As Zoe Saldana opens the grimy door of my even messier Hyundai Elantra — filled with errant gym socks, dozens of old receipts, and even a toaster — and slides into the passenger seat, I am mortified.
Conducting an interview with the star of Center Stage, Avatar, and Rosemary’s Baby in my filthy car was not the initial plan. Originally, I was to chat with Saldana as she got her hair and makeup done before being photographed for Jeff Vespa’s coffee table book The Art of Discovery. But the hair dryer required to achieve her flawless blow-out made a conversation impossible. With time dwindling at the shoot, and another obligation looming across Los Angeles, she suggests the unconventional interview environment. And off we go.
Before I know it, Saldana and I are driving down Los Feliz’s Amesbury Road, her designer bag sitting atop a pile of old receipts and her feet wedged between discarded Starbucks cups. “I love it,” she says as I profusely apologize for the shabby state of my vehicle. “I’m actually glad we’re doing the interview like this.”
The impromptu setting serves to reinforce how in demand Saldana’s time is. She’d just returned from a digital presentation at the NewFronts in New York City (where she had debuted My Hero, a web series she is executive producing for AOL) and was squeezing a photo shoot, her interview with BuzzFeed, a Lionsgate retreat in Malibu, and her husband’s art show into a tight 48 hours before flying back to New York to attend the MET Gala with Michael Kors on May 5.
“The older I get, the more difficult all this traveling gets,” says Saldana, who married artist Marco Perego in July 2013. “Also, when you’re happy at home, you don’t want to leave home. That’s the part that’s been taxing over the last year in my life. Plus, I’ve been working back-to-back-to-back-to-back for the last four years, so it’s not like I’ve missed out on seven months here and there — I’ve missed four years of my life. That’s a serious issue.”
In addition to missing time with her husband, Saldana says living out of a suitcase has begun to take its toll on her craft as well. “It’s very important that I’m living and my fountain of happiness — the well that I pull from — needs to be a little fuller in order for me to take from that and give out on screen,” she says with a sigh. “When I’m running on empty, nothing fulfills me. In the past eight months, I’ve really felt this yearning to be home. To live. To go to my office. To fix my closets. To walk my dog consistently every day. To not only see my partner in the morning but also at night. That is becoming a priority that’s very needed.”
The 35-year-old will have to wait a bit longer until she can enjoy the fruits of her labor. Following the May 11 premiere of Rosemary’s Baby, an adaptation of Ira Levin’s 1967 novel (on which Roman Polanski’s film was based) on NBC, she’ll embark on a global promotional tour for Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s riskiest film to date, which stars Saldana, Chris Pratt, Glenn Close, and Benicio del Toro as the main players in an intergalactic race to save our solar system. Saldana plays Gamora, a green-skinned assassin in the film, a mix of outer space action and unexpected comedy.
Despite this being the third major franchise she’s been a part of, the actress insists she’s never looked at Guardians, Star Trek, or Avatar as smart business decisions. “I never make decisions from a strategic place,” she says, as a tendril of her hair dances in the air conditioning. “I simply don’t roll like that. I don’t like to regret anything and the only time that happens is when I follow my heart. I’m a person who has to do what they want because if I do what I’m told to, you’ll see it in my face. It’s not that I’m unhappy, I’m just not motivated.”
While Saldana concedes that a couple of bad independent films cemented this attitude earlier in her career, she says that she was taught from a very young age that honesty is always the best policy. “I was raised that most things are black or white and the truth is the best thing ever. Even if there are consequences that will gravely effect you, the truth is the truth and you have to fucking just make a show of faith.”
Years studying ballet both tested and reinforced the lessons imparted by her parents, Asalia Nazario and Aridio Saldaña, the latter of whom died in a car accident when Saldana was 9. “The harshest mentors are ballet teachers,” she says simply, like it was the truest fact in the world. “You either break because they made you feel bad or you learn to see life through their eyes. I learned to be very disciplined because of ballet; if I wanted to be the best, I needed to be there every day and be committed to it and respect it. Ballet was my first love affair, ever.”
