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And the geek shall inherit the earth

APPARENTLY when you become famous in Hollywood, it's not just fans that stop you in your tracks.

Moments before arriving for our interview, Zoe Saldana gets accosted by Paul Haggis. She'd never met the Oscar-winning director of Crash before.

"I was just coming up the stairs and he was like, 'Zoe! Hey, I'm Paul. Nice to meet you.' I'm just like, 'I feel so cool right now'."

Then again, that's what starring in the biggest film of all time will do for you -- even if your likeness is nowhere to be seen on screen.

Since James Cameron's ¤1.8bn-grossing 3D spectacle Avatar 18 months ago, the 33-year-old Saldana's stock has risen immeasurably.

And this coming from an actress who'd already featured in the original 2003 Pirates Of The Caribbean film, Steven Spielberg's The Terminal and as Lt Uhura in JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot.

Still, while she passed by largely unnoticed in those films, playing the alien female lead in the groundbreaking Avatar -- albeit one the colour of a Smurf -- made people sit up and take notice. "In my geek mind," she says, "I accomplished everything I set out for when I did Avatar."

She may think of herself as a geek, but there's little of that on display today. Wearing a beautiful dress, she's sporting a sizeable engagement ring, courtesy of her boyfriend of 10 years, actor and CEO of My Fashion Database Keith Britton. Already au fait with the world of fashion, last year, she modelled for Calvin Klein's underwear line Envy. "I learned how to dirt bike when I was nine. And I can be deadly with a bow and arrow. It's true. Don't mess with me. And I can watch action any day over romance."


Right now, action is where it's at for Saldana. "I think Avatar created a little monster in me!" she laughs, though recent films -- heist movie Takers (a poor man's Heat) and CIA black ops yarn The Losers -- were hardly ideal showcases for her talents. At least her latest, Colombiana, gives her a first solo lead -- one that's been co-scripted by Luc Besson in the mould of his own 1990 female assassin classic Nikita.

Looking lean and mean, Saldana plays Cataleya Restrepo, an elite killer who witnessed the slaughter of her parents in Bogota by drug-dealers when she was a child. "She felt to me like an open wound," she says. "I loved that fragility about this character."

A no-nonsense revenge tale, it's hardly Hamlet but it did allow her to indulge her Besson fantasies. As a child, she watched his 1988 aquatic classic The Big Blue. "It was just so beautiful and whimsical," she sighs.

And she's already managed to trace a line between Besson's female characters, from Nikita to Mathilda (the would-be mini-hitgirl in Leon) to Leeloo (The Fifth Element) and now Cataleya. "Besides the tragedies that bind them as broken souls, there's a level of innocence that they have, because they were really young when they experienced violence. There's an animal-like approach to the violent nature within them."

Saldana seems to think in animal terms. Already her director from The Losers, Sylvain White, compared her to a jaguar -- "shrewd and fast, and always there when you don't know she is".

How about in her personal life? "Sometimes I'm very ape-like, when I'm bouncing off the walls," she says, before telling me she's also "obsessed" with wolves. "From their social structure to their communities, I think we take more as a human species from wolves than lions. For me, the lion is such a loser! In the animal kingdom... he sleeps all day, steals from his women and eats his cubs. But they are beautiful -- because they have great hair. Like a rock star, I guess!"

Born in New Jersey to a Dominican father and Puerto Rican mother (which explains her alluring caramel-coloured skin) she was raised in Queens, until her family moved to the Dominican Republic when she was 10. It was there that she developed her love for dance, enrolling in an academy where she studied ballet, before she moved back to New York when she was 17.

Feeding into her first role as a ballerina in the 2000 film Centre Stage, within two years Saldana was starring alongside Britney Spears in Crossroads. This would be the point where you say 'and she didn't look back'.


But scoring the role of Anamaria in Pirates Of The Caribbean brought her down to earth with a thud. "I didn't like the experience of working on Pirates. If that's what I have to witness, and have to go through, to do a Hollywood movie, I'd rather do something else."

But then came The Terminal with Steven Spielberg "which was another Hollywood movie, and my experience was completely different."

Still, knowing that she may get pigeonholed as an all-action ass-kicker, Colombiana could be the last time that we see her unleash that inner animal. She's just wrapped the more cerebral The Words, the story of a writer who pays the price for plagiarism. More intriguingly, she's just directed her first short movie.

Soon to don that Starship Enterprise uniform once more for the upcoming Star Trek sequel, there's also the little matter of reprising her role as the blue-skinned Neyteri for the two proposed Avatar sequels. Details, please, Ms Saldana? "He's still being very protective about the script," she says of Cameron.

Of course, the great irony with her career is that, despite being in the biggest hit of all time, she has still remained relatively anonymous -- given her Avatar character was performed via the technique of motion capture and then created digitally.

Did it ever concern her? "It did cross my mind, before we even started shooting Avatar, 'Well what if people don't recognise me?' Then there was a voice that told me 'Are you stupid?' I don't want people to know -- or want to know -- me in my personal life before they know my work."

Living in Los Angeles now, she certainly sounds like she has her head screwed on about the city. "It's just a whole bunch of land with homes built on it," she shrugs.

If she sounds downbeat, she doesn't mean to.

After all, just about everyone in Hollywood has her number now.