Zoe Saldaña Says Gender Equality Battle in Hollywood Is ‘On Us’: ‘When Women Are in There, Make More Room for Other Women’

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Zoe Saldaña says the future of female representation in the film industry is dependent on women continuing to shatter the glass ceiling. And those who do cannot get complacent.

“We need more female CEOs. We need more women sitting on boards. Because those are the gatekeepers,” she said. “We need the keys that unlock those doors. And once those women are there, don’t just be happy and feel so lucky that you’re the only woman sitting at the table. Get three men to get up.”

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Speaking as part of Kering’s Women in Motion program at the Cannes Film Festival, the “Avatar” star covered a broad swath of subjects, from her breakout moment working with James Cameron to her latest starring role in Jacques Audiard’s operatic crime drama “Emilia Pérez” — which debuted to some of the loudest buzz at the festival.

“I’m like a little girl from Queens, New York. To be able to be in a James Cameron movie, and for that to catapult me into a full-blown career,” she said, “It just happened and I took every opportunity. I opened every door that felt unlocked to me, walked in. But then here I am, like 10 years later, reaping the benefits over and over again of films that were so successful that became franchises, and it’s time consuming. So it’s not that I don’t appreciate it. It’s just that I still want to grow as an artist.”

In the conversation, moderated by Variety senior entertainment writer Angelique Jackson, Saldaña noted that she battles anxiety and tendencies to self-sabotage when it comes to her career. “I’m never satisfied. I’m really really hard on myself,” she added. “Sometimes I can get in my own way. And then I have people that you trust and you make a path and you sort of go, ‘You’re gonna tell me the truth. I’m a big girl. I’m wearing my big girl pants. So you can just like give it to me because I will take it.”

One such instance happened when she was offered a role in Taylor Sheridan’s series “Special Ops: Lioness” for Paramount+.

“[Manager] Rick [Yorn] is like, ‘You’re doing it?’ And I’m like, ‘No.’ Like, ‘You’re doing it!'” she said. “You have to follow good material wherever good material is. But it’s my fear because I know that [Sheridan] has big monologues with his characters. I’m dyslexic. Spanish is my first language. Taylor shared his material. I saw ‘Sicario’ and ‘Hell or High Water.’ Like, I love his work. So, I couldn’t pass.”

Saldaña is on the ground in Cannes with the Spanish-language musical “Emilia Pérez,” which drew rave reviews and a thunderous nine-minute standing ovation after it made its world premiere on Saturday. Saldaña stars opposite Selena Gomez and Karla Sofía Gascón in the Audiard-directed film about a drug cartel leader who seeks gender-affirming surgery.

“To be here and you guys receiving it and people being deeply moved, I’m speechless,” she said of basking in the crowd’s reaction at the premiere. “I just don’t know what to say because I just I love art so much, and when cinema is that fucking special and that fresh, it just moves you. And I’m not being a narcissist. I just started to trust me, like when I’m not making art, I’m consuming it. I curate it in my life. That’s what we do. And [‘Emilia Pérez’ director] Jacques [Audiard] is an artist that I consume a great deal.”

And though Saldaña has enjoyed working in the biggest of franchises — from Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” to “Star Trek” — to indie fare like “Emilia Pérez,” which is seeking a U.S. distributor, there’s no question that “Avatar” was the role that changed the course of her career.

“I went from being in small productions to being this princess from this foreign planet that reached the whole world, and I would travel across the world that was being photographed by people. I was able to get meetings with producers and directors that I had never known, that I never thought I could ever meet. I was being offered roles I always thought I needed to fight for.”

Ultimately, she said men also have to be part of the fight for gender equality in the industry.

“When women are in there, make more room for other women. That’s important. It’s on us to do it,” she said. “And for the men, the ones that are doing it right and making room for women, thank you. You’re so sexy!”

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