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.
We'll make it our mission to keep mo-cap out of Michael Bay's hands. How did you develop the distinct Na'vi body movements?
Working with this amazing choreographer, Terry Notary, who used to work with Cirque du Soleil—he did the stunts in the Fantastic Four sequel and The Incredible Hulk. We had to dehumanize ourselves, all the ones that were playing the Na'vi. That took a lot of time and was the hardest thing, to dehumanize myself. We learned how to walk—these characters have tails and they're nine feet tall, so their torsos are longer. I couldn't nod my head or shake my head. Sometimes we did endless takes because I just couldn't not do something human.
I'm not going to shave my legs just because you don't feel like touching hairy legs. For that, you better shave your...
Cameron seems like he really went in when he created this other world, almost like Tolkien did with his Middle Earth.
Jim conceived of everything: a language with a linguist from USC, and every plant and animal. There are historians that are going to be working on it. It's going to be one of those Star Wars/Star Trek kind of films— people are going to be speaking Na'vi.
Speaking of Star Trek, what makes a Vulcan a good boyfriend?
The brains. The brains.
You probably didn't mean that the way we're taking it, but we like it. Both Star Trek and Avatar have crazy merchandising: toys, video games, etc. Do you keep any of that for yourself?
I do from Star Trek. I don't know how long it's going to last, though, because every time kids come in my house, they want them.
Did toy companies take a lot of...liberties with your action figure?
I think they did. My doll's legs are really skinny, much more then mine.
Yes, that's exactly what we were hinting at. Do you ever wonder if people are playing with your action figure inappropriately?
[Laughs.] I think it's hot. [Laughs.] I'm OK with it, actually. Maybe I would be doing it with someone else's figurine if I were a fan.
With its eco-friendly message, Avatar reminds us of An Inconvenient Truth, only it doesn't make us want to scratch our eyes out from boredom.
Jim has a very similar point of view to a lot of characters in the movie and I think that he wanted to be honest about that, but it's not intrusive or preachy at all. You'll come to your own conclusions about the environment—about us ravaging resources with no regard.
Speaking of ravaging resources, I read a quote from Women's Health where you said you "want to keep your ass together as long as possible without going against nature." So you're opposed to plastic surgery?
Not at all! I mean, whatever you need to do!
For you personally, though?
Today I don't feel like I need it...unless you think I do.
I can't imagine anything further from the truth.
I'm just not going to do it for all the wrong reasons. I do feel that our business should be a little more flexible with women. The moment a woman has a baby it's like, "Oh, she's not sexy!" What, having a baby means you can't imagine sleeping with her? We have the same critical opinion about men, but we're sympathetic and discreet and we won't share it all the time. I mean, do you really think we like a man with a gut? A bald man? Are you kidding me?! But we accept you as who you are because that's the way that society has made us to be. I'm sorry, but I'm not going to shave my legs just because you don't feel like touching hairy legs. For that, you better shave your...
[Laughs.] Have you ever felt pressure to get implants in Hollywood?
Have I ever not, are you kidding me? I'm human, and I'm a girl. Even before you're in Hollywood, at 14 years old you want to have more because your sister has a better rack than you and you see how beautiful she is. But me getting it done because men are dictating the quality of my beauty? I can't do it. If I were to do it, I'd get it for me. But it's too late, everybody knows I'm flat-chested. [Laughs.]
I like power. I'm a very dominant kind of person and it turns me on.
You're playing a black ops soldier in the adaptation of the graphic novel The Losers, out in April. Do you enjoy roles that require you to run around and shoot a gun?
Like you wouldn't believe. It turns me on in a way that I shouldn't be saying. It's not the guns that turn me on, though—it's seeing women in a commanding position. It's boring to always play the victim. [In sobbing victim's voice] "Rape me! I'll have your child!" Eff that! Why don't you have my baby and wait at home while I go kill some motherfuckers? [Laughs.] It's just very empowering. I just want to play roles that, in some way or another, resemble the kind of person that I am, the kind of things that I'm attracted to.
So what sort of roles won't you play?
I have a hard time accepting roles that typecast a culture. I don't need to play Juana, the prostitute from Washington Heights, in every movie. If it's been done before, you don't need my help. Latinos, we're not all pimps or prostitutes, we don't all deal drugs; not everyone in Jamaica smokes weed; not every Middle Easterner is a terrorist. It's boring, offensive, and hurtful. I'm not bitter about it, I'm just saying that I would like to retain accuracy of certain cultures. Some people will do these roles, but I'm fine with being poor.
