Zoe Saldana has carved a niche for herself as the go-to ass-kicking femme in everything from Colombiana and The Losers to Star Trek and, of course, Avatar. Like Neytiri from that film, Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy is a formidable alien warrior, though her back-story is more tragic – an orphan who is kidnapped, forced to accept a tyrant as her adopted father and forged into the “deadliest woman in the galaxy”.
Looking ravishing as always in a subtle low-cut floral print dress, the actress noticed this writer’s Marvel Legends Gamora action figure on the table as she came in to talk Guardians with F***. She appeared thrilled to play with the figure, but upon closer inspection, was slightly disappointed. “That’s not my face,” she said as she examined the bored-looking, expressionless little plastic Gamora. Tsk tsk, Hasbro!
However, it was far too small a matter for Saldana to be bothered by and she was thrilled that she was getting another action figure anyway. She shared about her penchant for sci-fi action adventure parts, her desire to break out of the designated roles for women in films, the design of Gamora’s costume and makeup, working with leading man Chris Pratt and of her support for Argentina in the World Cup.
What’s Gamora like on the inside?
Obviously, on the surface she looks fabulous, she can fight, she can kill, she can do this, but I wanted to know why she was the way that she was. Then you learn that she was an orphan, that she was taken from her planet, that she was forced into a life of violence, battle and crime, she was forced to adopt a father that basically caused so much harm to her and her people so there’s a lot of confusion to Gamora and I felt there’s so many situations in life that we’ve heard in the news, even with the lost kids of Sudan, like if there’s anything I can compare Gamora to, it would have to be that. It’s a very similar story where you’re taken from your home in the middle of the night and you become someone else even though deep, deep down, you’re not as bad as you’re supposed to be. So that was sort of my approach to Gamora because when it came to all the fight sequences, I was like “I know she’s going to be great, they’re going to get an amazing stuntwoman [laughs] to make her look super, super cool, and I’m going to work just as hard as I always do” and then we just focus on the heart factor of her.
When you were filming an action scene, you nearly broke Chris Pratt’s wrist. Could you tell us about what happened?
His wrist. I think I did. I kicked him hard one time and he said it didn’t bother, like he said “it’s okay, it’s okay” but then I saw him kind of limping away…my god! Yeah, it happens, I think I smacked him a couple of times and I think Karen and I would bump our swords and sort of hit each other and go “oh god! I’m so sorry I’m sorry.” You have those moments that you kind of break character and you realise “oh my god, I can really hurt someone if I don’t focus and be careful.”
You were in Star Trek, Avatar and now Guardians. What is it about science fiction films that attracts you to them?
Um, I know and then I don’t know. It’s good stories, they usually come with good directors, I like working with good people, there’s something very fascinating about being able to work with people who can imagine the unimaginable that makes me feel limitless. Also, as a woman and as a woman of colour, the roles on earth are just a little too typical for me – either you’re playing someone’s girlfriend or someone’s wife or someone’s mother – and that’s great, I love doing those roles when it comes in a great package with a great story and a great director, but not all the time, every now and then I want to play something different even though the story’s still going to be the same, you’re still going to fall in love with the guy, but I just feel a little more substantial and relevant to the story, I guess and they all have the coincidence that they’re set in space. I would love to do them on earth, but they’re not [laughs].
Was there some friendly competition going on between you and Karen Gillan who plays your adopted sister and what was it like working with her?
Fantastic, it was really great. I think our characters are very competitive, I think that Nebula is much more competitive with Gamora because there’s a preference that Thanos has with her, that I hope that in the sequel we can go into that, but I feel that in this movie, James did a wonderful job establishing this kind of relationship that Nebula and Gamora have which is very dysfunctional, because it’s one-sided. The hate is from one side and the love is also from one side, so that creates a very big conflict because they’re sisters, even though they’re not [biologically] but that’s the way I see Nebula.
Working with Karen or with a woman will never be competitive, at least from my end and from Karen, it was never competitive. If anything, it’s empowering, it is beautiful because sometimes being the only female in the cast can get to be very lonely [laughs].
How did your life change after Avatar?
It gave me the possibility to be working with a filmmaker like James Gunn, who saw my work in Avatar and thought “oh you know what, she can play a great Gamora” so being a part of an amazing movie like Avatar which is – please don’t think I’m arrogant for saying this, but it’s true – it was considered, no it is the biggest movie on earth! [Laughs] means that a lot of people saw it and it wasn’t just the audience, it wasn’t just the fans and the viewers, it was also filmmakers, actors, producers and writers and it gave them an impression of my work and a feeling that maybe they would want to work with me. It’s given me an exposition that I’m still able to benefit from after all these years and I will always be indebted to that movie, that whole experience, James Cameron and Neytiri for that.
