Zoe Saldana‘s best roles have all been out of this world.
This summer, the actress reprises her role as Uhura in Star Trek Beyond, and she’s currently filming the sequel to 2014’s surprise blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy. As if those projects weren’t enough, she’s got four Avatar sequels lined up through 2023. Saldana knew that if she wanted to play fully developed characters, this was the best route to follow. “If I wasn’t doing these sci-fi movies, I would be at the mercy of filmmakers that would just look my way if they need a girlfriend or sexy woman of color in their movie. Space is different…but we can still do better,” she tells CNET Magazine. “We can still give women more weight to carry in their roles.”
While she’d love to see more women working behind the scenes, she praises Avatar‘s James Cameron and Star Trek‘s J.J. Abrams for giving women a chance to shine onscreen. “James Cameron is one of those rare men in the film industry that really isn’t threatened by women. He lets you know with the characters he creates that he does spend time thinking about why women are who they are, why they think the way they do,” Saldana, 37, explains. “He is aware of the sacrifices and how hard-working women can be—Sarah Connor [in The Terminator], Rose [in Titanic]. Jamie Lee Curtis‘ role in True Lies was amazing. She wasn’t a victim. It wasn’t like she found out, ‘My God, you’re, like, a spy. I don’t know what to do.’ She was like, ‘Oh f–k, my husband’s a spy. I’m gonna f–king spy myself. I’m gonna get to where his mission is.'”
Saldana has played a wide range of characters since she began acting in 1999, but Avatar‘s Neytiri is her favorite role to date. “I created this character with James Cameron. He allowed me to add textures to her. There’s the way she would walk—if her tail is this strong, then it’s an extra limb. It’s not just a tail. It’s not gonna just look pretty and be in the background stealing the attention from everything. This tail’s gonna dictate the way that she walks, the way that she moves her neck. And he was like, ‘Yes, absolutely. Let’s research it. Let’s confirm it. Let’s call a doctor that would let us know that this makes sense.’ I loved that,” she says. “I felt so present when that happened. And then you’ve been on other sides where you feel like wallpaper. And you just go, ‘OK, even this is a learning experience of what not to continuously represent.'”
“So [for] all those young women out there that are looking up to me—who are 5 today and will be 25 tomorrow—I want to be a part of those elements that form them, that made them feel, ‘I felt seen, I felt relevant, I felt challenged. And one of those people was this actress named Zoe Saldana, and she did all these roles and all these movies that I really enjoyed.’ And that’s what I want to be,” she says. “If I do that, then yes, I guess as an artist I will find a way to live forever.”
20th Century Fox
Abrams has helped Saldana do just that. He did the same thing for Daisy Ridley when he cast her as the lead character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which had previously been a male-driven franchise. “Look at the role he created in the new Star Wars. It’s through the eyes of a female, and we’re not gonna compromise the strength of the movie. We’re not gonna compromise her bravery,” Saldana says of challenging gender stereotypes. “It’s like, you guys still have your testosterone-driven PEW! PEW! PEW! and it’s gonna be a girl that’s doing it.”
“Filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and James Cameron—they’re practicing what they preach, and they’re having their art imitate the life that they see and the utopia they would like to bring to life. And they let you be as collaborative, as suggestive, as opinionated, as passionate…I don’t work to make friends; I don’t work to be liked. I work to bring a character to life, to walk away not feeling that I’m a disappointment in myself. That I gave it my all,” Saldana says. “When I’m met on the other side by a filmmaker that sees that, recognizes that and has a duel with me, I feel really seen. I feel like I matter. And for an artist and also for a woman, that sometimes can be everything, because we don’t feel like we matter in a lot of things.”
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