You've said you like to gossip with your mom and sisters. Do you gossip about Hollywood?
No, not Hollywood, because my mom is such a mom that whenever she hears a devastating story about a celebrity that's going downhill, she cries. She always says, "That's someone's child." She keeps me grounded. She's so non-judgmental; as long as you have a job, she don't give a shit what, who, or how you are.
We're professionally judgmental, but we can appreciate that. Many people do view celebrities like they're not human. As you've become more and more famous, what have you learned in dealing with that?
What I've learned is how to say no with love and respect. I don't have to sign every autograph, I don't have to take every picture, and I don't have to be nice to people that are rude, especially when I'm with my family. I chose this path for me, I can't impose it on them. I don't like when people know my sisters' names—if anything were to happen, I wouldn't be able to live with myself for exposing them.
So you had a problem just saying no?
It wasn't because I wanted people to like me; I was just forgetting about myself. Sometimes you don't have enough energy to give out. By people touching you and taking things from you, you're empty. I need that energy on certain days more than others and I don't want to share it. You'd be surprised, the moment you say no politely, people immediately understand.
Do you have any desire to be less exposed, to get more involved behind the camera as a director or producer?
God, yes. I like power; it turns me on. I don't like being told what to do by too many collars and ties. I'm too feisty that way. It's just, "We want her sexier, we want her tone to be softer." It's like, do you even know what it's like to be a woman? You guys are barely getting by writing roles for women.
It seems like you struggle with power a lot, always wanting to be dominant.
I don't like looking weak, and I know that's a flaw that I have and it's due to my own life experiences or whatever.
I did make one request, which was that I really wanted my character to kick some ass.
Was there a particular point at which you became aware of the interplay of strength and weakness as a woman?
I don't really know if this desire for strength came from my older sister or my younger one, but all three of us are pretty much like that. We're not angry women, we're just not complacent.
You were in your bra for a very brief moment in Star Trek, but that shot of you was in all the trailers. Did that surprise or bother you?
No, because I understand that trailers are formulas. They have to show: "This is why we want you to come and see Star Trek! Boom! A space dive! Girls with nice bodies taking off their clothes in space! Hot boys! Kissing!" I'm OK with that. [Laughs.]
For the record, we didn't go to see hot boys kissing. You're OK with being a selling point?
I look at trailers and want to see the sexy girls kissing; I'm like, "She's hot, I'm going to see this movie!" That's what I'm all about! [Laughs.] There's going to come a point in my life where I'm gonna wish people said that about me, so why am I gonna waste my life right now?
You haven't done real nudity—we did a very extensive search. Would you ever do CGI nudity like Angelina Jolie did in Beowulf?
Of course I would! You can even choose which kind of rack you want to have and everything. I mean, what? I love that idea!
Our fingers are crossed! OK, we know you signed a non-disclosure agreement, but can you tell us any secrets about Star Trek 2?
[Laughs.] I did make one request to J.J., which was that I really wanted my character to kick some ass, so he said he's going to think about that. Just so you know, you guys aren't the only ones in the dark when it comes to J.J. He'll hold a surprise up until the last minute, even with the people that he's working with.
What would've happened had you actually revealed something?
If they didn't make us sign, and we were to leak something, we would get a slap on the hand. But they make you sign because they're going to rip you.
Rip you with lawyers or with goons?
I don't know—and trust me, I don't want to find out! [Laughs.]
WATCH ZOE'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO:
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Anoma Ya Whittaker. (HAIR) Andre Rodman for Frederick Fekkai Soho. (MAKEUP) Genevieve for Sally Harlor. (PROP STYLIST) Garlock-Deguices for Judy Casey Inc. COVER IMAGE: Earrings by Zoe Chicco / dress by Catherine Malandrino / belt by Dolce & Gabbana / armor by Manuel Albarran / ring by Dama Jewelry. FIRST, SECOND, EIGHT, AND NINTH IMAGES: Armor by Manuel Albarran. THIRD IMAGE: Bodysuit by Dolce & Gabbana / belt by Acne / briefs by Mara Hoffman / tights by Wolford / boots by Balenciaga / necklace (wors as bracelet) by Flutter by Jill Golden. FOURTH IMAGE: Vest by Max Azria / briefs by Eres / tights by Falke / boots by Topshop / bracelet by Ben-Amun. FIFTH IMAGE: Ring by Gara Danielle / ring by Paige Novick / armor by Manuel Albarran / bodysuit by Jen Kao / shoes by Brian Atwood.