The a+ app was my next iteration of america magazine, this time with sight, sound & motion. My creative director, Graham Rounthwaite, and I applied the same inspirations to this project, namely, to celebrate and discover the best talents in the land through great writing and the lens of world-class photographers. Zoe's super-talented, badass, Puerto-Rican self was an awesome heroine to start with...
“Hay, que lindo!” she exclaims.
I almost didn’t recognize her as she steps into the downtown NYC apartment-mansion in her flat shoes with her sister by her side.
It’s not the deck of the Black Pearl, a forest in Pandora or the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, but it is where Zoe will play her next role. Her silky just-done dark brown hair may begin to give the Hollywood away, but not really. It’s Friday night, and most half-Dominican, half-Puerto Rican girls in this super trendy neighborhood have spent hours in the salon earlier this afternoon no matter where they’re going or who they’re going with.
“I just want this to be all about you,” the let-me-be-awkward-as-an-ice-breaker photographer suggests. “The real Zoe…”
A shy, vulnerable expression crosses her face. Her eyes dart to find her sister’s. “Um…ok…let’s try it.”
Zoe Saldana has starred in films that have grossed more than $4 billion in the worldwide box office. Most of that came from Avatar ($2.7B), the highest grossing film of all time, but she was also in the best Pirates Of The Caribbean ($655 MM), and starred across Tom Hanks in The Terminal ($219 MM). Her solo flick, Colombiana, earned a respectable $60 MM and even Guess Who?, her romantic comedy with Ashton Kutcher, topped $100 MM worldwide.
“I’m just better when I have a role to play…”
Actors are different from recording artists. Rock stars are who they are, because what they’re creating has their own name on it. Rihanna on record needs to be who Rihanna is when you meet her. But actors, until they sit on Oprah’s couch and are forced to reveal what lies behind, are never their own headliners. People like you not because of who you are, but because of who you’ve played. You don’t want to meet Pacino. You want to meet Scarface or Michael Corleone. The irony is that often leads the best actors to go deeper than musicians, forces them to go on a journey of self-discovery not just for themselves, but for the many personalities they have had to become.
“I’m a imitator of life,” Zoe begins almost defiantly. “I mirror life so that I can play other people.”
A week later, now safely back on a movie set and away from the uneasy gaze of the NYC photo shoot, the actress is more alive, introspective.
“There’s a downside to that though, because once you’re living in other people’s shoes mentally and spiritually for so long, it means you don’t come home alone.”
Being by herself is for sure a choice this actress doesn’t have to make. After her engagement broke in 2009 to her long time beau, the 34-year-old has been quietly linked to some of Hollywood’s leading men, including hunk-of-the-moment Bradley Cooper.
“You could be physically alone, but you’re not really. It’s like impossible for me…and that’s…tormenting.” Her voice tenses at the thought. “I don’t know how my family members deal with it. It’s really difficult to be with an artist because the moods are very drastic. When it’s up, it’s up and when it’s down, it’s really down…”
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
“I draw on everything. Whether traumatic or not, I’ve had a lot of experiences. It’s never been difficult for me to use my sense memory and re-live something all over again,” she pauses, as if a memory was coming right at that moment. “The most traumatic experience I’ve had in my life till now was losing a parent…”
Zoe Yadira Saldaña Nazario was born in New Jeresy and spent her early childhood in Queens, NY with her two sisters, Cisely & Mariel, each just one year apart. When Zoe was 9, her father was killed in a car accident.
“I was very close to my father. We all were. Getting that call when you’re little…it’s like I couldn’t understand it. The world is so big because you’re so tiny at that time and you’re so defenseless. It felt like I had been thrown into an abyss.”
Zoe’s voice doesn’t waver when she talks about her dad. In fact, her tone gets louder, stronger, as if to push back the pain. Her words have fought this battle before.
“All of a sudden my hero, my big iron man is no longer here… the feeling to this day… it’s still not difficult to go there.”
There is a scene in Colombiana, an action-packed revenge film written by legendary The Professional creator Luc Besson, where Zoe’s 9-year-old character, Cataleya, after having experienced the murder of her parents, is reminded by her assassin mentor to “never forget where she came from.” Second only to Ripley, or perhaps Angelina Jolie’s Salt, Cataleya spends the next ninety minutes of the film doling out enough passionate round-house kicks (while wearing the kind of blue cat suit neither Sigourney nor even Angelina couldn’t make look that good) across the face of her male antagonists to ignite that female cheering section in the movie theatre.
“Why does the Bond girl have to die at the end of every movie? Women need to have more relevency in a story beyond being the bride or the one that’s rescued. I don’t want to just provide the levity. I want to see Bond told through the eyes of a female.”
She’s getting close to her wish. In the summer’s most anticipated sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, Saldana reprises her role as Nyota Uhura. No longer just the headset-wearing symbol for civil rights audience-tested by Nichelle Nichols in 1966, Saldana’s Uhura shoots more phasers, takes more prisoners and, thanks to an empowered script by Star-everything director JJ Abrams, becomes a central figure in the drama—and, quietly, one of the film’s biggest draws.
“I love doing action movies! As a kid, I always wanted to do things that felt a little dangerous or scary to me and when I read the [Into Darkness] script some of the sequences were just so unimaginable to me!
“Even more, I just love what my character has to go through this time…”
In a far more trekkie-approved move than blowing up the entire planet Vulcan, Abrams screenwriters Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, also gave Uhura an inter-species love affair with a young Mister Spock.
