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Zoe Saldana | Why Stand Tall on Two Legs, When One Will do the Trick?

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It’s an early morning in Los Angeles and the dawn chorus—a presumed mix of warblers, waxwings, and jays—greet the sunny day with poise and purpose. Inside, Zoe Saldana channels something spiritually similar—hair pulled back in a sleek braid, flawless skin, and a disarming smile. Her voice rings bright and playful as she accentuates each word with graceful hands and the powerful brushstrokes of her arms, reminding me of her training as a professional ballet dancer and giving me the impression that she might jump right off the video screen at any moment. She has chosen a quiet, but luminous corner of her Los Angeles home. Her slender frame is wrapped in a cream-colored sweatshirt from her new Adidas x Kohl’s collaboration, ready for her training session just after our call. She is attentive, warm, and puts me immediately at ease.

It isn’t by chance that Zoe Saldana is Hollywood’s most sought after, indomitable space warrior. A culmination of choices and sheer perseverance has allowed her to reach this new peak. She has been able to soar beyond her humble beginnings and past the inherent challenges of being a woman of minority descent in Hollywood. But how did we get here? Well, in the history of cinema, only five movies have managed to gross over $2 billion, and Zoe Saldana is in three of them: Avengers: Endgame (2019), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Avatar (2009). She is also set to appear in the next Guardians of the Galaxy and in the fourthcoming Avatar sequels. If any of these films capture the interest of their prequels, Saldana is set to become the number one movie box office actor. She is already the second highest-grossing actress.

Saldana tells me that as a child she identified more with heroines, such as the intrepid Lady Jessica from the sci-fi classic Dune, and much less with more prim and proper characters from say, a Jane Austen novel. She laughs teasingly, “Jane Austen in Queens in the 80s? C’mon, are you freaking kidding me!?” It’s not by chance, then, that she auditioned for all these roles. “I was always jumping around. I wanted to climb, wrestle, and fight! I dreamt of saving the day. I fell in love with Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley, and the films Whoopie Goldberg would do like Jumpin Jack Flash! These were my women!”

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Saldana has never been at a better time or place. How does she use this spotlight? To speak of those who go unseen, despite their enormous contributions to society. She does this in the best way she knows: storytelling. Together with her sisters Mariel and Cisely, she founded Cinestar Productions in 2016 to shine a light on women and to give a voice to the underrepresented. They are currently executive producing their upcoming Netflix series, From Scratch, along with Reese Witherspoon and Lauren Neustadter, in which Saldana will star. The Saldana sisters are also preparing the series The Gordita Chronicles with HBO Max, which centers on a Latina reporter looking back on her childhood as a Dominican immigrant growing up with her family in 1980s Miami. Cinestar also produced the upcoming feature film Keyhole Garden, directed by Zoe’s husband Marco Perego, which explores how immigration policies along America’s southern border impact lives.

COVID struck at the apogee of Saldana’s career. The much-awaited sequel Avatar 2, originally due to be released this year, has been postponed to December of 2022. From Scratch was also delayed and its production now begins in March. Far from making her careen mid-flight, though, the upheaval of this past year seems to have steadied her wings. Saldana recently completed two productions: Shawn Levy’s time travel movie, The Adam Project (via Netflix), alongside Ryan Reynolds and Jennifer Garner, and David O’Russell’s upcoming New Regency film co-starring Rami Malek, Christian Bale, and John David Washington. “All the projects that were put on hold are now coming to fruition. 2020 basically gave me an extra year to continue prepping everything, and now all of that is set to go.”

Saldana also settled into a new role during this pandemic, perhaps the role that she cherishes the most. “I am obsessed with my family.” In 2013 she married Italian painter, sculptor, conceptual artist and film director, Marco Perego, with whom she has three sons, Zen, Cy, and Bowie. “Until now,” she continues, “we were the ‘20 minute family’—always running off to school, to karate practice, or to work. Then suddenly the waters calmed, the music stopped, and the phones stopped ringing. It was very raw and very beautiful.” In a sweet tone, she adds that she wants to make her husband his meals and make sure she knows what he’s eating. “I want to be home, because that role is becoming more real to me. I’m becoming more passionate about it than any other role I can play.”

