RED ALERT! Zoe Saldana is feeling talkative. Hollywood, be afraid
Actress, wife, mother, activist… best not to mess with Zoe Saldana, as we found out
Zoe Saldana takes a sip of rosé from a white-china cup and looks out towards the mellowing LA skyline. We’ve been together since 9am this morning and choosing to drink wine out of a coffee cup is probably the least surprising thing about the actress.
On set, shortly after she decamped into the make-up chair, a small shoal of children arrived with a rugged, handsome, long-haired Italian man and a smiling older couple in tow. This was Saldana’s family – her three sons, Cy, Bowie, and Zen, her husband, Marco, and his parents. The children did what children do – ran about, shrieked, but also snuck a look at mummy at work on set. Saldana explains that it’s important they see she is happy at work – that’s one of the reasons she tries to bring them to everything she does. Marco, meanwhile, is a quieter, steady presence, always watching. Watching and smiling, like the most handsome pirate on earth.
Saldana, 39, made the decision last year that her family should join her at work wherever possible. She’d had a crazy few years of it, what with filming Avengers: Infinity War (out this month), Guardians Of The
Galaxy Vol. 2, and starting work on the long-awaited Avatar 2. And then there were the promotional tours for the franchises, moving house and, you know… giving birth to Zen.
“It  was my most hectic year,” she smiles.“A lot happened in our lives. I was dividing my time between my family life, personal life and also two of my movies, which were shooting in different locations – Atlanta and Los Angeles. It became very stressful. I realised that life needs to be more balanced. Not only was it affecting me, but it was affecting my children and husband.” Twins Cy and Bowie are three, and Zen is now one. “A lot of decisions were made for the betterment of our health.”
Saldana and Marco married in 2013, with her artist husband famously taking the actress’s name, to become Marco PeregoSaldana. She says he is her greatest confidante, and that it is he she turned to while trying to process everything going on in Hollywood in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein harrassment scandal and subsequent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, of which she is very much a part.
“My husband has been an inspiration in this whole thing,” she says.“The conversations we’ve been having, safely and intimately, have been evolving. And it’s been very rewarding. He is a part of the #MeToo group.” She adds, “We have to broaden the narrative of #MeToo. The same way it applies to victims, it should apply to men who were blind who have now seen. If there is one thing I have to advise, it’s to be kind to the men who are making an effort and don’t put them all in one box. Let’s not do to others what has been done to us. If we know how bad it’s felt for so long, then we know what not to do and how not to teach.”
It’s easy to forget up here in the calm of the Hollywood Hills, amid the swaying palms and multi-million-dollar mansions, that Hollywood is burning up, vaporised from the inside out by one of the biggest revolutions to have ever hit the industry. But when you are living and breathing it every day, like Saldana, it can never be far from your mind. “I get choked up,”
“I realised that life needs to be more balanced”
“I don’t want you to just post me on your wall”
she says, her eyes widening. When she tries to speak again her voice is hoarse, constricted by palpable emotion, something I’ll see time and again throughout our interview.“Never in my life would I have dreamed what happened last year. We were all reaching out to each other, as women, providing care for each other.” She pauses.“I never experienced that when I arrived in Hollywood 20 years ago.”
Saldana moved here aged 19 and, soon after, was cast as a ballet dancer in her debut film, Center Stage. She had been signed to a talent agency after they spotted her in a New York Youth Theatre production of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Although she was born in New Jersey, she moved to the Dominican Republic aged nine with her Puerto-Rican mother and two sisters, Mariel and Cisely, after her father, who was Dominican, tragically died in a car crash. Later, they moved to New York. Growing up, her role model was Alien’s Ellen Ripley.“She was everything,” she says. “It was all I wanted to watch. It wasn’t easy for me to look at princess movies – I always wanted to be the warrior, or the ninja.” As a child, Saldana describes herself as “insecure, vulnerable, confident… but also a loner. I was picked on by other girls. I always felt I was the luckiest girl because my best friends were my sisters, but they have said,‘It must have been painful for you as you cried a lot.’”
Arriving in Hollywood for the first time was “fun”, she smiles. “It was great. You arrive here and you’re just as innocent and impervious to good [as you are to] bad things. You learn as you grow – what to do, who you should not ever work with again…” She laughs.“And who you should have been more thankful to.” Small film roles came early on in
Crossroads with Britney Spears and
with Kirsten Dunst. But it didn’t take long for Saldana to realise that being a woman in the film industry came with its issues.
