“I’m a lady. My mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother raised ladies,” says Zoe Saldana as we sit outside Los Angeles coffee shop Lamill, sipping on iced chai lattes. Mugsy, her wire-haired rescue pup, laps water from a bowl at our feet, and Saldana dances excitedly in and out of Spanish when searching for an exact word or turn of phrase. “We don’t breed skanky, coquettish, giddy little girls. We breed women.” Stalwart in her convictions—and laid endearingly bare in her performances—Saldana, 35, is one of the most outspoken actresses in Hollywood. She can afford to say what she wants: Saldana starred in Avatar (the highest-grossing film of all time) and a blockbuster franchise (Star Trek), which together earned over $3.6 billion and prompted Jon Stewart to thank Saldana on The Daily Show for being “the foundation of the American economy.” In what spare time she has, she wins endless Best Dressed accolades.
In such a delicate business, her frankness is unusual and has drawn Saldana her share of scrutiny: She refused to apologize for being cast as Nina Simone in the highly anticipated biopic Nina (critics say she’s too fair-skinned); she shrugged off the controversy that ensued after Allure magazine published her weight (115 pounds) on its cover; she made an offhand comment about perhaps marrying a lady one day. “There’s nothing anybody can say or think about me that I will give a shit about,” she says. “Honestly.” Such fearlessness burns on-screen in her upcoming films, including Out of the Furnace (in theatres December 6), Scott Cooper’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Crazy Heart.
Yet there is a lightness about her. “She’s still very much an optimist, very much a romantic, very much a kid,” says Star Trek director J.J. Abrams. “Not to say that she is naïve or Pollyannaish. But she has a kind of wide-eyed sense of the world that allows her to be ridiculous and absurd, and so incredibly emotionally available so quickly.”
Born in New Jersey and raised in Queens, Saldana is half-Dominican and half–Puerto Rican, having inherited some of her moxie from a strong Latina mother who lost her husband when the actress was only nine: “My mom was sad a lot. Losing the love of your life when you’re young, and you have three freakin’ kids…At the end of the day, that warmth that fills your bed is not there.” The family moved to the Dominican Republic shortly after; they lived there for seven years, during which time Saldana discovered her passion for dance, especially ballet. After they returned to New York when Saldana was in her late teens, early experiences with a youth theatre group gave her a hint that she might be destined for a different kind of stage.
And so audiences were introduced to Saldana in her break-through role as the passionate, gum-smacking ballerina Eva in 2000’s Center Stage—a movie that for many women still occupies a crucial place in the guilty-pleasure teen movie canon. Eva’s defiance and fire would become defining traits in many of Saldana’s best roles. Her rare power has already won Saldana another blockbuster part—she’ll be appearing this summer in Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s next monster hit. She plays Gamora, a martial-arts assassin dubbed, unsurprisingly, the Deadliest Woman in the Whole Galaxy.
“Women aren’t wimpy. They don’t complain all the time. They can open up jars! They can fucking save the day! They can support their whole family. They can support their men,” she volleys. “Half of my friends make more money than their male partners.” In theory, Saldana is now part of that club—this past June, six months after calling it quits with her The Words co-star, Bradley Cooper, she married Italian artist Marco Perego. He visited the FLARE cover shoot, and the pair sailed around the corner to kiss, quickly resurfacing with their arms pretzelled around each other.
On set, she was in her element amid Jason Wu and Altuzarra—Saldana has established herself as a style icon, sitting front row at Miu Miu looking cat-burglar chic in skinny leather pants, or posing at the Palais des Festivals at Cannes in Ungaro’s black and cream polka dots offset by tomato-red ankle-strap stilettos. Body-contouring panels, structured metallic Balmain tops and high-waisted, wide-legged pants are all staples. Saldana’s now-signature triple threat: dramatic silhouettes, unusual fabrics and surprise detailing. (Love: the sage-grey Calvin Klein number she wore in Berlin, which featured a wool crop top and matching pleated skirt with square cut-outs.) She has a certain luminescence that dulls everyone else on the red carpet; her clothes always seem alert to her and not the other way around.
Saldana appears unswervingly self-possessed, but there’s a warm centre beneath that fearsome certainty. “It’s so funny: The characters I played in Columbiana and Avatar, on the surface, there’s what appears to be strength, but it’s sugarcoating an immense vulnerability,” she says. “I am tough, but I’m also a very vulnerable person. I trust everyone. For many years, I thought, I need to stop being this way, but no, I just need to learn from it.”
