Zoe Saldana: Diva? Moi?
Stephen Milton talks to ‘Avatar’ star Zoe Saldana about break-ups, bedding Spock, and remaining ‘unaffected’ by Hollywood
It's possible that Zoe Saldana has a slightly skewed perception of herself and, potentially, a mild case of the 'Jenny From The Blocks'.
Like Ms Lopez, who was once at pains to convey that we 'shouldn't be fooled by the rocks that she's got', the 'Avatar' beauty makes every effort throughout our pleasant conversation to emphasise just how low-key and unaffected she is by the trappings of Hollywood.
"None of that 'stuff' matters to me," the former partner of 'Hangover' star Bradley Cooper proudly chirps. "For me, it's about my family. They keep me planted."
Cue the arrival of a publicist/ assistant/quivering flunky, who enters the hotel suite, scuttling across the room, brandishing what can only be described as a tribal decorated beaker with a metal drinking spout, which he places in front of the star.
"Can I get a hot water?" Saldana quietly asks, failing to notice an already-steaming pot laid on for her arrival.
"I think there's some in there," he eagerly replies, making a beeline for the exit.
"Oh, I'm going to make you go up to the room again," she says, without even tasting the contents of the beaker.
"But can I have a little more mate [South American infused drink, pronounced 'ma-tay'], because every time I soak it, it dries up."
"I put so much in there... on purpose," the minion pleads. "But I can go up again to the room if you want."
"Yeah, because I do think I will need some more," she says, still failing to taste the tea.
Taking a beat to make up her mind, or possibly aware of the impression she's making, Saldana kindly pardons her subordinate. "It's all good, it's all good."
Now, considering I've witnessed a fellow starlet snap her fingers at the hired help – and you would be mighty surprised at the identity of that demanding diva – Saldana's is a very mild instance of prima donna behaviour.
But it shows, no matter how many 'keeping it real' affirmations spouted, the Hollywood machine never fails to leaves its mark.
A background player since the early Noughties, the actress paved her way with teen fare 'Centre Stage', 'Get Over It' and the Britney Spears vanity vehicle 'Crossroads' before traversing into blockbuster territory with small, unremarkable roles in 'Pirates of the Caribbean' and 'The Terminal'.
Then came the jackpot. On the hunt for a relative unknown for his Amazonian passion project, 'Avatar', James Cameron cast Saldana as Neytiri, the towering blue Na'vi princess who captures the heart of Sam Worthington's Jake Sully.
The motion-capture extravaganza coined in more than two billion at the box office – currently the biggest box-office draw in movie history.
At the same time, 'Lost' creator JJ Abrams came a-calling, convinced that the elfin beauty was the perfect match for Enterprise communications officer Uhura in his reboot of the 'Star Trek' franchise. Zoe was tempted to refuse.
"I had just landed 'Avatar' and the prospect of working on another huge movie like 'Star Trek' was just too overwhelming to get my head around," she quietly explains, finally sipping on her tea, becoming visibly more energised.
Wearing faded jeans and a speckled blue sweater, she meets me today armed with minimal war paint, exposing a glowing complexion – a product of her Caribbean, Lebanese and Indian roots – which belies her 34 years.
On the London leg of the international promo tour for sequel, 'Star Trek: Into Darkness', she returns as Nyota Uhura, alongside Chris Pine's Kirk and Zachary Quinto's Spock, who come under fire from a deadly intergalactic terrorist played with marvellous aplomb by Benedict Cumberbatch of 'Sherlock' fame.
And while much of the action features double act Kirk and Spock, it's the ever-watchable Saldana who provides edge-of-the-seat moments throughout, including a pivotal role in the gripping finale.
"I think I had been nagging JJ and [producer] Alex Kurtzman about Uhura's development. Four years was enough time, trust me, to drive them crazy," she says.
"Each time we'd see each other I was like, 'I just don't want to wear the dress and look hot and flirt with Spock – I want to kick ass'. Not that that's how I felt in the first instalment. I just felt that in terms of her evolution that would have been the next step for her."
The Vulcan's relationship with Uhura gets some rather fascinating air time as they act upon the initial flirtations in the first film.
"It's very beautiful the way, throughout the whole movie, she is compelling him to feel more, not to be afraid to be weak because you're half-human.
"I feel like that's what keeps them together and keeps them very inquisitive about each other – and then I just had to figure out that they must be great in bed. They just have to be," she laughs.
While she speculates on their relationship, rumours continue to circulate over the ending of Saldana's 18-month on/off courtship with hunk du jour Bradley Cooper. Delicious gossip suggested some issues with the 'Silver Linings Playbook' star's mother.
"I think that regardless of who you're dating, if you're in this business you have to protect it by never talking about it," she bristles. "I grew up with a saying in Spanish and I'm pretty sure it exists in English – 'Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but give to God what belongs to God'.
"My mom told me this very early on: if you're happy or sad, the first thing you want to do is talk about it and be verbal – especially as a woman; you're vocal about things – but just don't."
Currently working on back-to-back projects, including a controversial biopic on the life of Nina Simone – her casting causing much backlash from the Simone estate – and the hotly anticipated sequel to 'Avatar' kicking off production in the New Year, Saldana will next star opposite Mila Kunis, Clive Owen and Bono's daughter Eve Hewson in the 1970s' noir thriller 'Blood Ties'.
She shares no scenes with the young Dubliner. In fact, the self-proclaimed U2 fan only recently learnt of Hewson's involvement.
"I didn't know this at all," she sighs wistfully, "but I'm so happy that she's a part of the cast. I do love U2, so I'm sure I would have been slightly thrown had her dad visited the set.
"We had a wonderful time, and Billy Crudup, Clive Owen, Mila [Kunis] all coming together to do the movie and for it to be like a cop 1970s New York movie was phenomenal for me as a New Yorker. Also, to be able to play an era that my mother was around in; I play a mother of a five-year-old – that was my mom around that time."
Born in New Jersey, but relocating to the Dominican Republic after the passing of her father when she was just nine, the face and body of Calvin Klein's Envy seems to lean heavily on the support of her family, who help shield her from the downsides of international attention, particularly the focus on Saldana's delicate frame.
"The one thing that bothered my mom was just how people were so obsessed with my weight," she sighs. "And she just protests about it. It's not like I'm unfazed, but what people would have to say or think about me is important.
"There was a period in my life when my sisters and I were bullied so much that we grew a hard skin so fast and it's just like, f**k off. I don't care."
Working alongside Britney Spears in 'Crossroads' more than a decade ago gave Saldana the opportunity to witness firsthand the damaging effects of the spotlight.
"I learned to have compassion for people who find themselves in that masala of invasion; you know, in that invasive place," she explains.
"There were a lot of pop girls, that we don't even need to name – you would hear interviews where Britney was always the target, like, 'Oh, I'm not her'," she says.
"Whether because they would question her talent, they would question her intelligence, they would question her taste. And if you've noticed, please go back and see everything – Britney never, that I know of, spoke ill about anybody."
Saldana adds: "Simple girl, small-town girl – super sweet. Not perfect, sometimes a bit clueless, but who isn't? Definitely not me. You learn a lot from an experience like that."
'Star Trek: Into Darkness' is in cinemas this weekend