“You cry [now], because you didn’t know how hard you had it,” she says. “Now I see it differently. We were all suffering quietly... The high road for a woman for centuries was silence. You kind of go, ‘F*ck!’ The new high road is speaking up. I don’t want to go back to feeling minimised and like I’m lucky to be here. It was unfair and uneven… from how you built the part to why you were cast…” Her voice breaks. “To how you are dressed. And that one scene where you have to be in your underwear and why you have to have this sex scene that feels gratuitous. Or when you arrive on set and see your male director and male co-star having a collaborative discussion about a scene that involves you and you’re not a part of it because you’re the serviceable character. And how hurt you then feel in your trailer. I don’t want to go back to that. You feel stupid. I don’t want to hear another man tell me, ‘Oh, you were my muse.’ I don’t want to f*cking be your muse any more. I don’t want you to just post me on your wall and look at me. I want you to listen to me!”
Saldana’s first big film role came in the form of pirate Anamaria, in 2003’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl. It was a learning curve.“I was very young – it was my first massive production of a movie. I was dealing with a lot of people who were great and a lot of people who were not so great. I left that experience feeling a little bitter,” she says.“It was super-elitest. My time is everything to me. And when I don’t spend it wisely I am unhappy. So if I’m like,‘I could have been with my family, in school learning, or travelling, and instead I’m here being treated like an extra, but in a very despicable way by people who don’t even speak properly…’ my time is being wasted. A lot of that has to do with your personal insecurities, too, though, and your inflated ego. So I was immature also.”
Still, that experience almost led to her quitting the industry. And it was only her next job, a Steven Spielberg production alongside Tom Hanks, that stopped her.
“I booked [my role in] The Terminal right after, so I got to work with an amazing director who is known for being humble and a mentor,” she says.
How did she get her passion back? “By speaking up. I shared [my experience] with him, and he said, ‘That’s very unfortunate you went through that. But keep doing this. You’re really good at it. There are good people out there.’
“He would invite me to sit with him on set – there would be a chair right next to his. It made my heart ache with happiness because he remembered that I’d been made to feel so irrelevant before and he went out of his way to make me feel the exact opposite.”
Shortly after, Saldana made her name as warrior Neytiri in James Cameron’s epic Avatar in 2009. Until December (when Star Wars: The Force
Awakens overtook), it was still the highest-grossing film in US history, having pulled in a lifetime gross of £542million. She’s in the middle of filming the long-awaited second instalment now, in cinemas in 2020.
But two years ago, trouble brewed again... this time for very different reasons, when Saldana took the eponymous role in the biopic of singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Social media, as well as certain factions of the press, were incensed that she had had to wear dark make-up to play the part, because her skin was too light.
At the time, she tweeted a Nina Simone quote,‘“I’ll tell you what
“Art should be depicting women more accurately”
freedom is to me – no fear. I mean, really no fear,” #NinaSimone.’ Simone’s estate responded by tweeting,‘Cool story but please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.’
Today, Saldana is reflective about the whole situation. “There’s a personal feeling because I’m a human being. I had my reactions to that, but there is also an acknowledgement that it’s a systemic issue and I’m just a fragment in it. Listening was the only answer at that time. Not to the hate, but to the facts, and the issues. I learned a lot, but I have no regrets about why I decided to do it. I just wanted her story to be told. Nobody else was willing to do it,” she says.
This is not the first time Saldana’s ethnicity has caused her grief. As well as everything that comes with being a woman in Hollywood, she has found herself, at times, “dealing with race on top of that”. She reveals, “That was quite difficult because it was hurtful. It has always been hurtful. I’ve always known it’s wrong.”
Frustrated by her own experiences, in 2013, Saldana co-founded production company Cinestar Pictures with her sisters, aiming to create content that reflected them, as women. Then, in February this year, she and her husband launched BESE, a digital media company that focuses on empowering Latinos.
Does she feel she has had to work harder because of her skin colour?
“I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you,” she smiles, sadly. “Ask any artist of colour if they feel like they have to work harder. I don’t mean that we deserve any special treatment – I don’t want anybody’s sympathy. But I do encourage empathy because you do have to work twice as hard to make someone in a position of power who has the power to f*ck with your life and your dreams see why they should hire you, and why you are the right person for the role.”
“We are yet to have an Asian superhero. And I’m waiting for that. It’s time. ‘Time’s Up’!” What’s the answer? “Standing up and speaking with love and respect whenever you feel you’ve been treated unfairly.” This month, Saldana reprises her role as green anti-heroine Gamora in Avengers: Infinity War.
“Maybe I chose to live in space for many [of my] roles, because in space I wasn’t just someone’s other,” she muses.“I was my own person. I think art should really start depicting women more accurately.”
With that, it’s time for us to go. The sky has blackened around us and the temperature dipped. She grabs her blazer and pulls it tight around her body as she makes her way to the purring car in the driveway. She envelopes me in the sort of hug an old friend would pull you into. And then, just like that, she’s gone. Back home to her babies. To her husband. To saving the world. Whether that is on-screen or in her own universe.
Avengers: Infinity War, in cinemas 26th April