Her new film Out of the Furnace and the upcoming crime drama Blood Ties focus on her principal preoccupation: family. “I’ve never understood anybody who would try to compete against family. That’s your blood,” Saldana says. In conversation, she often uses “we” instead of “I,” in reference to her sisters, Cisely and Mariel, who never seem far away, as Saldana turns to them like a compass she keeps in her pocket. (She and Cisely recently started a Latino-focused production company.)
In Out of the Furnace, starring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard, Saldana plays the only female character in a very male, dirt-dusted, violent world. Furnace is a story about filial obligation set in a small, down-and-out town in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt, where generations of American steel workers have lived and died by the mill. “I could tell from interviews, from having just snippets of her, that there’s a deep humanity,” director Scott Cooper says of Saldana. “We had a three-hour dinner, but I knew in that first hour that she was the perfect actress.” Though she’s only in a handful of scenes, one in particular (with on-screen ex-boyfriend and ex-con Bale) is Out of the Furnace’s most poignant moment, mooring the entire film to its heartbreaking conclusion. “When you’re asking some- one to be in just a few scenes, and certainly the only female, you need someone you know can go to those places, very deep places, without acting,” says director Cooper.
Blood Ties, which premiered last year at Cannes and is directed by Guillaume Canet (Leonardo DiCaprio’s dimpled co-star from The Beach and Marion Cotillard’s other half in real life), is a crime thriller about duelling brothers (Clive Owen and Billy Crudup) set in 1970s New York. Joined by Cotillard and Mila Kunis, Saldana plays the old flame Crudup tries to win back.
When asked about her experience shooting with these testosterone-heavy casts, she barely hesitates before telling me that, despite working with men she respects, there have certainly been times when “you’d see all the boys together, and they’re discussing the scene and what’s going to happen. You just go, ‘Yeah, but…’ and they say, ‘Oh, but we already discussed that.’” There are three possible reactions, she says: rolling your eyes, “because men think they know better”; laughing; or, she says, “sitting and watching while everybody feels uncomfortable around you, and feeling really good about yourself because you stood up for yourself, you mattered, you voiced your presence.” Saldana has no problem pulling a mentor or male authority aside, she says, laying out for me her usual plan of attack: Her “heart racing and sweating buckets,” she declares, without blinking, “I’m not happy.” And then she states her case: “I understand everything you’re saying, but these are the terms we agreed on, and that is why I got on a plane and came out here, and I decided to have your back, and now I don’t feel like you’re having my back. This character is invisible. She’s completely irrelevant, and she should be more.”
Saldana’s only regret is the rare day she bites her tongue—and she has strong words for women who squander their potential. “Women who are very whiny annoy the fucking crap out of me. It’s impossible for my sisters and me to hold a conversation with a woman who is incompetent,” she says. “It’s one thing to be uncertain, a little insecure and scared, and another thing to be lazy.” The word alone, laaay-zee, is enough to melt Saldana’s face with disgust as though she’s just inhaled the sour stink of expired milk. “I can’t deal with mediocrity and incompetence. And you see it in people’s eyes.”
Even though Nina has yet to secure a release date, the film has had people talking for well over a year: Saldana received a barrage of criticism from those who did not deem her suitable—or black enough—to portray the beloved singer in Cynthia Mort’s biopic, which focuses on the relationship between Simone and her companion, Clifton Henderson. The actress was undaunted. “It’s very abstract,” says Saldana, who has yet to see the film.
“It was sort of like a love song to Nina.” Throughout the shoot, Saldana, whose mother was staying in her home at the time, moved to different places: “I did not want to be prepping for a role this challenging in my house and have that energy there. It’s fun for the actor, but you’re not aware of how much inconsistency you bring to the people around you,” she says. “They’re dealing with different personalities; if you get that into it, you’re gonna bring some things back home.” Falling back into her seat, Saldana adds, “At the end of the day, no matter how the movie is received, I’m not going to regret anything.”
Given her hectic year, I ask Saldana if she plans to make any New Year’s resolutions. “I stopped doing them,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s like heading to a party and telling your friends, ‘I’m not going to drink, you guys.’ Meanwhile, you’re the one who blacks out!” Saldana pauses, then smiles. “Let’s be real. Oh god, it’s usually me.”
Hair: Mara Roszak, StarworksArtists.com.
Makeup: Vera Steimberg, Criterion Group.
Nails: Lisa Postma, Sally Hansen, Tracey Mattingly.
Props: Walter Barnett, Opus Beauty.
Editor: Briony Smith.
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