If you’re a journalist, the woman with the ironwood eyes will blow in from the street and sit, and she’ll talk to you about all the movies she’s in, especially the new one, and she’ll be enchanting and brilliant like a movie star should be. Yet, in another scenario, if you’re Joe on the street, and she walks by you, you still might not put it together. You might double take and wonder where you’d seen her before. Here’s a hint: she’s the star of the highest grossing movie of all-time. Still don’t have it? On the internet, you can find Halloween costumes in effigy of her roles. C’mon, Joe. “Remember, Avatar wasn’t even something that people knew about,” she’ll say, and you’ll finally click.
It’s a temperate Friday, so drinks are quaffed in the courtyard; it feels breezy like a Friday spent ditching school. “You know what,” she’ll say to the waiter, “I’ll have a champagne.” A true blue movie star is usually booked end-to-end, months at a time, so she’s made the rendezvous point Palihouse, a haven of a brasserie in West Hollywood, snug between her engagements. Readings, fittings, storyboards? She rolls the stem of the champagne glass between her slender fingers and stares hard like an actress searching for her next cue, and shrugs. “Dentist appointment,” she says. Good news? “Yes, no cavities.” She sighs relief and smiles. I swear to god it hurts my eyes.
Of course, if, in yet another scenario, you’re a Trekkie, you definitely know who this alert young woman across the table, Zoë Saldana, is. She played Nyota Uhura, in 2009’s Star Trek reboot. And as any good nerd would, you know that Nichelle Nichols’ original series Uhura was one of the first black non-“Mammy” characters on television and that in 1968, Nichols shared the first interracial kiss on TV. Those must have been some big shoes to fill. “J.J. Abrams gave us this freedom,” she says, “because it was a parallel universe. The only thing for us to rip from the pressure of having to follow in those footsteps is by making the prequel, of what they were before they got on The Enterprise. They were young people, they were kids—they didn’t even know who the fuck they were.”
But, if you’re a journalist, or if you’re Joe, maybe you didn’t see Star Trek. Maybe you still don’t know who the fuck she is. Or maybe—especially if you were a fin de siècle 14-year-old girl—you saw Saldana in the dance movie Center Stage, her first real part, the one that her ballet training as a child in the Dominican Republic earned her. Or perhaps you caught a glimpse of her in the succession of roles that came after that: Britney Spears’ bitchy friend in Crossroads (2002), one of Jack Sparrow’s former lovers in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), Tom Hanks’ customs agent friend in The Terminal (2004), Ashton Kutcher’s girlfriend in the racial comedy Guess Who (2005), and a slew of Black audience films. But you still might not have learnt who she was. Then came Star Trek...
…which means nothing if you actually are Joe. Neither Joe, nor journalist, nor most of you really knew who Zoë Saldana was until her role as the Na’vi warrior Neytiri in Avatar, a film in which you don’t even really see Saldana, the woman, but you see her motion-captured alien embodiment, her digitally rendered blue skin. That film, released in December of 2009, grossed nearly three billion dollars, when all is said and done. A lot of people went to see Avatar.
“I never thought about tomorrow,” Saldana says about looking into the abyss of going from small potatoes to jumbo production. “I never thought about what this movie was going to be, or what I wanted it to be. I was so enthralled in today, and becoming this character and dehumanizing myself and animal behavior and studying even children. I was studying wolves, and the feline kingdom. Jim [Cameron] told me, ‘The [Na’vi] are innocent. They don’t know what the word “lie” means. They don’t know how to lie.’ Part of growing up is losing innocence.” Watching Saldana talk about her work, spitting words at a cutthroat rate, pausing only to sip at bubbly, you feel her intensity. She has that actorly locked in look, and you can see her inability to disengage from her roles. Saldana is the type that, while prepping for Avatar, would inhabit Neytiri during dinner at home, hissing at unwanted passed peas.
“Part of acting is acquiring,” Saldana continues, hardly taking a breath, “and going back to your innocent mind and imagining. I remember I couldn’t crack this thing: we tell 50 lies in a day. Someone asks you, ‘Do you like your pasta?’ And you’re like, ‘Yeah!’ Meanwhile, you hated half of it. We lie every single day of our lives, children don’t. I remember one time I cooked [my niece] dinner. I took her hostage too for a long time; she was my little guinea pig. She didn’t want the beans in the rice. And I’d say, ‘Baby, why don’t you like beans?’ And she’d say, ‘Well,’ in her little voice, ‘they taste like potatoes on the outside. If I want potatoes, then I would just ask you to get me potatoes. I don’t understand, they’re beans. They don’t taste like beans, they taste like potatoes.’ And she’d just kept eating her rice, and I’d be like, ‘Yes!’”