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It’s not surprising to learn then that Zoe is inspired by her favorite bird, the flamingo, “Not only for their beauty and elegance, but also because they love to be in herds, they mate for life, they take care of their young, and they’re gentle.” Her eyes light up as she adds, “Every number of years in Texas, you’ll find a flamingo in a particular area, and you sort of wonder, ‘How did he get there? Where did he come from? How far did he go to get here?’ Marco and I absolutely love those nuances.” Smiling, she lifts her left sleeve to reveal a recent flamingo tattoo. “I have this duality in me right now: I can keep going and achieve all these goals that I’ve always wanted for a very long time now, or I can pivot—still keep going—but in a different direction.”

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These dreams began as a little girl growing up in Jackson Heights, New York. Saldana was born to a Dominican father and a Dominican and Puerto Rican mother. At the age of nine, she moved to the Dominican Republic with her mother and sisters after her father’s sudden death in a car accident. Her mother enrolled her in ballet lessons, unleashing Saldana’s love for art and self-expression. But ballet shoes weren’t enough. Saldana knew she also needed to use her voice. At the age of 17, the family returned to New York where she joined the FACES theater group, which focused on bringing positive messages to youth. Her strong performance in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with the New York Youth Theater landed her an agent. Her break came with the ballet-driven movie Center Stage (2000), before going on to play in Crossroads (2002), Drumline (2002), and the first Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). Saldana almost quit acting after this last film due to her disillusionment with “political stuff that went on behind closed doors”, but she kept at it. In 2004 she played the role of a Trekkie in Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, foreshadowing her starring role as Lieutenant Uhura in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009). That same year, she starred in the leading role of Neytiri in James Cameron’s Avatar, the highest-grossing film in history. Avatar confirmed her stellar trajectory, which has gone on to include many more films and blockbusters, such as her role as Gamora in the Guardians of the Galaxy films as well as Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame.

Yet Saldana remains grounded, far from the ill-fated Icarus who burned his wings by flying too close to the sun. She reveals the criticism she fears the most: “Rejection. It’s so painful.” She laughs, adding that she picked the worst career because, “you’re rejected more than you’re accepted.” Saldana attributes her fear of rejection to being disparaged when she was young because of her skin color. “There are two types of rejection: there’s an OK rejection where you know that it just wasn’t your time; that maybe you didn’t really do your best. And then there’s another kind of rejection that leaves you asking. ‘Why don’t you like me?’ What did I do to you’? It doesn’t hurt because you believe them—it hurts when you know it’s unfair. But I never came home thinking I wish I was somebody else.”

The secret of her Adamantium-like resilience resides, again, with family. “I was loved so much by my mother and sisters,” she says. “They told me I could do anything. Had my family never given me those principles, I would have retreated from the moment I first faced an injustice. Whenever I came home with a rejection, they never tried to cheer me up by putting someone or something down. They would never express pity. The answer was always, ‘Tomorrow is a brand new day, and you’re gonna fight harder.’”

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Saldana’s love for sci-fi is rooted not only in her ambitions, but also in her deepest insecurities. She enjoys the ability to become “colorblind” and “gender-blind” in sci-fi films. For her role as Gamora, Saldana would be on call at 3am and endure five-hour makeup sessions to be painted green. In Avatar, her character Neytiri is blue. “The focus is not on the color of my skin, my gender, or my cultural background. They allow me to imagine and reinvent myself and be the chameleon actors are supposed to be.”

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Virtual reality and augmented reality are sweeping the entertainment world, fully anchored in gaming and entering other creative domains. How does she see it in cinema? “I like innovation. I like the future. I like discovery. I don’t think any of that should take away value from the work the actor puts in. When I was offered the part of Neytiri in Avatar, we were working with so much technology. That was like a distant cousin of VR. I still had to train for the part and become this character, walk in her shoes, and be who she was. This was all of me. If I didn’t move, Neytiri didn’t move.” Saldana refers to Neytiri as the most difficult character she’s had to part with. “It’s such a gift to get to incarnate Neytiri for the next four sequels!”

Despite her unequivocal immersion with technology on set, she is a bit more guarded with social media. “I have a diplomatic relationship with social media. It’s something I do when I genuinely feel it. It’s so unreal, and yet we put so much weight into it. It breaks my heart to see how it mentally and spiritually deteriorates young people and people in general.” Saldana and her husband plan to be loyal to how they grew up before the invasion of smartphones, since children lack the maturity to understand the dynamics behind social media. “I don’t care if they feel left out of conversations. I see nothing productive about giving our sons complete digital freedom to grow inside this (pointing to her phone) versus to grow like this (stretching her arms wide and pulling her shoulders back).”