Affection aside, after a decade of dancing, Saldana began to grow curious about the stage’s other forms of expression, acting in particular. “I’d been on stage for many years, but in such a specific way, so I was inquisitive,” she says of exploring her acting options around the age of 18. “To emit emotion without the spoken word, as we do with dance, is very hard, and I’m a very extroverted person who feels the need to speak all the time, so I had this yearning to communicate emotion through speaking.” Luckily those two worlds dovetailed perfectly with her film debut in 2000’s Center Stage.
For his beloved drama, director Nicholas Hytner tapped into a pool of performers who, like Saldana, had extensive ballet training and a desire to act. “Ballet has a very small following, so I’m so very grateful that people were moved by the world in our film,” she says, after demanding a high five from the film’s biggest (self-proclaimed) fan. “These dancers go through a long journey, but the payoff is a spiritual experience you have with your body, the music, and the story every single day. It’s beautiful.”
Saldana followed her debut in Center Stage with a series of increasingly high-profile roles, working with everyone from Britney Spears to Tom Hanks, always seeking from film the feeling of deep connectivity she drew from ballet. That search ended in 2007 when James Cameron cast her as Na’vi princess Neytiri in Avatar. “I was relaxed, I felt no pressure; there was just something special about that movie,” she says of the Oscar-winning film, which relied on motion-capture technology to bring her performance as a 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned alien to life.
Saldana next studied underneath several auteur filmmakers — J.J. Abrams on 2009’s Star Trek and its 2013 sequel, Neil LaBute on 2010’s Death at a Funeral, and Scott Cooper on 2013’s Out of the Furnace are just a few examples of the masters shadowed — as she prepared to take on her next major professional challenge: producing.
“When I go to the movies and the selection is totally male-driven, I’m bored,” Saldana says, the first of many reasons why she wanted to get involved behind the camera. “I’m irritated with the fact that when I want to be entertained, there’s not enough material featuring women out there. I’m a woman, I relate to women. It’s our nature, it’s our anima; why am I not being created for?”
Rosemary’s Baby became Saldana’s first labor of love as a producer, and she tackled the project with her sisters, Cisely Saldana and Mariel Saldana; to hear her tell it, the experience could not have been better. “Everyone was so respectful towards me as an actor, and my sisters as producers,” she said of working with NBC and Lionsgate, the studio behind the film. “It felt so good that they wanted to hear my thoughts and use my input. It makes you care about a project on a deeper level, beyond it simply being your part.”
While production on NBC’s Paris-set miniseries went smoothly, the project didn’t have a completely clear road to its premiere as many purists have vocally wondered why Polanski’s 1968 classic, which starred Mia Farrow as a woman beset by a coven of witches, warranted a remake. Not only does Saldana understand the criticism, but she admits that she was initially wary as well. “I was really nervous,” she recalls about the prospect of stepping into Farrow’s shoes. “But I just had to practice telling myself that we weren’t imitating, we’re interpreting.”
Part of what brought Saldana around was the opportunity to knock something off her bucket list: the chance to work with acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa). And the script and the lead character, aimless former dancer Rosemary, were simply too good to ignore. “As a woman, I need to feel relevance in a film and substance in the woman I’m playing,” says Saldana. “This was an opportunity on so many levels, I felt it was important for me to take on this challenge.”
Saldana will face her next challenge with Nina, a biopic of singer Nina Simone that came under fire in October 2012 when leaked set photos hinted that the actress was wearing skin-darkening makeup to play the soul singer. When this subject is broached, Saldana sits up straight, adjusts her seatbelt, and pauses for a moment to thoroughly gather her thoughts before speaking.
“I don’t regret a second of it,” she says in an unexpectedly firm tone. “I know who I am and I know what Nina Simone has meant to me. It was the most scared and stressed I’ve ever been in my whole life about playing a character and making a movie, but I did it for her. I just hope that when the movie comes out, whoever sees it will appreciate that all of us came together to tell her story because nobody else was doing it. I will hear, but I will also speak because I don’t have anything to be ashamed of. Whatever backlash there is, I will take it like a man — no, like a woman, like an adult, and like an artist.”
With that, we arrive at our destination and the intensity fades from Saldana’s voice. As Saldana gathers her belongings, I apologize, once again, for my car’s disheveled state. Saldana simply offers up a carefree smile, and I’m reminded of an oddly poignant sentiment she expressed at the start of our journey, while discussing her career:
“I have a ride-or-die mentality,” she says. “If I gave you the yes, I will ride with you until the very end.”
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