Wednesday 17 January 2018

Zoe Saldana: the reluctant star talks the downside of fame, Hollywood's fickle nature, and those pesky 'bump' rumours

Zoe Saldana
Zoe Saldana

Stephen Milton

Zoe Saldana prowls into the room in a sheer black shirt and a high-waisted pink skirt. A fitted pink skirt. Encasing an obvious baby bump.

It's an odd move for a star usually so religious in her privacy.

When Insider met an expectant, and equally secretive, Scarlett Johansson a few months back, ironically for another Marvel Studios blockbuster, Captain America, she swathed her figure in layer upon layer of floaty, fussy material.

By contrast, Saldana is sleek and streamline. And still refuses to confirm or deny feverish rumours that she and husband, Italian artist and former soccer player Marco Perego, will soon welcome their first child.

INSIDER goes for broke.

'How are you coping with the intense scrutiny and circulating reports swirling around you right now,' I ask, cloaking the touchy enquiry in shaky disguise. "Is it difficult to operate in these circumstances?

Zoe offers a taut, penetrating gaze. She inhales slowly.

"Once you have your priorities in check and in terms of what is life or death for you to protect, it is life or death," she coldly replies. "It's not like, 'Oh maybe I'll let this question slide, I'll let that one go.'

"When it comes to your life and death in this business, you have got to be super rigid when it comes to opening up. And I will kill anyone for it."

Okay then. Best steer clear of baby name options then…

The actress is a tricky customer. We previously met twice before; in this very same London hotel, The Corinthia, on a promotional tour for Star Trek Into Darkness and again on the set of her latest sci-fi spectacular, Guardians of the Galaxy, which has already coined well over $100million at the US box office alone. A sequel has just been green lit.

And while always pleasant and talkative, there's an ever present, loaded reserve. Fame clearly sits uneasy with the lithe actress.

"I remember the first day when I felt 'famous'. It felt wrong, I felt like running away and hiding, rather than basking in this new found whatever it was. And so many love it, even though they maintain otherwise but that's just not me."

Raised between New York and her late father's Dominican Republic [he died in a car accident when she was nine years-old] Zoe flinches and awkwardly squirms if matters ever skirt close to a personal nature.

One could easily assume it's a by-product of her on-again, off-again relationship with Guardians co-star Bradley Cooper, whom the actress has never spoken openly about.

The A-list union was inevitably hounded and pressurised by the glare of the spotlight. Most likely why Saldana waited for months to confirm her marriage last summer to Perego, a straggly haired lookalike of The Hangover hunk.

Consequently, she employs a strict philosophy in coping with 'the curse of celebrity'.

"I chose a path that gives me so much happiness but the price has its pros and its cons. And it's the loss of anonymity at times," she tells me during INSIDER's exclusive visit to the Shepperton Studio set of Guardians, outside Heathrow airport

"That is the one thing I've been obsessed about. In order for me to maintain my life, and for my life to give me what it gives me when I'm not working, is by aggressively protecting it."

Clad in figure-hugging sculpted black leather and all-over green body paint as her Guardians character, deadly assassin Gamora, this talk of 'killing' and 'aggressively protecting' has me slightly reluctant to dig any deeper.

Considering the 36 year-old is proficient in karate, judo and Krav Maga after roles in Avatar, Star Trek and Colombiana, be a brave fool who gets in her way.

Just ask Guardians co-star, Chris Pratt, who received a rather nasty blow from Saldana, south of the belt.

"No,I got him in the tummy, thank God. It was our first day working together, we had a fight scene and everyone asked him , 'are you sure you don't want to wear your chest guard?' 'Aww, I'm fine, it's okay," he said.

"Well I've done enough stunt movies to know accidents happen. And it did.

"On the third or fourth take, I knocked the wind right out of him with one kick. He was like, doubled over, saying 'I'm fine, I'm okay' in the squeakiest voice."

Saldana's Gamora and Pratt's Star Lord eventually make-up, bond and ultimately engage in a little flirtatious repartee as they strive to protect an all-powerful orb falling in to the hands of Lee Pace's purple-hued super villain, Ronan, interfering with his plans to destroy the galaxy.