It was also motherhood that led Saldana to launch her production company, BESE, which aims to empower Latinx people, which she describes as the fastest growing minority group and the most marginalized despite driving the economy, across digital platforms. “When I had my twins, their whole lives flashed before my eyes. I grew afraid that they would be judged by the color of their skin. I don’t want them to be exhausted by the time they’re 20 because they’ve had to be twice as eloquent, twice as beautiful, work twice as hard in order to be listened to. I don’t want them to have to grind so hard just so that they can be left alone and nobody harms them.” Saldana speaks of the huge disparity between the contribution made by the Latinx community and the scarce recognition it receives. “That disparity, that space is the media. The best way I can help my sons is to fill that empty space with stories of everyday people that are overlooked.”

This inclusive mindset perhaps helped drive Saldana’s latest collaboration: Adidas x Khol’s. As she’s shared, growing up, ballet was both a sport and therapy and offered her a strong foundation for martial arts and stunt work when she began acting. “I took great pride in knowing I can do a lot of my stunts!” Together with Adidas, she has created an athleisure line of active apparel, footwear, and accessories in pastel and bold colors that celebrate all body shapes and sizes. “The women I grew up with were my first muses. I loved every curve of their bodies, but I witnessed how discouraged they were when shopping and not seeing representatives of themselves.”

Following the momentous movements of 2020, Saldana says, “We are realizing that when we come together, when we speak for each other, we’re moving mountains, and we’re propelling change.” She adds that it is only natural that a phase of perhaps over-censorship and rigidity may follow. “As long as we’re welcoming those discussions for the sake of growth and evolution. The pendulum was on one side, and it might need to swing all the way to the other side so that it can rest in the middle where it belongs.”

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Saldana is very open about her change of heart regarding her playing Nina Simone in Nina (2016), the biopic of the legendary jazz musician and civil rights activist. To resemble Simone, Saldana’s skin was darkened and she donned a prosthetic nose and fake teeth. A huge debate ensued with many voices, including the singer’s family, saying that the role should have been given to another actor that more faithfully represented the revered singer, especially considering the scarcity of prominent roles for African-American women. After having initially defended her decision when the film was released in 2016 saying, “I did it out of love for my people and who I am and my pride being a Black woman, and a Latina woman, and an American woman.” Saldana apologized this past summer during an interview, stating that she should have never accepted that role. What personal journey brought her to change her mind? “You grow, you listen to other people, and you give yourself permission to listen to yourself. Appropriation is wrong. I am a Black Latina, I am an American, I am a person of color, but my history is more Caribbean. I can’t go into America and say that my history is African American. If I have this point of view today it’s because I really needed to listen to Black voices.”

In the same way, Saldana also believes that there is room to grow within her own community. “We are all Latinos, but I know some of us are still ashamed of where we come from and tend to glorify our European heritage.” She believes this can evolve through discourse, education, and representation through the work of small production companies like Cinestar and BESE, which seek to broaden the narrative, showing what America really looks like today.

The pandemic has pummeled box offices, which were already battling the growth of streaming platforms. Warner Brothers, for instance, began releasing the first of 17 films to release on streaming service HBO Max the same day they debut on the silver screen. Saldana describes this shift as “bittersweet”. “Technology is the new era,” she remarks. “It has basically put a cross on the 20th century. But rules, laws, and regulations need to be set in place when it comes to royalties for talent, crew, and directors. The lines need to be redefined and the industry will adapt. Of course I’m upset to see movie theaters hit so hard. Going to the movies was everything!”

Saldana remains focused on the future, as she always has been, but she is inextricably rooted in her past. Her grandmother passed away two years ago, ending a matriarchy and leaving the family devastated. “She wasn’t the best at giving compliments, but when she did it meant the world. I remember one time when she thought I was out of earshot, she said she thought that I was ‘so noble.’ Noble! I even looked it up a bit in the dictionary, just to confirm, because she was everything to me. Ever since then, I’ve tried to live up to her words. It means so much, even more than someone saying, ‘You were so good in that film.’”

Saldana has kept another phrase with her all these years. She continues to hear the same voice Kevin Costner heard in Field of Dreams, which became her favorite quote: “If you build it, they will come”. “I have always felt a deep affinity for that notion, that if you do the work and if you believe in yourself, the rest falls into place as it should be.” Whether it’s building domestic nests or box office-smashing ones, or giving flight to those who’ve felt previously grounded, Zoe Saldana is certainly trailblazing a flight path for many to follow.