The actress — who nearly quit the business after a bad experience on a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie — reveals what it’s like to go where no woman (of color, no less) has gone before as she headlines two franchises and a potential third: “My balls are pretty big.”
By Benjamin Svetkey
This article first appeared in the August 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A lot of of movie stars have a franchise on their résumé. Some even have two. But there never has been an actor who has pulled off three humongous ongoing sci-fi action series all at the same time. Until — just maybe — now.
Zoe Saldana, the 36-year-old star of Avatar and Star Trek, whose films have reeled in more than $5 billion total box office, is poised for the ultimate Hollywood hat trick with the Aug. 1 opening of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s latest big-budget (reportedly $170 million) effort at transforming a bunch of C-list comic book characters into an Iron Man-sized phenom. Joining Saldana’s green-skinned assassin Gamora are Chris Pratt's stranded Earthling Peter Quill, a tattooed bruiser named Drax (Dave Bautista), a walking tree (voiced by Vin Diesel) and a raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) with a predilection for firearms. “If anybody can pull it off, it’s Zoe,” says J.J. Abrams, who auditioned more than 40 actresses to play Uhura in his 2009 reboot of the Trek series. “When she came in the room,” he remembers, “she had this incredible commitment and toughness — she swore a lot — and yet she was also really funny and sharp and beautiful. She told us she was right for the part, we didn’t tell her.”
Alas, Saldana won’t be at Comic-Con this year — she’ll be in Europe promoting Guardians — but THR caught up with her for a long chat before she headed overseas. Below, she reveals what she knows about James Cameron's next three Avatar films, her long love of science fiction and the reality of being an actress of color in today’s Hollywood.
You started your career in a giant franchise, with a smallish role in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. But you hated it, no?
Those weren’t the right people for me. I’m not talking about the cast. The cast was great. I’m talking about the political stuff that went on behind closed doors. It was a lot of above-the-line versus below-the-line, extras versus actors, producers versus PAs. It was very elitist. I almost quit the business. I was 23 years old, and I was like, “F— this!” I am never putting myself in this situation again. People disrespecting me because they look at my number on a call sheet and they think I’m not important. F— you.
And now you’re headlining in three simultaneous giant sci-fi franchises — Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Trek and Avatar. How did that end up happening?
You just gravitate naturally to what your heart yearns for. And I grew up in a very science fiction-driven household. It was odd for me to grow up and go out in the world and not see other women going crazy for science fiction …
Wait a second. You’re saying that as a kid you’d come home from school, make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and turn on the TV to watch Star Trek?
Well, not Star Trek. That was too old for me. But I watched Terminator, Aliens, The Hunger, supernatural thrillers, I’m one of the only people who loved Dune. The casting was superb. Not every actor can do a David Lynch movie.
You’ve proved your geek cred. So, what are Avatar2, 3, and 4 going to be about? Reveal every plot detail, please.
I wish I knew! I’ve been told by Jim [Cameron] that it’ll be about an overall spiritual journey, but I don’t have a script.
OK, then how about Star Trek3?
I know even less about Trek 3. All I know is that the producers of Trek 3 called the producers of Avatar 2 to find out when Avatar will finish shooting. [They both start shooting next year.]
The sci-fi genre has not always been such a welcoming place for women. In the original Trek, most of the women were in miniskirts or tin-foil bikinis. Even Uhura wasn’t much of a role …
She was eye candy. But that’s true of every genre. Eighty percent of what’s out there is told through the point of view of a male. I can sit down with so many filmmakers for so many projects and play so many actors’ girlfriends or wives. But in sci-fi, I can play Gamora.
For those of us who never read the comics, Gamora is an alien assassin with superhuman strength and agility.
She was taken from her planet when she was a child and forced into a life of violence and crime. She reminds me of the lost kids of Sudan, the boys who are taken from their family and have to come back to their villages and shoot everybody. Even though it’s a Marvel movie, I take it all very seriously. My husband [Italian artist and ex-soccer player Marco Perego] was a great help with the research for the part. He was talking to another artist who showed us her latest work. It was this matador doing a beautiful march of death with a cape and the sword. I saw it and thought: “That’s Gamora. That’s what a female assassin would do.” She’d seduce her victim. And then I got to England and sat down with the fight coordinators — these guys were pure testosterone; women were like aliens to them — and had to convince them that this was what she would do. They’d been designing the fight scenes for weeks before I got there, but I was like, “No.”
