For the uncompromising Zoe Saldana, Hollywood is a battlefield.
This feature originally appeared in Complex's December 2009/January 2010 issue.
Don't let the demure smile or the slight ballerina's frame fool you: Zoe Saldana will dominate you in a New York minute if you mistake her femininity for weakness. The 31-year-old actor—who was born to a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican mother and grew up in Queens and the Dominican Republic—is tough as nails, which explains why she collaborates with some of the most powerful men in Hollywood (James Cameron, J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg) and keeps nailing roles as women who pull no punches (though they do pull some cornballs, judging from her turn opposite Ashton Kutcher in 2005's Guess Who). Last summer, you may have seen Zoe going where no man has gone before as Uhura in a little movie Abrams made called Star Trek. Now, thanks to a marriage between James Cameron and motion-capture technology, she's playing a nine-foot blue alien princess who defends her planet from mankind's ecologically devastating intrusion in the much-anticipated (and hyped) Avatar. And it's no mystery that Complex loves a strong woman (word to Gina Carano), so we caught up with Saldana to discuss geeky sci-fi, body image, and busting off...guns.
With Star Trek and now Avatar, you're like the Intergalactic Queen of Comic-Con. How has your adjustment to that world been?
It's been great. I was raised by a woman who was a huge sci-fi geek, and I think I'm one too. I wouldn't even say "geek"—you tend to chase great stories and fall in love with strong characters, especially of your same sex, and when I was growing up, and when my mom was growing up, those characters lay in science fiction.
The hardest thing about playing a Na'vi was I had to dehumanize myself. We learned how to walk. I couldn't nod my head or shake my head. Sometimes I just couldn't not do something human.
Which characters spoke to you?
Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor. Uhura, of course. That was inherited from my mom, because Uhura was like the Ripley of my mom's generation. Other female actors have inspired me, too; I think Milla Jovovich, who does a lot of sci-fi movies, is great. Angelina Jolie doesn't do a lot of films in the genre but she's just tough, so I like that.
Avatar has one of the biggest movie budgets ever. On a project like that, do you feel added pressure as an actor?
It's a producer's job to protect the director and the director's job to protect the actors. The more the director shelters the actors from the politics of making films, the better the film is going to be. I've been lucky to work with directors who are beasts when it comes to protecting their sanctuary. We shot off and on over a period of two years and at times I was worried about Jim, whether or not he was sleeping. He's a perfectionist. So there were concerns about whether or not he was spreading himself too thin, but he's a soldier, man! [Laughs.]
What was it like using motion-capture technology for the entirety of your performance?
Yeah, Neytiri is blue, she's nine feet tall, and she has [bigger] tits than I do, but it's me—my face, my facial muscles, my expressions. It's everything that I did, and Jim captured that. I'm just going to have to do more movies where people see my face and won't go, "Oh look, that's Thandie Newton!"
So is mo-cap a good thing, or is it a slippery slope to robo-acting?
I think it depends on which director is handling it because you can very easily, you know, put this face on that body. The directors that have been working with this technology—Peter Jackson, Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, and Jim—are to be trusted. They're storytellers, they're not just blow-shit-up kind of directors.