Whether she’s preparing for the role of a childlike alien or deadly killer, both Saldana and Olivier Megaton, the director of Saldana’s latest film, Colombiana, use the word “robot” to describe Saldana’s training technique. Over the phone from France, the affable Megaton would praise: “The thing about actors is, they want to be cool with everything, but when you change a scene, they don’t like it. Zoë is exactly the contrary. She asked each time, ‘Do you like this? Why do you want to do it like this?’ We had a huge work on the drama, and after we had huge work on the action. Every little thing, every day, was only for the movie.” Dedication and passion borderline on obsession—something that makes more sense as our drinks vanish and are replenshed with more.
While the champagne chips at the ice, Saldana bats sound bites across the table about her love of wine. She adores the spiciness of Malbec, and jokes that if she were to drink a white wine it would knock her on her ass. “We’ll be falling down the stairs at the Soho House in no time,” she says with a laugh. She grew up drinking Argentinean tempranillo, sneaked to her by her adoring grandfather at a very young age. “That’s what New York is though,” she notes about her childhood in Queens, in her Dominican and Puerto Rican family. She grew up in the D.R., having spent her early years in Queens, and moved back at 17, just in time to pursue a career in performing. “I did not want to go to college immediately,” Saldana explains. “I didn’t want to waste money or lock myself into something that I wasn’t completely sure. I did a Virgin commercial, then six months later I did Law & Order, then six months later, I booked Center Stage. I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ [Then] I got to work with Steven Spielberg. Fucking Spielberg!”
As the conversation crosses the empty plates—just drinks on empty stomachs—down below, her legs cross in tights with sheer flowery lace up the sides. What is the interviewer doing looking at the movie stars legs? Tut tut, clever reader, this betrothed interviewer is simply drawn to her movie star legs as a mesmerized deer to a pair of powerful headlamps. They are action legs. Dancer legs. Na’vi warrior legs. The type of legs that James Bond characters were named after. The type of legs that get cast in a role that requires a handgun with a silencer on it.
Pshew goes the silencer. It’s the sound of the assassin—the gun-toting lady with enough femininity to kill with grace. In Colombiana, Saldana plays Cataleya, a hitwoman bent on avenging her parents’ brutal murder—the Batman tale told in an international setting. Cataleya is the archetype of the assassin, because women are lithe, clever, jilted, quiet, cold. One look from Zoë Saldana—she’s just said something way off the record—tells me not to cross a cold-blooded killer. It’s Beatrice Kiddo, Black Widow, Hanna, Hit Girl. The femme fatale through recent cinematic history will try to kill you quietly, but can create a big scene if pushed. “When you’re a woman, and you want to be a killer, you have to be clever.” “We don’t have a lot of female heroes,” says Megaton. “Salt was last year, and there hasn’t been much since. We wanted to be close to the Bourne Trilogy.”
At some point in the film, Saldana goes a little sadistic, starts getting sloppy, the CIA closes in, and then… Well, let’s just say that the film is co-written by Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional, La Femme Nikita) and Robert Mark Kamen, and directed by Megaton (Transporter 3), so it’s got a lot of that French shoot-‘em-up violence, and it ends with a bang. Colombiana one of those explosive international thrillers that won’t clean up at the box office, but will gain a cult following. “The origin of the movie came from The Professional. Five years ago, [Besson] said, ‘I want you to direct The Professional sequal.’ It was really hard to be on the project, because the history of The Professional, and Natalie Portman became huge, and it was not easy to ask her to do an action movie. So, everything came from there,” says Megaton.
At this point, a lot of people do know who Zoë Saldana is. Megaton says that Besson wrote the part for her. Her career is actually playing catch up to her with this role. She was Neytiri and Uhura first, and now she’s doing the in-between role. That’s not to say it’s not successful as a film—it is a fun summer action film—but that’s not the point. The point is, for someone who starred in the highest grossing film of all time, it’s interesting to see her starring in an under-the-radar international film that will be hard to predict in its audience scope. This is all to say, and bear with me: Zoë Saldana is not the scripted version of an A-list actress.