Is it true you almost broke co-star Chris Pratt’s ribs during a fight scene?
I almost kicked him in the nuts. He was like (in a high-pitched voice), “It’s fine, it’s fine.” (Laughs.) I love that about men. They’re determined to maintain their dignity. Even when they’re crushed.
There’s a rumor going around that you got married last year after only a month of knowing your husband.
No! I’ve known my partner for five years. I knew of his work. I knew of him. Then we met. And months later, we both made the decision to do what we both individually vowed never to do — to get married.
You vowed never to get married?
Why get married? Because I believe in love? Because I don’t want my kids to be called bastards? No. Those reasons are not natural to me. Maybe for tax reasons I would have done it.
What turned it around?
He did. And as soon as we decided we were going to get married, we didn’t wait. We did it three weeks later. That part was very, very quick.
There’s also a story about your mom once mistaking Thandie Newton for you …
Yeah, that’s true. She saw a poster for Crash and called me to ask me why I didn’t tell her I was in a movie with Matt Dillon.
Are you often mistaken for other actors?
I’ve gotten Kerry Washington and Jada Pinkett, too, but mainly Thandie. People ask me if I’m offended that I’m confused with every other black actress out there. “Doesn’t it bother you that people think you’re all the same person?” No. Because one time I entered a restaurant and there were all these beautiful blond girls around a table, probably all from Orange County. It felt like it might have been a high school reunion or something. There were like 20 beautiful girls, but they were all the same. I couldn’t tell any of them apart.
So is Hollywood getting better about race? Do you feel resistance?
I don’t want to spend my life thinking about all the impossibilities I face when I wake up in the morning. But the reality is, I’m a woman of color in America. That itself is enough for you to wake up and go, “Oh, f—!”
Well, you’ve done pretty well.
My balls are pretty big. There’s a confidence that my sisters and I were raised with. After my dad died [in a car accident, when she was 9], my mom moved us from Queens back to the Dominican Republic. A very macho sort of place. But my mom raised us to know that we are equal to anyone. Whenever we went out, if we were meeting other people, my mom would always say, “I hope you like them.” Not “I hope they like you.” We were the most important.
Your skin tone has changed from blue in Avatar to green in Guardians …
And this time it was actual makeup. Avatar was motion-capture, so everything was done in post. But Guardians was the way it’s normally done. You get picked up at 3:30 in the morning and spend 4½ hours getting things glued and spray-painted on to your face.
Which did you like better?
Avatar. Working in the volume, doing performance-capture. Because you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to look like. That gets added later. You just play the character.
Are you worried about getting typecast in sci-fi? Are you longing to do a serious drama set in a one-room cottage in the woods?
A lot of the people who have power — the ones doing the casting or writing reviews — these are people who put people in boxes. They look at what I’ve done and think, “Oh she’s a sci-fi beauty queen.” I wish that wasn’t the case. I didn’t purposely avoid doing things other than sci-fi. In between Avatar, Star Trek and Guardians, I’ve done other films, right here on Earth.
Like the Nina Simone biopic coming out later this year. You’ve been blue and you’ve been green, but ironically the movie that generated the most controversy is the one in which you’re brown. There was criticism that you were too light-skinned to play Simone.
You have to try to understand where people are coming from. This has always been an issue in our society. A white person can play Cleopatra, even though Cleopatra was a North African woman who in reality had coffee skin. But that’s not sellable in Hollywood. So you get Elizabeth Taylor with purple eyes. So there’s always been a lot of tension in the African-American community about Hollywood being a whitewashing machine. But that wasn’t the case with Nina. There were so many other variables that people don’t know about. I wasn’t the first person to step up to the plate. They went out to everybody for the part. There were other people attached for years [like Mary J. Blige]. And they just decided not to do it. And at the end of the day, we had to tell this story. It’s our duty to go out and tell stories about women and about people of color because we don’t do that enough.
Race doesn’t seem to matter as much in sci-fi.
You know why? Because the people we discriminate against in sci-fi movies are the aliens. We make them the villains. We have to make somebody bad.
Photo by: David Needleman/Illustration by: R Kikuo Johnson