You have several big projects lined up, Avatar 2 and 3…
…And 4 [laughs]!
And Star Trek 3, how do you balance your time between your career and your family?
God, I guess…just whatever comes first will have to be…life sometimes just needs to happened as opposed to you just controlling everything. If I create an imbalance in my life where I’m just living to work, then when all of a sudden I’m willing to live, I might miss things that are very important about life so I try as I grow older to incorporate, to try and live in harmony with all the things that are presented on my plate and those things that are presented presently on my plate may push others away or push others to another time then it was meant to be. So I’m just happy that all these franchises that I’ve done are able to be called “franchises” and that they have no intentions of recasting my characters [laughs] and these are filmmakers that I also consider my friends and my family so I know that whatever will be happening in my life, I know that they will have my support as friends and as people first, and then their support as professionals.
How much say did you have in the design of Gamora’s costume and what shade of green she would be?
[Laughs] actually believe it or not, I had, but it didn’t feel like I used it, like I used that power or that privilege or that gift. It felt like such a collaboration of trying to put Gamora together, all of together as a collective from Alex[andra] Byrne the costume designer to Vera Steimberg who did my makeup and created the colouring, the right shade of green to what kind of colour hair she was going to have.
I felt that if she had…and now I had an opinion about it, I felt like her ends needed to be a different colour because I thought it needed to be a non-human colour, a funky colour. If it was all black, then she was just going to have a very mean look. Green has been equated to Martians, to bad and evil aliens, so I was already coming with an impediment and she was supposed to be the female eye candy so I was like “well, good luck with that!” I think she needs a little bit of funkiness and we tried it and it really worked, it felt fun and youthful so we went with it. Alex was all about making her look, obviously, like a badass, but because she’s done many Marvel movies and she’s had to dress a lot of females, comfort is also very important, flexibility, especially because she knows I do a lot of my own stunts so I did not want to be restricted by the costume but I also didn’t want to compromise how beautiful it looked. So we always collaborated.
I think my biggest issue with the whole thing was probably the boots. They were made by specific people that obviously they [Marvel Studios] were always working with and talking to, but they felt…they were different levels and I would have lower ones whenever I was running, higher ones whenever I was standing and the flat ones whenever we were doing hard, stunt-y scenes, not only me but also my stunt double. And then the sets were just uneven, the flooring, so you want to be careful, you don’t want to break an ankle and then compromise the whole production so there were a lot of observations that I had with the shoes. The older you get, you just get pickier with your shoes [laughs]. I thought that was never going to happen! I was 29 years old, looking at women going “put your shoes back on, why are you changing into your trainers, we should walk in heels every day!” and now look at me (gets up to walk around) – flats! People change I guess!
The film is about saving the universe. Is there something that you’re passionate about on earth that you would like to save?
Saving the universe. I’m joking. Something I’m passionate about…women. I’m very passionate about women. I love being a woman, I am a devout artist, that is who I was born to be, and I am starving for a feminine presence, more of a feminine presence in art, not just in film, but also in our directors, in our painters and sculptors, we need that. Not just women, men need that. Men need women. It’s very important that if art is supposed to imitate life, we need to have a more accurate depiction of what life really is in our art. So, it’s very discouraging for me as an art-lover and a film-lover that whenever I’m not shooting films and I want to go to movies, I don’t have a decent selection of films where they’re female centred. And the female films are usually precious little movies, I just want to see harder movies! I want to see women playing characters that the men get to play, that are psychopaths, that are villains, that are crazy, that are cops, that are detectives, the heroes sometimes because in reality, that’s who we are, you know, just as much as the men are, so that’s one thing I’m very passionate about.
Is that how you choose your roles?
Yeah. I don’t choose it because I have this duty; it’s natural to me. I wasn’t just made to be someone’s wife or someone’s mother or someone’s girlfriend, it’s like that’s a part of me, but if I did that all day I’d be like “oh god, how boring!” I’m a serviceable human being. Yes, servicing is part of who we are supposed to be as a human race, but not all of it, so it’s not real. It’s unnatural to me to see women in a movie who just come out and oh, she’s sexy or she’s naked and she’s making love and the man always talks to her like she’s a piece of crap and then he walks away and then she dies! And he doesn’t cry for her. Oh my god, that doesn’t even represent the men I know in my life, you know what I’m saying? And our action movies sometimes are voided of sentiment and drama and human behaviour, accurate human response to something.
