Zoe Saldana - this girl is on fire
Bold, beautiful and a total geek, James Mottram meets busy leading lady Zoe Saldana
If ever there's a critical time in the career of Zoë Saldana, it's now. The 35-year-old New Jersey beauty is already a staple in JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot, playing Lt Uhura, and the female lead in James Cameron's $2.7bn grossing Avatar.
But this year, she's upping her game. A Marvel Comics movie, a biopic, a mini-series remake, two dramas and a return to Pandora – that's a hell of slate for any actor.
"I do love to work," she admits when we meet, Saldana sporting a revealing blue-satin dress and spiky heels. "But you have to sometimes be wise and go 'Even if I'm going to regret this, I need to rest.'" Not that there's been much time for that with the offers Saldana's been getting. First up is Out of the Furnace, a gripping crime drama set in an industrial town in the grip of the recession that sees Saldana play Lena, the schoolteacher girlfriend to Christian Bale's blue-collar worker.
"It was a very intense movie. The story was heavy," she emphasises. "We shot in Braddock, Pennsylvania ... the depression in 2008 hit this town the most on the East Coast. So there's a lot of poverty, but resilience." Written and directed by Scott Cooper, it's the sort of adult drama that Hollywood used to make all the time, but now does all too rarely.
With a story that sees Bale's character Russell and his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) get mixed up with some very unsavoury types, Saldana was a lone female voice in an exemplary cast that also includes Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard. "I was surrounded by brilliance. It was very intense, but very inspiring." And what about Bale, with whom she shares most of her scenes? "Fuck me, he's a phenomenal actor."
Saldana seems to thrive on intensity. Having just signed on to play the Mia Farrow role in a television series spin on Roman Polanski's Satanic tale Rosemary's Baby, she'll soon be seen in another remake, Blood Ties, which began life as the 2008 French film Les liens du Sang. Co-starring Clive Owen and Billy Crudup, it's a '70s New York tale of cops and criminals – like a grittier version of American Hustle.
Born in New Jersey, Saldana was raised in Queens – though things changed after her father died in a car accident when she was nine. Her Puerto Rican-born mother moved Saldana and her siblings to the Dominican Republic, to live with her paternal grandparents. It was here that she developed a love for dance, enrolling in an academy to study ballet. "I was always a very physical child. I was very hyper by nature," she says. "And my Mom used to say about my sisters and I that we were very feminine tomboys!"
The middle child of three – Mariel is older, Cisely is younger – she's still close with her siblings. "We're like attached at the hip, my sisters and I," she says, "I don't need anything in life. Just my sisters ... when we're on the phone, we all sound the same. But we're very, very different. Never liked the same boys – thank God! We were never competitive with each other. And it's always been us against the world."
While she moved back to New York when she was 17, Saldana switched from ballet to acting – although her attitude to the up-and-down nature of the business has changed. "Throughout my 20s, I was so happy to be doing what I did. But an actor always has to think ahead, because you live day-to-day, movie to movie. So you would book a movie, then a month before you wrapped the movie, you had to line up the next one. And that anxiety can sometimes be nerve-wracking. I got tired of having that anxiety so I just said 'Fuck it.' So whenever I'm not working, I'm living."
That might be true, but Saldana is almost always working – you have to wonder how she's finding time for her new artist husband Marco Perego, whom she married last year, after just four months together. She recently completed Nina, playing soulful, troubled singer Nina Simone. "I think it's the hardest role I ever did," she nods. "I don't know if I'll ever do that again – play somebody that was real. Because I was very hard on myself."
Then there's this summer's big Marvel Comics movie, Guardians of the Galaxy – a story of a rogue band of superheroes that sees her play the green-skinned warrior Gamora. "Apparently, they fight with The Avengers. I didn't even know who The Avengers were!" laughs Saldana, who clearly isn't up on her comic books. "But I have to say, I'm a geek. I like working with technology."
This is just as well, given that Saldana has just officially signed on to reprise her role for Cameron's trio of forthcoming Avatar sequels, which will be shot in 3D back-to-back – a wise decision, she says, "because we're not getting any younger." It means spending a year in New Zealand, where the films will be made. "I'm just happy about the fact that next year I'll be focused on Avatar," she says. "It will be great. I want to be in Pandora – for a long time!"
She's also developing projects for her production company, which is run by her younger sister Cisely – all part of her masterplan to take control. "I'm not letting the business dictate my mood. At the end of the day, whether I get paid to do what I do or not, I'm still going to be an artist. It's the one thing I have to always remind myself. I didn't become an artist because I wanted to get paid. It's the only thing I know how to do. So I'm just going to keep doing it."
- Out of the Furnace opens on January 31st.
THE EVOLUTION OF ZOË SALDANA
Center Stage (2000)
Saldana's first film, Nicholas Hytner's backstage ballet drama proved the perfect crossover for the former aspiring ballerina. "It was a turning point for me," she says, "to say 'goodbye' to classical ballet, and to say 'hello' to movies, by doing a movie about ballet."
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Playing the booty-hunting Anamaria, her first blockbuster was not a happy time. "I didn't like the experience of working on Pirates," she says. "It was just too massive. You really felt the immensity of it. Just not my taste."
Playing blue-skinned Pandora resident Neytiri, James Cameron's sci-fi epic was unquestionably the film that made Saldana's career. "I think Avatar created a little monster in me!" she says, referring to the way it encouraged her to embrace more physical roles.
If this Luc Besson-scripted action wasn't exactly top-drawer, it did show Saldana shouldering a lead – as an assassin,"We're not just little fragile things that don't know how to change a tyre!"
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Her second outing as Lt Uhura, Saldana had more to do this time – notably wringing emotion out of her on-going relationship with Spock. "She's in a place where she's starting to demand more from him," she says. "I like the fact that she's very bold."