“Hollywood rethinks use of A-list actors,” decries one Reuters headline from 2009 after a particularly sludgy Jim Carrey weekend at the movies. It used to be that Tom Cruise or Halle Berry would be cast in Mission Impossible or Catwoman based on their draw. Bruce Willis could get away with being Bruce Willis in Die Hard. They were seasoned stars, maybe not action stars per se, but they’d been in films for which they were already known. Take a look at 2011’s crop of blockbuster stars: Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Jason Momoa. It’s like a who’s who of “who?” It’s seems that Joe has been conditioned by the studios to not care about the movie star, that Joe only cares if it’s Thor or Captain America or Conan. Joe cares primarily about heroes, and it doesn’t matter who plays them anymore—how else could the doofy Ryan Reynolds get cast as The Green Lantern if the studios didn’t believe that? The risk of Colombiana is, will anyone care about a completely new character, named after a lotus flower?
In some ways, that risky anonymity is a boon to Saldana’s craft. There’s no pre-ordained opinions of her character because of anything the gossip pages have said about her. Ordinary Joe knows who she is, but he still doesn’t know her every move in the way that he knows, say, Angelina Jolie. “I get confused with Thandie Newton and Jada Pinkett all the time,” imparts Saldana, “and I really hope that never changes. I don’t want people to be distracted by my personal life, and not really observe and allow my work to touch them properly.”
Meanwhile, Saldana has worked with Spielberg, Abrams, and Cameron.
People dressed up as Neytiri, because they didn’t want to deal with their boring old lives anymore, but wanted to live in the massive Cameron-envisioned Avatar world of Pandora with the dragons and shit. Enter “Na’vi make up” into YouTube, and you get 2,680 returns of people painting their faces blue. There was a time when the biggest story in the nerd kingdom was the announcement that there was a deleted scene in the Avatar script of Neytiri and Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington), with an explicit alien sex scene—CBS News, Gawker, and Movieline all picked up the story. “It feels like good karma,” allows Saldana, “because when I was growing up I was wearing other people’s costumes of their characters, and to know that now people are going to be wearing my costume of characters that I have done before—it just makes me feel pretty cool for a geek. There is a part of me that understands, and rejoices, and there is another part of me that is numb to that because I still have a hard time understanding what the fuck is going on.”
The woman—who just professed herself a geek—sitting across the table is metered and thoughtful, even with her insane schedule. She is calm—no tics, no shaking legs. She is toned and her skin is perfect, even on a day when it doesn’t really matter. She is off to fittings and readings later, and she had a storyboard meeting prior to the dentist appointment. You wonder how she fits the time in to make videos about “fracking”—hydraulic fracturing, a process of extracting natural gas that has been known to contaminate drinking water—with Mark Ruffalo, as well as FINCA International, a microfinancing company that focuses on lending money to women in poor countries, with Natalie Portman. As well, she spoke at the Avon “Believe World Tour,” a symposium on women’s empowerment. “I feel like it’s the least that I can do,” says Saldana. “I work in a business where our sole purpose is to entertain. You’re elevated into a position that you become fantasized about. It still blows my mind the whole concept of celebrity, you know? How people just go bananas when they see an actor, just walking down the street or whatever. So, the only way that I—me personally—can keep my feet on the ground in terms of what I do is by putting myself, my voice, to good use and backing up causes that need to be shed a little more light on.”
If you’re Joe, and you’re average, you’re probably pretty pissed right now. The article didn’t start with, “Zoë Saldana was born in Passaic, New Jersey,” or her career arc, or all that stuff you could come away with from an interview. But that stuff just wouldn’t suffice in explaning Zoe Saldana’s impact and representation in the film industry, and it wouldn’t be adequate to describe her personality either. She is the new version of an A-list star, or a backwards one, or she’s just a funny, bright, beautiful young actress, or she may be someone you don’t even recognize—it all depends on the scenario. If you’re a journalist, you might see the woman with the ironwood eyes stand and go to her next appointment, assistant in tow, and then she’s off to Canada to shoot a film with Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons and Dennis Quaid, and you may just think you know her.