That’s why I love Guardians because Quill, to me, is the perfect hero. He’s so broken, he’s so scared, he’s so flawed, he’s such a player, all these things are what makes him special, what makes him the worthiest candidate to save the universe, as opposed to somebody who just comes and bends steel. It’s like “okay, great” [laughs]. I want somebody to learn to bend steel because they’re unlearning ugly things about themselves. I hope I stayed on the same…I tend to trail away, sorry! [Laughs]
Speaking of Quill, how was it working with Chris Pratt?
It was wonderful, he is sweet, talented, humble, everyday kinda guy, super diverse in his acting, it was just…and he’s a husband and a father, everything about Chris Pratt is made for a star. That is an individual, an actor who is worthy of being called a movie star and these are things that I don’t believe in, I don’t believe in “stars” and “fame” and “celebrity”, I believe in artists. But this man, I would want to see stories being told through his eyes because he’s fun and he takes you with it, he’s just great. And, he doesn’t think that he can do it. And I’m like “I think it’s a little pattern, a little shtick you’re pulling here, you know what you’re doing, you planned this out…”
No, he’s totally, just naturally like (imitating Pratt) “I don’t know if I could do this…”
I say “Chris, just do it!” And then he does it and it’s just great. I mean, look at the transformation that he did with his body for this movie, it makes me want to cry because he worked so hard for it and it wasn’t just for aesthetics. It wasn’t just a cosmetic thing because that would give out the wrong message.
He was coming from one place and one world where he always got used to being told “you’re gonna be second because you’re not attractive, you’re not the material that you need to make a movie star”.
And he said “well first of all, that shouldn’t be the material that you’re basing a movie star on, but if that is, I’m just going to do it for health reasons first and two, to prove that it can be done.” And then everything else just fell into place, it was beautiful to watch.
When you were talking about female directors, I was thinking if perhaps you would consider working with Lexi Alexander, who did Punisher: War Zone, she’s an interesting female director.
What movie is that, can you tell me?
Punisher: War Zone
When did it come out?
2008. It was buried by the studio…
Gary? Is my publicist here? Can you make a note of that?
Her name is Lexi Alexander, she’s a martial arts champion and an Oscar-nominated short film director who made a comic book movie and wants to create action films.
I like her already!
You were in Infinitely Polar Bear alongside Mark Ruffalo, and perhaps Gamora and the Hulk would get along because they’re both green. Do you think the Guardians will get to meet the Avengers further down the line?
Yes. I think that that reunion is inevitable. I just hope that I’m in it, I really do.
(To Gary) There’s this filmmaker, Lexi Alexander, who made this movie called Punisher, Punisher: War Zone. Can you remind me to go get it? Where is she from, the States?
Germany, I think.
Nice! I like her already.
Have you been watching the World Cup?
Yes, are you kidding me [laughs]?! Ask me what time I woke up today! 3, okay, and I saw the entire Argentina match, did I tell you guys about it?
How are you awake and fresh now?
Because remember guys, I come from L.A. and it’s 15 hours behind, I don’t know what time it is now, is it the middle of the night?
Gary: It’s 10 o’clock.
Zoe: That’s why. Give me two hours, I’m going to be miserable [laughs]. I’m joking actually.
Did you sleep after watching the match?
No no no, because we were so excited that Argentina won! The makeup artist is from Argentina, so I have to root for Argentina because otherwise she wouldn’t have helped me [laughs].
You’re supporting Argentina in the finals?
Yes. I’m Latina, I’m a first generation Latina, I grew up in the Caribbean so half of my friends are called “Diego” [after Maradona]. Latinos just do that. When you have a boy, they say “let’s name him Diego!” and thank God the women go “no” [laughs]. If not, the whole of Latin America would be named Diego Maradona! Football is something that I grew up watching, my husband [Marco Perego] used to be a soccer player and now there’s even more soccer in our lives, my brother-in-law was from England and he’s a devout soccer fan so there’s a lot of soccer from one house to another. You should see our Whatsapp, that’s all we ever talk about! Never thought I would do this, but I’m passionate about soccer!
Guardians Of The Galaxy opens 31 July 2014.
– Jedd Jong