Along the way, they're joined by genetically engineered raccoon, Rocket [voiced by Cooper], humanoid tree stump, Groot [unmistakeable vocals by Vin Diesel] and revenge seeking goliath, Drax the Destroyer [former WWF wrestler, Dave Bautista].

"When I read the script, it was fun and witty and not a simple super hero formula," Saldana explains back in the Corinthia Hotel, the fallout from my pregnancy faux pas having thankfully faded.

"And for me, I was inquisitive because I've played an alien before but not a, how do I say it, a civilised alien."

Indeed, after her spellbinding performance as Amazonian blue Na'vi warrior Neytiri in James Cameron's billion dollar epic, Avatar, not to mention Enterprise duties as Uhura in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot, critics are now calling Saldana the new Queen of Sci-Fi.

"Let's be honest, I'm not going to complain about that. I mean, that's a pretty cool title right there," she laughs. "Who doesn't want to be the Queen of Sci-Fi?"

With the next instalments in all three franchises scheduled for 2016/17 release, surely there's now an automatic veto on any further galactic scripts?

"I had an automatic veto before I started on this one! But some way, somehow, I got talked into it. Happily, I'll add."

So little is yet known of James Cameron's plans for the Avatar sequels, can Zoe shed any light? Is there even a start date for production? Rumours suggest much of the action will now take place under water.

"I know an overall prospective of what it's going to be like. James walked me through it a while ago. And it was a very emotional meeting. I saw the drawings and the new characters who will be introduced. It's going to be another amazing journey."

Hollywood success was far from overnight for the former dancer, who'll next be seen in chilling new series, Rosemary's Baby, a modern adaptation of Polanski's horror classic followed by a hotly anticipated biopic of Nina Simone.

It took nearly ten years slogging in bit part obscurity before hitting the double whammy jackpot of Cameron's Avatar and the Star Trek reboot.

Until then, she played the sassy best friend [Crossroads, Get Over It] and the vulnerable, side-lined love interest [Haven, Premium]. It was all largely beneath her talents.

Recently, Zoe spoke openly about her negative working experience on the first Pirates of the Caribbean, claiming she was disrespected throughout production.

"It was very elitist," she told the Hollywood Reporter, "I almost quit the business.

'People disrespecting me because they look at my number on a call sheet and they think I'm not important. "F**k you.""

On further exploration, turns out Hollywood's audition circuit was an equally wearing route, one that nearly put her off her career prematurely.

"Auditioning is so superficial, so impassive. So many [directors] lack imagination in terms of what can be done. It's like, 'Dude, like you're seeing me in jeans and a t-shirt, please imagine me after hair and make-up and costumes and possibly prosthetics and all this and maybe a weight gain or a weight loss or muscular toning - imagine that after but please give me a f**king break.'

"And I'm a 50/50 person, I'm never superior but I will never be inferior to anybody - I am equal. So when I meet somebody and they go, 'Oh that director didn't feel that.' I'm like, 'Perfect because I didn't like him at all.'"

Despite her Tinseltown takeover, Saldana still auditions, she tells me. Though maybe not as frequently as before.

"As I've grown older and I've become more comfortable, it's very important for a woman to learn the power of saying, 'no'. We are, because of our gender and because of society and our history, we have been unconsciously conditioned to be 'yes' people. And it's OK for a woman to say 'no' with love and respect and to feel comfortable with it.

"You won't be liked, trust me. If a man says 'no' he is cool but if a woman says 'no' its like, 'What a bitch!' And you know what? This bitch said it's still 'no'. And I like that."

Back on set at Shepperton, in a freezing hangar in October, a dozen-man crew mill around the half constructed shell of an intergalactic spaceship, setting up the next scene. Dry ice and steam fill the air.

Resplendent as Gamora, Zoe returns for another quick chat. The artificial veins pop from her green forehead while she sips on a hot tea with a blanket around her shoulders.

With three colossal ongoing sci-fi franchises all at the same time, INSIDER remarks that we're sitting in the presence of the most powerful movie star in Hollywood.

"I don't know about that. That sounds like too much pressure." She pauses, allowing a slow grins grin to build across her face. "But hey, you can be called much worse in life."

Guardians of the Galaxy is in cinemas now

Irish Independent

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