“I have so much love for Zach [actor Zachary Quinto], he’s so funny! We learned about that famous moment [television’s first interracial on-screen kiss between William Shatner and Nichols] when we started the first movie. I just wish they didn’t turn their heads so much when their lips touched!”
Now that you’re officially a poster-worthy member of the Trek franchise, any plans for an Uhura spin-off?
“Ohhhh… I would love that,” she purrs instantly.
In 1988, after her father’s death, Saldana’s mom moved the family to their father’s native Dominican Republic. It was the right thing to bring Zoe and her sisters closer to their aunts and uncles and grandparents. The island is a beautiful, wonder-filled place, but it wasn’t an easy transition for an American tween in mourning.
“I have to admit, it was hard for us. Everything was very foreign. Now that I look back on it of course it was wonderful, but at that time it was very scary. We had to get used to such a different life, with one religion, one culture, one climate. Everyone in the Domincan Repbulic is either filthy rich or very poor…it was culture shock. Eventually you adapt, but we were very distraught…”
Zaldana and her sisters stayed on the island for seven years. It was there Zoe found her love for the arts. She began studying various forms of musical theater and dance, skills that eventually helped her land her first film role back in the US, 2000’s Center Stage.
“The pros for growing up in the land where your family comes from, where your blood is from, is that I speak fluent Spanish and I know my Latin history. The experience of being Latin American is completely different when you’re here looking out… I understand the classiness of other cultures, but I will never abandon the beauty and the everyday composition that comes from my indigenous and African heritage.”
Zoe Saldana is a proud Latina woman. She may have Anglicized her last name for Hollywood, but in real life she holds nothing back about how Latina she is or where she’s from. The fact that her ethnicity has not defined most of her most successful roles so far, and the truth that she is not African-American, has, however, raised questions about her authenticity. There were a few whispers after Guess Who?, mainly because the film was based on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, Sidney Poitier’s classic film of Black & white race relations, and “What race is Zoe Saldana?” has a Yahoo! Answer.
But the chorus was loudest late in 2012 when it was revealed the actress had been cast in the first, and much delayed, bio-pic of singer/activist Nina Simone. Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul,” was a classically trained recording artist who through songs like “Mississippi Goddam”—a response to the murder of activist Medgar Evers,” the Langston Hughes-penned “Backlash Blues” & “To Be Young Gifted & Black”—a song inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s play, became an emblematic figure in the Civil Rights Movement. More than anyone of her era, Simone used her music as a weapon against racial injustice and to promote Black Liberation. She was also of a darker complexion, a fact she often celebrated in her music and her style.
“Let me say this,” Zoe begins after a pause, “and this is all I’m going to say because the film isn’t even out yet… But [Nina] was one of the most amazing and essential experiences about my life thus far.”
The film is an uncomfortable topic for her. Not because she can’t handle controversy, you get the sense, but because the criticism from all sides, from Mary J. Blige, who had allegedy prepared for the part, to random people with a blog to Nina Simone’s actual daughter with a blog, criticizes her work as an artist—before anyone has even seen it.
“The film is still in the editing process! Once it’s out I promise I will go there with people and discuss every angle of it…but for me it was a spiritual experience, and that’s what still lingers in my heart.”
And the leaked pictures of you wearing a prosthetic nose and heavy face makeup?
“We waste so much time talking about the color of our skin. It’s just there, it’s beautiful. My composition? I’m everything. I’m so many cultures, so many races. I’ve reached that place where I don’t want to talk about Black this and white that, them this and us that. My mom raised us to see someone’s flaws or someone’s attributes, not the texture of their hair or color of their skin and I’m not going to misrepresent that.”
“It’s the same reason I hope we’re not just in a heatwave for Black actresses that will come and then go. The only way we’re going to prolong it and keep it constant is by not catering to how angry it makes us feel. I don’t want to fight anymore, I want to educate. It’s there, [the injustices] are there obviously, but we don’t need to talk about it, we just need to do…”
It’s a disingenuous point of view to some, but not an entirely surprising for an actress who’s spent most of her onscreen time in various fantastic lands, often in full body paint. She was all blue as Neytiri in Avatar. She will be green to play warrior princess Gamora in the next Marvel adventure-epic Guardians Of The Galaxy.
“The world is mean, but you can’t create out of hate. You can only create out of love, something that can last forever.” She pauses, laughs. “I’m actually sort of done being miserable or, at least, relying on my misery to be creative…”
The plan for the last shot in NYC was to leave the location and venture outside, shoot some exteriors of the real Zoe in the real downtown bright lights of New York, but the actress wasn’t having it. Tiredness was the reason transmitted through assistants, but the answer may have been more personal.
“I’m really afraid of large quantities of people,” she admits later, “and I actually still have a hard time accepting it when people stop me on the street—not because I’m rude or unappreciative, but because I still feel that it doesn’t belong to me to own any kind of notoriety. Fame is so unnatural for me. I’m just a regular fucking person and at times I feel that someone is going to wake me up and just take me back to reality.”
Maybe the line is blurred. Perhaps the real gift of the woman who describes herself as the “perfect girlfriend” (“…before I was dancing, I was always riding bikes, shooting, playing with boys.”) is her ability to become that perfect vessel for other identities. If it makes her real life harder to capture, so be it. Virtual lives can be so much more entertaining.
“It’s like I never wanted to grow up! When I did my first movie I just felt I could be happy doing this. There are moments I get blue for, like, no fucking reason, but I love love love what I do. And so I still can’t believe that I get paid to do what I love to do, and that’s to pretend and play.”
Where else could you kiss a Vulcan?
“Exactly! And kissing a Vulcan is so much better than kissing a human…”