed her to cross over into Avengers: Infinity War, where Gamora joins Marvel Studio’s other, even more successful franchise. But for the time being, Saldana is re-upping for duty in Avatar 2, which is finally set to begin filming this year and well into 2018. Director James Cameron has maintained tight secrecy around the project and all he has been willing to say is that the long-awaited sequel will center around the lives of Jake (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Saldana) and their children. After seeing the start date for the film pushed back several times over the last few years, Zoe is more anxious than ever to return to the role that made her an instant movie star.

“I’m really excited about it… We’ve been waiting for 10 years and I’m happy that we’re finally [about to begin shooting] because I don’t want to get too old and I won’t be able to do my stunts any longer,” laughs Saldana.


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